Let’s tell a scary story for the business owners reading these words.
You have put in countless long days getting your business off of the ground. You’ve sweated the small stuff as well as the big-and-impossible-to-ignore stuff. Some months you do pretty well, others, maybe you could have done things better. But, overall, your business is moving forward.
And then one day you send an email off to your bookkeeper asking a question. A day or two goes by with no reply. You send another email. More days pass and still no response. Finally, you call the bookkeeper. The phone rings but no one answers. Worse, there’s no automated voice mail asking you to leave a message after the tone.
Your bookkeeper is MIA. And they might be gone for good.
Where Did That Bookkeeper Go?
When we hear from business owners needing to replace a bookkeeper that’s ghosted them, one of the most commonly asked questions is “Why did this happen?” Sure, it’s a rhetorical question and certainly the new bookkeeper can’t know what was on the mind of their predecessor when they vanished.
However, we can make some assumptions based on our years of experience and overhearing many discussions at places where bookkeepers gather to swap war stories.
Here are some of the messes that other bookkeepers have told me about, and some of our own postulations on what caused the original bookkeeper to disappear without explanation.
It happens to everyone: you get slammed with a bad seasonal flu and work piles up. No one else can do the job, and so a freelance bookkeeper needs to make a decision call on how bad they feel versus the work that needs to get done.
But sometimes life can throw worse curveballs at us. A serious or even life-threatening medical emergency may arise without warning, throwing the bookkeeper’s already delicate balance between making their clients happy and maintaining a healthy private life into chaos. Sometimes the medical ailment can even end their income derived from bookkeeping.
“I have a client whose previous bookkeeper disappeared off the face of the earth as she had a stroke that left her completely incapacitated. Very sad situation,” Lisa Stoneham of Straight Forward Accounting Solutions told us. Aside from the tragic personal physical ailment that struck the bookkeeper in question, they likely also wrestled with the mental anguish of leaving their clients in limbo and without their regular bookkeeping services.
“The bookkeeper in question was a sole trader so you could imagine the chaos with BAS’s needing to be lodged etc.,” Lisa adds. Lisa is based in Australia, so for her clients their business activity statements (the “BAS”s she mentioned would be critical for all business owners needing to report their GST activity.
They Get in Over Their Head
Plenty of bookkeepers start off with decent knowledge or education about how to best maintain books, but they lack one critical piece of experience or preparation: knowing how to manage your time, and knowing your work capacity.
When you’re launching a bookkeeping career, the one thing that you want most of all are paying clients. The problems come when you have too much work on your hands. Some clients may be more demanding of your hours, while one sizeable client’s business may amount to the same number of work hours of several smaller clients combined together.
“Inexperienced bookkeepers under estimate what it takes to service a client,” said Reddit user MiksBricks when I asked the question on their bookkeeping forum. “So you have a client that is looking to a bookkeeper to me more of an accountant and provide strategy advice while the bookkeeper really doesn't have the full skill set to be a bookkeeper much less a financial adviser - unfortunately when that happens with inexperienced professionals their response is to ghost instead of formally resigning from the client.”
In this instance the problem lies solely on the shoulders of the overworked bookkeeper. They should be making a decision: either devote more hours to their bookkeeping business or find a way to pass on the overlooked clients to a new bookkeeper that can help them better.
Unfortunately, human nature being what it is, those overworked or time crunched bookkeepers don’t make that decision until it’s a big problem for their clients. In the words of Alexis Harrington at Sand Dollar Bookkeeping, “They decide they aren’t up to doing the work (usually after making a giant mess).”
“I've seen previous providers overcommit and avoid admitting that for months,” Naomi Wilkins at The Happy Bookkeeper also mentioned to me, affirming that this is a common problem in the world of bookkeeping.
It’s Not Me, It’s You
Maybe the reason why your bookkeeper ghosted a business owner has to do with the way their relationship evolved. Business owners need to understand that to correctly do one’s books, there’s a partnership between the bookkeeper and the owner. The proper access to information and timely answers need to happen for the bookkeeper to do the best job they can deliver to the client.
Again, human nature being what it is, sometimes a business owner falls short on what the bookkeeper expects. Or, when the bookkeeper reminds the client, the client goes overboard with their reaction. Who wants to be yelled at by a client?
“I've met clients who were not good to work with,” Dawn Ross, a Canadian bookkeeper and business owner of All Tasks Services, told me. “I would suggest some of those bookkeepers might have gone into hiding to lose the client without confrontation.”
