Red ink: It’s not just for editors

On the freelance writing lists I frequent, and at the indie business site, Biznik, there is much talk about pricing your services, billing clients, and collecting from clients who are slow to pay. But no one ever says beep about their own bill-paying habits.

I bring this up because today I met with a new accountant, one who comes highly recommended and who was (like several other accountants I’ve talked with in the past year or so) noticeably reluctant to take on a new small business client. Now I know why.

We spent more than an hour going over some fairly gnarly tax issues involved in my transition from salaried work to sole-proprietor contracting business. His insights were impressive. At the end of it all, I reached for my checkbook. He looked astonished.

I asked his hourly rate for consultations, and again, he looked surprised. Apparently, accountants put consultations on your tab and add them to the charges for your annual tax filings in the following year. Yet many people who come in for a consultation don’t end up using that accountant, and thus the accountant is out the hour of work. I said I thought that was weird, and I wanted to pay up front (even though I have every intention of asking him to do the filing for us next year).

We chatted a bit, and he remarked that his elderly clients from the area like to pay, just as I did, by check at the end of the meeting. The majority of his clients he bills after they pick up their taxes — but now he is starting to re-think that policy. Looking rather embarrassed, he told me that recently he has been having difficulty with new clients, people who have been moving into the fancy condominiums in our area and opening new businesses locally. Some of them pick up their taxes from him, file them, and then ignore his bills. This year, he had to file in small claims court against two small business clients. (They paid up, immediately, when they received notice of the court filings.)

I’m as astonished and appalled to hear these stories as I would be if I saw someone sneak out of the local fish-and-chips place without paying. What’s going on here?