Better client meetings: Have an agenda, literally

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As CPAs, our greatest value comes from working directly with clients. Every minute counts. As discussed in my earlier articles in this series, you need to own the meeting process and know the two most important meeting kick-off questions. Whether meeting in-person or over the phone, your ability to have great discussions with your clients and move things forward is what’s going to impact your success as their trusted advisor. Preparing an agenda beforehand is one of the best ways to ensure that happens.

A written agenda keeps your discussion focused. Think of the agenda as a roadmap for your meetings — a roadmap that guides every discussion point into a decision or plan of action. If you’re not using agendas for most of your meetings, I suggest you try them. If you do, one of the first things you’ll notice is that you’ll be scheduling a lot fewer follow-up meetings with clients to fill in the missing pieces.

How many times have you finished a meeting and said to yourself: “Darn! We forgot to talk about X”? An agenda helps you optimize your valuable time — and your client’s valuable time. It prevents you from meandering. It prevents you from forgetting important things. It sets expectations for each meeting. By the way, your meeting agenda doesn’t have to be elaborate. It just has to cover the four key components outlined below:

1. Major updates since our last meeting.
2. Discussion points.
3. Decisions to be made.
4. Action Items.

Let’s take them one at a time.

1. Major updates since our last meeting. As discussed in my last article, you want clients to tell you about important updates in their lives — in advance of the meeting. You never want to be caught off guard by significant financial and personal developments in a client’s life that will cause you to toss out the agenda and shift into discovery mode. The meeting is supposed to be about filling in the final details and moving toward a decision. This can be accomplished by asking about updates when the meeting is scheduled.

2. Discussion points. Which topics do clients really want to talk to you about? Also, what do you think clients should be asking you about — including topics they may be hesitant to broach? Everyone at the meeting has to be on the same page. That’s how you, the client’s most trusted advisor, help them make the right decisions (see #3 below) and reinforce the value you provide.

3. Decisions to make. Based on the updates and discussion points outlined above, what are you and your client going to do about those issues and how are you going to move forward?

4. Action items. After you’ve established the decisions you’re going to make together, that naturally leads to the post-meeting action items. Action items aren’t complicated. Just be crystal clear about who is doing what and by when.

As your client’s personal CFO, your job is to be their catalyst who helps them take action. At the end of the meeting, make sure you establish two very important things before your client leaves the room:

1. Which topics are we going to discuss next?
2. When is our next meeting?

For example, a client who’s a business owner may tell you, “In about six months, we’re going to be redoing our business valuation and I might be thinking about selling.”

Here’s a test: If you’re not walking out of client meetings with enough material to fill up your post-meeting summary letters, then it means you weren’t focused during the meeting. This used to happen to me all the time. All too often I’d be kicking myself, asking, “What was the point of that meeting?” I’d start to prepare my summary letter and I’d realize we didn’t really talk about much; we didn’t really decide anything. I didn’t come away with any action items. Don’t fall into this trap. (We’ll talk more about post-meeting summary letters in my next article.)

For starters, don’t begin every meeting by asking your client: “So, what did you want to talk about?” The discussion points should already be in your calendar update and meeting agenda. Your role is to get all the critical information you need to help your client make well-informed decisions. Demonstrate to your clients that you really respect their time. When you do that consistently, they’ll be happy to refer you and will never raise an eyebrow when your bill arrives.

I didn’t invent meeting agendas out of thin air. I learned the hard way why they’re so important. Early in my career I spent too much time talking during client meetings and not enough time listening. I thought I had to impress clients with how much I knew about every topic that could potentially impact them. Because I spent so much time dominating the conversation, I never got the answers I needed, and we never came close to covering all the items we needed to discuss. As a result, I just kept scheduling “serial” meetings, which would lead to even more meetings because we were so unfocused.

Ultimately, clients got burned out and made all kinds of excuses for not committing to follow-up meetings. They just weren’t seeing any value to meeting with me.

Trust me. If your goal is to get more things accomplished — and more decisions made — with fewer meetings, then you owe it to yourself and your clients to run highly organized meetings.

I would love to believe that clients enjoy sitting in my office and digging into their finances, but I know there are many other things they would rather be doing. Be respectful of your clients’ time. Answer their questions concisely. Help them make important decisions with confidence and let them get on with their lives. That’s how you show your value as their most trusted advisor and personal CFO.

In my next column we’ll discuss how to craft an effective post-meeting summary letter.

Don’t hesitate to contact me if you’d like a sample meeting agenda or summary letter.

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