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Structuring Client Meetings For Success

Published by Summit Marketing Team on 20 May 2020

The Modern CPA Success Show: Episode 10


Setting up and running meetings with your clients can be one of the more intimidating parts of your Virtual CFO services. It can be hard to know how to set yourself up for success or even to know what to talk about when you have meetings with your clients.

Today we are sitting down with Adam Hale, the COO at Summit CPA to talk about how to set up structures and systems for high-value meetings. These in-person experiences you create with your clients are a huge part of offering high-quality services and maintaining client relationships. Tune in to learn how to master this part of your business.

Jamie Nau: Welcome to today's episode. Once again, I am joined by Adam Hale, the COO here at Summit CPA, and we're going to talk about a really important topic. Oftentimes I'm involved in the interviewing process with our CFOs, and also talking to other firms that are trying to do similar things to what we do, and the question that comes up is: I love the model. I love the idea. But how in the world am I going to fill that much meeting time with just me talking? So what we're going to talk about today is ways to set up structures and systems to make sure that those meetings are filled, and that the client feels that they're getting value out of those meetings. So, Adam, why don’t you start the evolution of where Summit went in terms of our meetings, and what we did in order to make sure we are filling enough time with the clients.

Adam Hale: Yeah, I think the most important thing, though, before we dive into like agendas and cadence and everything, is just to remember that the clients are the ones that have all the answers. You know, we talk about that a lot too, just in how you communicate with the client. Of course, they know their business better than you do. We know business. We know finance. Like that's where we need to kind of stick, and stay in our lane and ask questions related to that whenever you start to hear them kind of talk about the vision of the company, what they're trying to do. So a lot of times they might not have the proper framework of what they're trying to do, or how they're trying to do it, and that's what we really need to kind of tease out of the conversations whenever we meet with our clients. So, again, nothing to do with a specific agenda there. It's just more of kind of a mindset, whatever you go in. Because it can be intimidating, you know, thinking about, hey, what am I going to talk about for the next hour? It's like, well, the client's got the questions, the clients have actually the answers too. It's really our job to tease those out, connect the two together in a more tangible way as it relates to the financial forecast and such.

Jamie Nau: Yeah, I remember when I first started at Summit, that's one of the first pieces of advice I received is that, you know, the secret to consulting is the client has all the answers. You know, I think that that made me feel 10 times more comfortable in any advice I've ever received. Know that okay, the client knows their business, they know the answers, they're going to get there. You just have to ask the right questions and you have to have the proper communication, the proper channels to get them there. That to me, that made a big difference as I was doing the CFO work.

Adam Hale: Yeah, so that's on the foundation side. Then the frustration point comes from the client, you know, who's going to be on the meeting? A lot of times our clients have three or four different people that we might need to talk to or want to talk with, but they're not fit for every single meeting. So you want to be respectful of their time, too. Then where the meeting agendas come in .and the cadence is just also understanding, you know, what we're going to talk about that day. So they're prepared for their questions, or any homework that they might have had in preparation for the meeting. So that first piece of advice is kind of more behind the scenes, and the second one, like I said, is more to make sure that the client is prepared mentally, and potentially if they had some homework in order to kind of get things going.

Jamie Nau: That's one of the key changes we made early on. I know one of the things we were doing two, three years ago was we would have a weekly meeting and it was just called weekly meeting with the clients. And I think that, you know, they never knew what to expect. They didn't know who was supposed to attend. And so it took a little bit more work. But having a monthly meeting where, you know, the first meeting of the month, whatever the topic is, you invited to the right people. And you can talk about in generalities what you're going to talk about in that meeting. I think that made a big difference for the way we were providing our meeting cadence and schedule, because like you said, they knew they had to be prepared for it. They knew what they had to have ready when they walked into that meeting, and you didn't have the marketing person missing from a pipeline call, or that BD person missing from a pipeline call. So I think that made a big difference for us in terms of a lesson we learned pretty early on. 

