Voices

Better client meetings: Owning the process

The balance sheet: As financial professionals, we certainly know our way around this report, since it displays a client’s financial assets and liabilities. However, one very important item the balance sheet doesn’t show is time — one of a client’s most valuable assets. As CPAs, time is one of our most important assets as well. It makes you wonder why such a valuable asset is so often squandered.

Let’s talk about how we can make the best use of client meetings, one of the biggest time commitments on any busy professional’s calendar.

While we complain about having too many meetings to attend, talking with clients and helping them solve their problems is some of the most valuable time you can spend as a financial professional. You’re building relationships. You’re establishing trust. You’re following through and building new commitments. It’s very expensive time for both you and your client. Make sure you are spending it well.

For most CPAs, there are two main types of meetings — strategic and tactical. It’s important to know the difference:
1. Strategic meetings are regularly scheduled agenda-driven meetings. The number of strategic meetings clients have with you is often based on their service-level agreement (annual, semi-annual or quarterly).
2. Tactical meetings are held when a client calls or emails you with a specific question: “I really need to talk to you about X.”

I have learned over my career that the better you get at running strategic meetings with your clients, the fewer ad hoc, tactical meetings you will need to have with them. Clients will begin telling themselves, “I know we’re going to discuss ‘X’ at my next strategic meeting, so I don’t need to keep pinging my CPA with questions.”

Phone call or in person?

With tactical meetings, most of the time a phone call is sufficient. Clients have a specific question, there’s some discussion, and you provide an answer. Done. It doesn’t require a face-to-face meeting. Right after the meeting, you should log your notes and get ready for the next call.

By contrast, strategic meetings are designed around a broader context: “How’s my company doing?” “What are the important numbers we have to go through?” Some clients may choose to have longer-format, strategic meetings over the phone, due to time or location constraints. Clients love having the meeting agenda and discussion on their screens during the calls. With tools like Zoom, clients can see your face during a phone meeting. As long as clients can see your face, trust is building. The human brain makes little distinction between seeing you on camera and seeing you across a table. In a future article, I’ll share pointers about how to set up cameras properly and how to run better online meetings.

Self-service calendaring apps

To keep our schedules sane, we use Calendly at my firm. The online scheduling app lets clients book appointments with us directly. We set aside blocks of time for strategic client meetings. I prefer to have them between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. By clicking on the Calendly link, clients can go directly into our calendars, select an open time slot and confirm a meeting time. Additionally, clients can change the meeting time on their own if something comes up at the last minute. They don’t have to tie up our staff with last-minute rescheduling requests.

There are two other reasons why I love scheduling apps such as Calendly. First, anyone scheduling a meeting must answer two mandatory questions in order to get onto our calendars:
1. Have there been any changes since our last meeting?
2. What do you want to make sure we are prepared to discuss?

These two questions are pre-populated into the scheduling process. If the meeting requester tries to bypass those two questions, the app won’t let them book the appointment. Second, once the two questions above have been answered and a time slot selected, the meeting automatically goes into our calendar — and syncs with the client’s calendar.

While that may sound like a lot to put on your clients, as CPAs, we’re accountable too. If clients have taken the time to schedule the meeting and frame the agenda, it’s our responsibility to review the agenda well in advance and decide whether or not we’ve allocated enough time — or too much time — for the meeting. After reviewing the meeting agenda, you may discover you haven’t booked nearly enough time for the meeting. In that case you’ll need to prioritize what to discuss. Or you’ll realize that you won’t need a full 60 minutes to cover all the agenda items — a 10-minute phone call should suffice. In that case, have your staff reach out to the client well before the meeting date and suggest a brief phone call or online chat. Clients will appreciate not having to drive all the way down to your office just to have a few questions answered.

I know what you’re thinking. Tools like Calendly are great for younger, tech-savvy clients, but other clients won’t use it. I had the same concern. Our average client is 63 years old. When we sent our first online meeting invitation, we were thinking about half would use the tool. Turns out, more than 90 percent not only used it, but they emailed us specifically telling us how much they appreciated the convenience!

The meeting’s not over when your client leaves the room

After every client meeting, whether in-person or over the phone, make sure you allow at least 15 minutes of buffer time to distill your meeting notes and to determine the appropriate follow-up action items. You need to confirm who is doing what and when, and then you need to prepare a summary letter (a mutual understanding letter) — to be sent to the client.

It’s very important to build a cushion between meetings. That’s where many professionals mess up. They over-pack their calendars and don’t leave enough buffer time between meetings to distill their notes and thoughts. Unfortunately, all the great insights you collected at the meeting go into the wind, and few of the action items and follow-up steps ever get implemented. That’s why you need a carefully structured meeting agenda, so you’re not spending all your time just talking.

Again, when I say to allow an hour for a strategic client meeting, that means 40 to 45 minutes with the client in the room and 15 to 20 minutes of “shadow” work to log your notes and prep your summary letter. By the way, it’s perfectly acceptable — often recommended — to have a junior staffer or administrative assistant in the meeting taking notes. That frees you up for deeper listening. You want to come away from the meeting with answers to the following four questions:
1. What are the updates?
2. What are the discussion points?
3. What are the decision points?
4. What are the action items?

Don’t underestimate the importance of doing your client summary letter right after your meeting.

Research on the so-called “forgetting curve” shows that within one hour, we forget an average of 50 percent of the information we just took in. Within 24 hours, we forget about 70 percent of new information, and within a week, we forget about 90 percent of it. I’ll talk more about Summary Letters and the “Strategic Pop-In” interruption in my next article.

You’re running a thriving practice. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed, especially during busy season, when everyone wants something from you ASAP and urgent requests are being fired at you from all directions. Taking ownership of your calendar is one of the best ways I know to keep your to-do lists and client obligations under control.

In my next two articles we’ll discuss the right way to build a meeting agenda and explain why you must send a summary letter after every single client meeting.

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