Were you in practice in 2011? That was when I wrote an article about client meetings in a year I described as “an era of video calls and social media”!
That era was underway in 2011 but it took the pandemic in 2020 for everyone to start using video calls.
As the latest lockdown eases perhaps now is the time to rethink how and when you meet with clients in the future.
I have summarised below what I think are the main types of meetings that accountants have with clients and what typically goes on during each of them. Going forwards will you want to revert to face to face meetings across the board?
1. Initial meetings
These are almost universal especially given the need to be sure of the identity of new clients to ensure compliance with the anti-money laundering regulations.
Pre-COVID some accountants will have visited new clients at their home or business. Others might have insisted on new clients coming to the accountants’ office. This saves what may be wasted time if the prospective client doesn’t agree to sign up.
The ideal must be to address all new client compliance issues during that first meeting with a prospect – wherever the meeting takes place. One enterprising accountant I know has long used his smartphone to take photos of passports and utility bills when first meeting recommended prospects at their homes.
Over the last year, new client meetings have had to take place virtually. Whilst nothing replaces the positive impact of a face to face meeting, you may feel that your time has been spent more effectively by NOT taking time out to go visit every prospective new client. Or maybe you have won fewer new clients than usual. This could be due to the absence of a face to face meeting – or it could be for some other reason. Do you know?
2. Annual meetings
Even before the advent of online filing it wasn’t always necessary to see clients when getting their signature on annual accounts and tax returns.
I would expect that most clients prefer being given the opportunity to meet their accountant at least once a year. And I would also expect that clients who attend such meetings are more resilient and thus less likely to be tempted away by promises of lower fees and more advice from a new accountant.
So again, the question is how you will manage the transition back to face to face meetings once these are allowed again?
Might your annual fees distinguish different service levels such that clients can choose lower fees by agreeing to annual online meetings rather than face to face ones? It’s a possibility but it could be counter-productive too so would need to be planned carefully.
3. Pure advisory meetings
I understand all too well that some accountants feel that their fee levels do not allow for pure advisory focused meetings. They weren’t budgeted and they would be a waste of time if no fee earning opportunities are agreed at the meeting. Others will argue that such meetings are particularly valuable.
For example they can:
- be a key part of reinforcing the relationship
- evidence the accountant’s desire to focus on the provision of constructive advice
- be part of the offering that tempts clients to move away from their old accountant (“who charges extra fees every time we talk on the phone or meet to discuss ideas”)
Some accountants I know have found this type of meeting easier to arrange online as they are less time consuming than when a face to face meeting was possible. Perhaps you could take see the current restrictions as an opportunity to invite key clients to a special meeting?
4. Fee negotiations
Back in 2011 I hoped that separate meetings to discuss and agree fees between accountant and client were pretty rare. That remains the case.
If I were a client I would be pretty unhappy if I had to make time for a meeting solely to agree fees. Especially as I’m sure most clients have a good idea as to the fees they expect to be charged. If the accountant wants to charge more than this, it’s important to avoid springing this on the client. Such discussions should be held at a much earlier stage.
Again, in 2021, if such meetings are necessary, they are probably easier to arrange online than face to face. And without side-tracking too much, do ensure that, if you invite your client to a meeting to discuss fees, that you given them an incentive to attend. Think about what’s in it for them, not just how you want them to agree to pay your fees!
5. Relationship building meetings
In the good old days, (before COVID) many accountants used to arrange relationship building meetings with their favourite clients or the top (say) 20% of their client base. No agenda. No fee. Just breakfast, a lunch, a golf game or some other social activity. Keeping in touch. Chatting about business issues generally or even avoiding business conversation altogether. Relationship meetings are focused on cementing or enhancing the relationship. Do you have many of these?
And how easy do you find it to have such meetings when online is the only option?
One option here that some firms have explored is to arrange a special online event for clients – with entertainment they probably won’t have experienced with family and friends. A magician perhaps, wine/whisky tasking, cocktail making, an interview with a sports person or other celebrity.
Who attends client meetings?
If you have staff, at what point do you allow or even encourage them to attend meetings alongside you? Perhaps they can liaise with the client to find a mutually convenient time. And they can take notes, even if they don’t otherwise contribute during the meeting. Junior staff may need more training to record appropriate notes than will a trained secretary or PA. It’s risky to ignore the impact of poor meeting notes. In the event of a negligence claim any contemporaneous meeting notes will be reviewed to determine what advice was given and in what circumstances.
Again, this is potentially harder during lockdown than it was beforehand!
What about travel time?
Thankfully this is not an issue when all meetings take place online.
In normal times, many accountants do not charge extra for meetings until the client has agreed to a quoted fee for additional work. Such fee quotes will often take account (at least in theory) of the time that will be spent travelling between meetings. I suppose some clients do understand that they will be charged more if they require their accountant to visit them – rather than vice-versa.
I do wonder though if accountants who want to charge for their time always establish the right thinking in their clients. Typically there will be no charge for initial meetings and, for more substantial prospects, no charge for the time devoted to following up and any tender process before they become a client. Do all prospects understand that they will need to pay for all the time that the accountant spends with them, or spent travelling to and from meetings, after they become clients?
Are meetings still necessary?
It’s astonishing to realise that I first wrote this in 2011:
In this era of video conferencing, Skype and smart phones, do accountants need to meet face-to-face with clients as often as they did in the past? An increasing number of small trader clients (and possibly others too) could be interacting with their accountants by video or on social media. Where this happens it could supplement or even supplant face-to-face ‘relationship’ meetings.
How many of the meetings summarised above need both parties to be physically present in the same room? It’s certainly true that effective communication is enhanced when you can see the other person’s face during a conversation or negotiation. The absence of visuals is a key disadvantage of the conventional telephone and therefore a reason for meeting in person.
Could accountants ‘meet’ more clients if video conferencing or Skype calls were in prospect? And would such meetings generate ABOs? (Additional Billing Opportunities)
Of course ‘Zoom’ and Microsoft teams have taken over from Skype, but, as I suggested earlier, now is definitely the time to think about how you plan your meetings – online and face to face – in 2021.
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