“There are some clients that are just really difficult to work with and it’s easier to fade away than confront a toxic client,” adds Reddit bookkeeping user Philominicano. “Personally, I’d rather be upfront about what’s working or not working so that we can part ways amicably if it’s not going well. But sometimes you just need to back away from crazy.”
Sometimes we need to look at our own actions to see if there is any evidence for us sharing in the blame. It can be a hard truth to confront, but if you do discover that you had some hand in possibly causing your last bookkeeper to disappear, work on building a healthier working relationship with your next bookkeeper. That extra humanistic effort you make can reap tangible rewards for your business and for yourself.
It can be easy for a business owner to overlook that their bookkeeper isn’t truly an employee of theirs. That bookkeeper is running their own business, and as such they are also facing their own challenges.
Alexis at Sand Dollar gave me a peek into her world and some of the answers she was told by new clients about what happened to their last bookkeeper “They lose a spouse and need[ed] ‘a more stable job’ so [the bookkeeper] closed their business; they move - suddenly and without warning.” Sometimes it’s even because of the most personal reason of all: “They die!”
And these were all instances Alexis has run into over the past 12 months! Yikes!
There’s also the ultimate bogeyman that haunts the thoughts of all business owners: that the person they hired to do their books not acting in their best interests.
“Of course you also, all too often, hear about bookkeepers skimming off the books,” Leigh Ann Smith of Montgomery Business Solutions related to me. “Those bookkeepers quietly ‘disappear’ just to prevent undue negative press. Non-profit criminals are probably the worst.”
“I have a client that this happened to,” Kaz Nelsen added. “The bookkeeper was not qualified and when checking their books it was found that she had taken money from the bank over a period of time.”
Not good. Not good at all.
Solutions to the Problem
If you’re a business owner looking for a responsible bookkeeper, one that won’t vanish on you and that you can depend on, what do you do?
There are ways to limit the risks and hire a great bookkeeper to do your books.
- Check their online presence. Usually a bookkeeper that’s serious about their business will have some presence on social media. All of the people that I spoke with do, whether they are posting on Facebook pages devoted to bookkeeping or on popular online communities. Note that I’m not saying that the bookkeeper needs to have their own company website. Many do, but merely by having some online thumbprint your chances of having that bookkeeper up and vanish are reduced.
- Check their online standing. Do other bookkeepers like their posts? Check their back history – are they posting questions or starting conversations in online communities? Are they answering questions asked by others?
- Reviews. Does the bookkeeper have reviews listed on Google, or on Facebook, or on a LinkedIn page? Reviews can make or break a business, but as a business owner just knowing that someone has left a positive review (even if it’s not a five-star one) should be seen as an point in favor for that bookkeeper.
- Be understanding. As I mentioned earlier, life can toss curveballs at everyone. Know that your bookkeeper is human and probably has their own family events to deal with. Don’t be afraid to ask questions about what their plan is if they needed emergency time off. An even better way to approach that question is by asking, “How do you plan out vacations and personal time?” That’s a non-loaded way of approaching how they manage their bookkeeping business when they’re not on the clock.
If you are a bookkeeper and want to reassure your present and prospective clients that you’re dependable, here’s what you should consider:
- Have an emergency plan. What would happen if you needed to take a month off from your business to deal with a family emergency or health scare? How would you make sure that the bookkeeping work for your clients got done? Do you have someone that you trust that can send out a pre-written email explaining your need for personal time? If not, make a pact with a friendly bookkeeper acquaintance and agree to watch each others back if one of you needs to alert your clients.
- Open that LinkedIn account. Having a LinkedIn profile is free. I’d recommend every bookkeeper serious about their business to open one up. Ask your satisfied clients to post a LinkedIn recommendation for you. You can use that as a reference for prospects that ask about your services, but more importantly, think about the prospects that don’t ask for it but see these references and start to build trust with you.
- Communicate. Your clients are trusting you with an inside look at something that matters greatly to their lives. In return, why not acknowledge to them that they are in good hands if you needed to fly off to Antarctica for four months on a walkabout. You don’t have to reveal all of the details, but just enough to show that you have thought about it and have a plan of action in place if it needs to happen. And you’ll install more confidence in your clients that you are thinking of their best interests!
Thanks to all of the great bookkeepers from around the world that answered my question. If you have your own experience as a bookkeeper, or as a client, please share it in the comments below. The more insight we all have, the better off we all will be as bookkeepers and business owners.