The 10-second rule

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A new client of ours — a very nice couple — came to see me the other day. I thought the meeting was going well, but 15 minutes in, the husband interrupted and asked, “Can we please pause this meeting?”

When I asked him why he wanted to stop the meeting, he said, “You keep saying ‘Right?’ at the end of your sentences. It sounds like you’re asking us a question, but you answer it before we can respond. Are you actually asking us if we understand?”

That was tough to hear, but my client was right. Even worse, I started wondering how many clients had been sitting through my rambling without bothering to say anything to me. I walked away from the meeting realizing that I had to do a much better job of facilitating two-way conversations with clients. That’s when I decided to implement the “10-Second Rule.”

Here’s how it works: If I find myself talking for more than 10 consecutive seconds during a client meeting, I make myself stop and ask the client an open-ended question and give them ample time to respond.

Our accounting firm has several partners, and I work on the advisory side, helping their clients with financial planning, investments, etc. So, when meeting privately with those clients, I get to hear their candid feedback about how they feel about the relationship they have with their CPA. One of our partners always gets rave reviews from our clients. Every one of his clients tells me the same thing: “The reason I really like working with him is because he’s so smart and because I feel like he really listens.”

That gave me pause. I’ve sat in on meetings with this partner; he rarely speaks. When he does speak, it’s only to ask a thought-provoking question or to offer a concise point. Whether he realizes it or not, my colleague is following the 10-second rule. Again, after you’ve spoken briefly, don’t say anything else until you’ve asked your client an open-ended follow-up question — a question that can’t be answered in yes or no fashion. And then you need to let them talk, because your client should be doing most of the talking at each meeting — not you.

Listening builds business

As we go deep into busy season, you’re going to be tempted to mail it in for some of your client meetings. The good news is that clients have a high sense of urgency to get things done this time of year. So, it’s a great time of year to set the table for bigger-picture future conversations with your clients as well.

I know you’re pinched for time. Taking this approach may add a few minutes to your meeting time, but it’s a great opportunity to plant a seed for a later planning meeting with that client over the summer. Use this time to determine what’s going to add value going forward in your relationship once the taxes are out of the way.

As mentioned earlier, clients should be doing at least 80 percent of the talking when they meet with you. They’ve already committed to working with you. You don’t need to sell them on your firm or show them how smart you are. You need to help them solve a problem they’re having. To do that, you need information.

Go from talking to saying something

When you only have 10 seconds to work with, you really have to think about what you’re trying to communicate to your client — and it has to matter. It’s easy to fall back on an old habit of just talking — rambling on without any structure or time constraints. The problem is your client doesn’t understand most of what you’re talking about. And if they don’t understand any of it, they’re certainly not going to understand your five-minute diatribe and will start to check out.

As a rule of thumb, make a couple of probing statements and then ask an open-ended question. That’s going to cause two things to happen:

1. It’s going to force you to have a more open dialogue with your client.
2. It’s going to take you from talking to actually saying something.

Breaking bad habits

If you suspect you’re talking too much at client meetings, have an administrative assistant sit in and take notes. Have your admin keep track of how often you exceed the 10-second rule. You may be mortified when you hear the answer. (I know I was.) I used to spend about 90 percent of client meeting time doing the talking and only 10 percent of the time listening. I was completely overloading them with information in a language they couldn’t understand. I doubt they retained any of it. I learned the hard way, but now my talking-to-listening ratio is much better, and my clients are happier.

If you don’t have an administrative assistant handy, just use the voice recorder on your phone. You may be shocked when you play back the recording. Just make sure to inform clients ahead of time that you’re recording the meeting, so you don’t want to miss anything.

As you’re getting deep into tax season, the goal of your client meetings is to deliver specifically what they need and to deliver it as concisely as possible. Whether you use the 10-second rule, the 2-to-1 sentence rule or any other rule of thumb that drives better dialogue, remember your job is to be a listener, not a talker. You want to extract great details and information that will lead to better planning conversations down the road and cement your role as your client’s most trusted advisor.

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