When beginning our client relationships, most of us take great care to understand the client's initial needs, choose the right products and services to meet their needs and place the right people on their engagements to ensure their success. We then work hard to deliver our promised solutions on time and on budget.Unfortunately, many of us still struggle to take these initial client engagements deeper or extend our reach into our clients' organizations. Why? There are many reasons, but the one I see most often, regardless of the size of CPA or IT firm, is this: Most of us don't take the time to really know our clients or be in a real relationship with them. This lack of intimacy and understanding leads to a breakdown in communication and can create an inability for our client to see us as able to address any issues beyond the first "issue" for which we were engaged.

So, how can you get beyond this "one-trick pony" dilemma and move into more meaningful, more impactful relationships with your clients? To help you to "get in the game" of developing depth in your client relationships, this article will outline a number of practical tips for engaging your clients in the most important aspect of relationship management - a concept we call the "check-in meeting."

Start by making a commitment to depth and intimacy in your client relationships. Clearly communicate this commitment to all of your team members and incorporate it into your prospect and client messages.

Next, recognize the importance of your leading the charge in developing and evolving your client relationships. Too often, entrepreneurial IT leaders delegate client relationship management to project managers or others in their firm. While delegating client service tasks is important to your overall growth, it is critical that you delegate and not abdicate your client relationships.

No matter how busy you are, you - and any other owners in your practice - should actively reach out and meet with your clients and develop a better understanding of their businesses and their needs on a regular basis. To maximize the success of your check-in meetings with your clients, consider these tips:

1. Decide which clients to meet with first. Work with your team members and determine the criteria by which to prioritize your clients to begin your check-in meetings. You may choose to meet with those clients who are your "favorites," have known issues or those with whom you've done the most business. Whatever the criteria, make sure you identify two to three to meet with initially and plan your meeting approach.

2. Identify a person on your team to own the scheduling process. They should handle setting up check-in meetings with clients for you and for members of your leadership team. Most of us are too busy to set these meetings up ourselves, so delegating this task to an administrator or coordinator will ensure that it occurs, even when you're busiest.

3. Ask the hard questions. Cast aside your fears about what your clients might tell you and ask each directly, "How are we doing in meeting your expectations?" and "How can we improve our service to your company?" You may be surprised at what your clients can teach you about how to streamline or improve your processes, or what service opportunities they foresee that you may have overlooked. Prevent your clients from walking away from your firm later by addressing their tough issues - if they even have any - now.

4. Use open-ended questions. Prepare ahead for your meeting by crafting three to five open-ended questions that will lead your client to talk about their business and how they view your services. As a quick reminder, open-ended questions begin with who, what, why, when, where or how, and require the answerer to elaborate beyond a simple "yes" or "no."

5. A client is more than just a software application, financial statement or tax return. Ask about your client's overall business and not just the piece of their company that you impact. Discuss how your client's business is progressing and ask them what keeps them up at night. Find out about your client's long-term goals, both for their business and personally. Learn about areas with which they need assistance and offer contacts you may have to help them outside of your area of expertise.

When you sincerely make the effort to get to know your clients, you will be better able to identify additional service offerings for their business and ultimately make more of a difference in their lives.

6. Don't promise what you can't deliver. During the meeting with your client, be open-minded and listen. Should problems arise during the conversation, don't try to solve them right then and there. Write the problem on a notepad while listening to your client (this reinforces that you will follow up) and tell them that you will get back to them within a specified timeframe. There may be facts about the situation that you need to gather back at the office before taking corrective action.

7. Follow up. Once you've identified any problems or concerns - address them. Don't let them go unattended. Should the resolution go beyond the timeframe you outlined during your meeting with the client, call them to discuss your findings and define a new follow-up date. This step is critical to the success of your client contact meetings. A lack of follow-up to your client's issues will undo any positive momentum you gain during the client meeting itself.

8. Set up a calendar and circulate the feedback. Identify a person internally to establish a rolling calendar to remind you and your leadership team when to meet with your clients on an ongoing basis. Once each client meeting has occurred, update the meeting date, any new client contact information, findings from the meeting and any follow-up actions required into your firm's contact management system for tracking purposes. In addition, discuss this feedback during your monthly partner or owner meetings to learn about possible trends or implications that affect other clients or partners within your firm.

9. Show others the way. Once you've held several client contact meetings, meet with your partners and managers to introduce them to this concept and encourage their participation. Provide examples of the types of meetings you've held, questions you asked, and results you've obtained. Establish an action plan and divide up the client base to ensure that you are all working assigned contacts. Be sure to outline the process you have set up to track and monitor your results and follow-up. Then reinforce the concept by reviewing the results during your partner meetings and sharing ideas that worked or didn't work during the process.

Deepen your client relationships and extend client retention by knowing - really knowing - your clients. Schedule your "check-in" meetings with key client decision-makers today!

Jennifer Wilson is co-founder and owner of ConvergenceCoaching LLC (www.convergencecoaching.com), a leadership and marketing consulting and coaching firm that specializes in helping CPA and IT firms achieve success.

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