Voices

Better client meetings: Summary letters are a game changer

In my last article, I explained the value of having a concise, well-organized agenda to keep client meetings on track. Now that you’ve had a great meeting, it’s essential to follow up on your promises, action items and deliverables from that meeting. That’s where the meeting summary letter comes in.

A summary letter is a brief document that recaps the meeting and asks your client to confirm you’re both on the same page. Sounds too time consuming? Keep reading to see how to manage this process effectively. You and your client both invested your most valuable resource — time — into the meeting. Don’t drop the ball now.

Why a summary letter?

You can’t expect clients to remember everything you talked about after meeting with you. You certainly can’t expect them to follow through on the action items you discussed without some nudging. As your client’s most trusted advisor, your job is to do everything possible to make their life easier. That means getting something into their mailbox to summarize the discussion you just had, and what needs to happen next.

A summary letters accomplishes three important things:

1. Clarifies your thoughts from the meeting and reassures the client that you understood their issues.
2. Helps you and your client confirm who is doing what, and when, before the next meeting.
3. Makes it much easier to prepare the agenda for your next meeting with that client.

How do I create a summary letter?

Through trial and error, I have found the simplest solution to be the best. All you need to do is take the format of the agenda (see below), fill out what was discussed and decided in the meeting, and move action items to the top. Why move action items to the top? When your client opens your summary letter, they’ll most likely be doing on a mobile phone. This means you need to get right to the point; Let them know what’s most important. Many clients just want to know if they need to give you more information or take a certain action. The rest of the meeting notes can always be reviewed at a later time.

Agenda

Summary letter

1. Discussion points
1. Action items (who is doing what)
2. Decision points
2. Discussion points
3. Action items (who is doing what)
3. Decision points

Through trial and error, I have found the simplest solution to be the best. All you need to do is take the format of the agenda (see below), fill out what was discussed and decided in the meeting, and move action items to the top. Why move action items to the top? When your client opens your summary letter, they’ll most likely be doing on a mobile phone. This means you need to get right to the point; Let them know what’s most important. Many clients just want to know if they need to give you more information or take a certain action. The rest of the meeting notes can always be reviewed at a later time.

When it comes to summary letters, clients just need to see two important things:

1. Is everything we talked about going to get done?

2. Is there anything I need to do next?

In addition to action items, give clients a clear summary of the discussion points (what was talked about at the meeting) and a summary of the decisions to be made. For instance, your client may have talked about a potential business sale, an entity structure change or possibly making one of their adult children a partner in the family business. Whatever you discussed at the meeting, write those items down using bullet points not lengthy paragraphs.

If you followed the agenda recommendation from my last article, you’re going to go into the meeting with discussion points in mind and you’re going to come out of the meeting with discussion points enhanced by details and some color.

Again, the agenda is where you put “decisions to be made.” The summary letter is where you document “decisions that were made.”

From agenda to meeting to summary letter

The agenda-meeting-summary letter process reiterates the following:

  • I’m going to tell you what I’m going to tell you (the agenda).
  • Then I’m going to tell you (the meeting).
  • Then I’m going to tell you what I just told you (the summary letter).

This sequence asks clients to verify that they agree with your assessment of the meeting highlights, the issues raised and the next steps to take. Write summary letters as soon as your client meeting is over. The longer you wait, the more likely the important details will fade.

When to send your summary letters

Send your summary letters to clients the same day you met with them, preferably at the end of the day. We used to wait until Fridays to batch all of our summary letters for the week, but it got to be too much of a backlog.

Should staff help with summary letters?

I used to ask our staff to help me write the summary letters. However, I found it was more efficient to write them myself than to explain what needed to be included (and excluded). Now I just keep a summary letter template in my Outlook email, and it doesn’t take more than 10 minutes to draft each one.

Subject line is “Meeting Summary.”
The body includes:

  • Your action items
  • The client’s action items
  • Discussion points
  • Decision points
  • Date of next meeting.

Then, all you have to do is flesh out each section. As I discussed in my last article, if you don’t have anything to put in some of the sections, then you didn’t do a good job of covering enough material in that meeting. An added bonus, the summary letter is a great template for the meeting agenda the next time you get together with your client. Contact me any time If you’d like me to email you a summary letter template.

Why don’t more CPA firms send summary letters?
For starters, this process involves a lot of accountability. Once you start sending summary letters, clients will begin to expect them after every meeting. Think about it. If you don't have enough relevant material to send your client a brief post-meeting summary letter, then why did you meet with them? However, if you can get into the habit of sending summary letters consistently, it will force you to think about how you add value to each one of your client relationships.

Before making a massive investment in a customer relationship management system, go back and review your recent summary letters. Recent summary letters serve as a library of the client relationship and a great chronology of the issues. They also document what was said and done. Summary letters also come in handy when a new person at your firm has to get up to speed quickly on a particular client relationship.

Sure, summary letters take a little bit of time and effort, but it’s really work you should be doing anyway. Are you really too busy to spend a combined 30 minutes on meeting prep and follow-up for the most valuable time you spend every year with each client?
We’re all pressed for time. Having a well-defined client meeting and follow-up process will lead to fewer, but more valuable meetings. The process will lead to less prep work and ultimately be transformative for your practice.