Better client meetings: Two essential kickoff questions

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Even in this digital age, study after study shows there’s no replacement for face-to-face interaction with your clients. But client meetings can be a colossal drain of your time — and your client’s time — if you don’t have a game plan before sitting down with them. To set up every meeting for success, always lead with the following two questions:

1. How are you doing on time?

2. What do you want to make sure we cover today?

I didn’t come up with these two powerful questions out of thin air. It took years of trial and error. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had meetings run on too long. I can’t tell you how many times a client would say, “By the way we need to talk about this,” as they headed for the door and the next client would enter the conference room. By establishing the client’s meeting expectations upfront, as well as the amount of time you have to address their questions, you are showing your clients you respect their time and their priorities.

Let’s take a closer look at the two key questions:

Question 1: How are you doing on time?

This question is a good table-setter and you typically get two types of responses: Your client tells you they have “all the time in the world” or they would like to have the meeting “as quickly as possible.” Don’t let either of those responses derail you.

If you’re meeting someone who has plenty of time on their hands, then you need to set reasonable expectations for the meeting. A helpful response can be something like this: “Great, I’ve set aside X amount of time. We’ll be able to cover all that and more in the allotted amount of time.”

On the other hand, if you’re meeting with a frantic business owner or professional, they’re going to be impatient. You need to set expectations here as well. Obviously, they don’t have time to chat about the weather, their favorite sports team, or their kids and grandkids. At the same time, your focus needs to be on important issues for which decisions have to be made. If you don’t feel like they have allotted enough time to address their key concerns — and anything you might have on the agenda — you should take a pause to prioritize what you would like to address together.

Ideal meeting length

As a rule of thumb, we block 90 minutes for a typical client meeting. We budget 60 minutes for actual meeting time and 30 minutes for “shadow work” afterward. That’s when we distill our notes and key takeaways from the meeting while they’re still fresh in our memory. Those notes are also entered into our customer relationship management system and form the basis of the meeting “summary letter” that we send to the client at the end of the week.

When meetings have to be shorter, we still use the two-thirds to one-third ratio. During busy season, we may limit client meetings to 30 minutes — 20 minutes for the actual meeting and 10 minutes for the follow-up. Regardless of meeting length, addressing all of your agenda items as well as the client’s issues ahead of schedule will serve as a nice way of giving your clients time back in their day.

Note: I’ll discuss meeting agendas and ideal meeting length in a forthcoming article.

Question 2: What do you want to make sure we cover today?

You always want to ask the question above, because several things could have happened to your client since you last checked in with them. Taking this approach gets your client in the right mindset to share their concerns with you. He or she might tell you: “I need to figure out a retirement plan for my business. I need to set up a few key performance indicators and I’m not sure what to do. And I need to set up a new software solution for my business.”

Write those objectives down. Ask your client upfront: “If we can address these questions for you today, will that be a good use of your time?” You’re going to put your shoulders into the problem and come up with decision points. That’s the reason you’re getting together. You’re not just meeting to talk; you’re meeting to make decisions.

Prioritize the discussion points

I know what you’re thinking: “Sometimes I have a client who has 25 things on their mental agenda for a half-hour meeting.” Obviously, you’re not going to get to them all. Ask your client to circle the top three items and spend your time just focusing on those three. We’ll cover effective meeting agendas in more detail in my next article.

What about small talk?

It’s OK to ask clients about their families, but only if it’s in the context of getting a more complete picture of your client. Do they have any kids? Is there a second marriage? A blended family? Do they have a special needs child? It doesn’t matter whether you bill on an hourly basis or if you’re on retainer. As our client’s most trusted advisor, our job is to consistently deliver the highest value we can provide.

There’s nothing wrong with asking clients about the weather, the traffic or their families. But ask those questions at the end of the meeting, not at the beginning. Your priority is to get the important work done first — getting a better understanding of the client’s financial picture — especially if you think you’ll be interrupted or run out of time. That’s what translates into value for your client. If you develop a reputation for running effective client meetings and for delivering on what you promise, guess what? Clients will start inviting you to barbecues and telling all their friends about you. You can’t buy better advertising than that!

In my next two articles I’ll discuss the right way to build a meeting agenda and explain why you must send a summary follow-up letter after every single client meeting. Don’t hesitate to contact me at kwalters@lhcpafirm.com if you’d like a sample meeting agenda or summary letter.

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