Engagement letters serve as the cornerstone of professional relationships between service providers and their clients. These documents, often overlooked or hastily drafted, are essential for establishing clear expectations, defining the scope of services, and mitigating potential misunderstandings.
In this guide, we delve into the importance of crafting effective engagement letters, exploring key components and best practices.
Engagement letters are the foundation of a good risk management program. You can think of engagement letters as client letters that will describe all the terms of the contract. They are usually used in the accounting field. They’re an agreement between you and your clients, outlining what will be included in the project. They should include:
- Scope of work: What tasks does this engagement cover? What is included in the accounting service?
- Costs and fees: How much money does the client need to pay for this engagement? What other costs can be associated with accounting?
- Security requirements: What security measures must be taken when storing sensitive data at offsite locations?
You may be wondering, “What makes an engagement letter effective?” There are several key components that should be included in your engagement letter:
- Who is initiating the engagement? You should clearly state who is engaging with you and what type of service they are requesting.
- What is being engaged? Be sure to specify what type of work will be done during this process so both parties can have clarity on expectations.
- When does this start and end? Make sure there’s no confusion about when exactly things should begin or end. If needed, consider including deadlines for project completion within each section of your document as well as at its conclusion.
All these components ensure that there are no communications gaps left between the two parties. According to Mango Practice Management, a client letter should provide clarity, manage risk, protect your firm, and strengthen relationships. The website also states that these letters should be like a legally binding document, highlighting what accounting services will be provided.
One of the best tools available to Certified Public Accountants (CPAs) to help manage their professional liability risk is engagement letters. However, many CPAs don’t use them. Merely 56% of tax claims filed in 2020 against CPA firms had an engagement letter. The percentage rises to 58% for consulting services claims made in 2020.
Moreover, many of these engagement letters were not effective. Not crafting effective letters can result in decisions going against you in the instances of claims. Here’s how to craft clear and concise engagement letters.
- Use simple language. It’s important to remember that the people reading your engagement letter are not lawyers and may not have a legal background. You can use plain language like “the Company” instead of “the Corporation” or “you” instead of “the Client.”
- Keep sentences short and concise. Long sentences can be confusing and overwhelming for readers, especially those who are unfamiliar with legal documents.
- Define the scope of work. Clearly outline the services you will be providing. Specify the scope of work, including any limitations on services. If there are specific tasks that are not included in the engagement, explicitly mention them to manage client expectations.
- Specify responsibilities. Outline the responsibilities of both parties along with specific deadlines. Define what the client is expected to provide or contribute to the engagement. Clearly state any deadlines or milestones and the consequences of not meeting them.
- Outline fees and payment terms: Clearly state your fee structure, including hourly rates, flat fees, or any other relevant payment arrangements. Specify when and how payments are due. Include information on late fees or penalties for overdue payments.
Engagement letters are a key tool for risk management. It’s tempting to think of risk management as a way of eliminating all possible risks from your projects. However, this is not realistic or even desirable. Instead, effective risk management involves identifying and managing risks so that they don’t interfere with the success of a project.
A Gartner study shows that misses of third-party risk management can hurt organizations. Hence, security requirements become crucial for trust and reliability. Including measures of security requirements can give a sense of relief to the clients in the realm of increasing cybersecurity attacks. This can even position you as a reliable service provider.
These engagement letters also ensure that both parties remain true to their words. This can further help ensure regulatory compliance as listed in the letters. Additionally, these letters can reduce conflicts in the workplace. A well-written engagement letter is proactive and will assist in defining the scope of the service package and its exclusions. Engagement letters can expedite the onboarding process for new clients.
Tailoring engagement letters to different industries is an important practice for accountants. This ensures that their services are aligned with the specific needs, regulations, and expectations of each industry. Here are some key considerations and tips for accountants when tailoring engagement letters:
- Understand the industry: Before drafting an engagement letter, thoroughly understand the specific industry in which the client operates. This includes knowledge of industry-specific regulations, accounting standards, and common business practices.
- Customize scope of services: Clearly define the scope of services based on the industry requirements. Different industries may require specific accounting procedures, reporting formats, or compliance measures. Tailor the services to meet the unique needs of the client’s industry.
- Incorporate industry-specific language: Use industry-specific language and terminology in the engagement letter. This helps demonstrate your familiarity with the client’s business and industry practices, fostering better communication and understanding.
The best way to ensure that engagement letters are effective is through collaborative review and approval. Engagement letters should be signed by both the client and vendor, with each party confirming their understanding of the terms of the engagement letter.
A clear, concise format will make it easier for everyone involved in reviewing and approving engagement letters to understand what they’re signing off on. The following elements should be included:
- A description of how you plan on working together
- Are any specific milestones or deliverables expected from either party
Engagement letters are a critical part of the risk management process, but they can be difficult to write and review. Understand the different components that make up an engagement letter to create one. Use this guide as a resource, but remember that you need to customize it according to your client.