Adam Hale: Yeah, and the long list of learning lumps we've had here. That's definitely one of them. I think we had the first part, right? You know, the consistency. Saying hey, every Monday at 2:00, we're going to have this call. Everything was kind of open skate, which are always frustrating because you do have to kind of, you know, not only for the client, but even for the internal team member, just kind of think, OK, you know what? What silver bullet am I going to bring to the conversation today? How am I going to help enlighten the customer? So even if you have the skills of the consulting, having that meeting agenda really helps out quite a bit.

So on the evolution of kind of where we came from. We still have transactional service. That’s what we coined it, which is kind of your monthly write up where you meet with the client, you go over the financials, that kind of a thing, on a once a month type of the basis. I think a lot of CPA firms do that. Some of them just prepare the financials and send us to the client, maybe meet semi-annually or quarterly or something like that. We always from the get go wanted to make sure we're having that conversation monthly, and that the conversation is super simple because it's all about the financials. So it's about how did we perform? What looks weird? I think it requires a lot more skill and talent to do that because you don't have any context, and in context I mean forecasting. So on our transactional write-up services, it's like hey, this number doesn't look right. Maybe you know the answer, but you really don't have any context and what it should be. Now you can use common size things for your percentages and kind of know what it's supposed to be. Don't get me wrong, like there's benchmarks and stuff for it, but not having that custom fit forecast is really kind of makes that conversation difficult.

Jamie Nau: Especially coming from the audit world. When you're in the audit world, you talk a lot about expectation, and I think, you know, when you're supposed to compare numbers, you’re supposed to compare against expectation as one of the values. That’s one of the foundations there. I think in walking through financial statements, having the expectation makes the conversation go a lot better. To Adam's point. You could talk about what you did last year. You can talk about what you did last month. But sometimes that's just not relevant. Sometimes it's relevant. As we know, December is going to have a lower revenue month, and that's just expectation because we lost the contractor because something happened, or we knew a lot of people were taking vacation this month. Whatever that reason is, that expectation is a great foundation for comparing things. So it makes those conversations a lot easier.

Adam Hale: Man, I didn't think you could make the accounting conversation anywhere springing up auditing

Jamie Nau: [laughing]

Adam Hale: So no, you're 100 percent right. I mean, not having that expectation to bump up against makes it a difficult conversation. But nonetheless, that's what the conversation is. It's super simple. How did we do? So that is one of the core meetings, obviously you have to have with your client, regardless of the frequency. You know, whether you're meeting weekly, semimonthly, or just monthly, that is the most pivotal conversation. So our next service up, our controllership service, is kind of for those medium sized clients. So the transactional is for the very small clients, usually sub a million dollars. We don't really have a whole lot of those clients in our portfolio just because we're probably a little too expensive for, you know, something that they could get where maybe they don't need all the guidance. So the controllership service is kind of like that middle ground. So I would say those are the clients from about a million in revenue to I don't know, what do you think, Jamie? Like three million?

Jamie Nau: Yeah I would say three is about the point where they start needing a little higher level of service.

Adam Hale: So between one and three million, the controllership service is kind of that medium level. So we're typically meeting with the client twice a month instead of once a month. So what the meeting cadence looks like for that is, once a month we're talking about revenue recognition with forecasting. So we're closing out the books, but then we're talking to the client about proper revenue recognition. I don't know if we've ever ran into a client that actually does revenue recognition correctly, have we?

Jamie Nau: Larger clients, definitely no at the controllership level. I think there's been some pretty large clients that have come to us. But no, for the majority of the time, even if they think they're doing revenue recognition properly, they're not.

Adam Hale: Right. So we all know there's millions of ways to mess up how to do revenue recognition. But regardless, in order for us to do any kind of forecasting, we need to make sure revenues in the right spot and it's in the right month, you know, that kind of thing. So that's kind of our focus, just closing out the books with the revenue recognition and then using that revenue recognition to project, or change our projections going forward, because we know what we planned for the prior month. We can talk about that quickly after the month closed, we will re-adjust the forecast, re-adjust the plan. So there's a little bit of shaping and molding the forecast that can happen in that controllership meeting. Then the second meeting is going to be the financial performance review meeting. So forecasting meeting, which includes the revenue recognition. Then the second meeting is more of the financial performance review.

Jamie Nau: That first meeting is key to the controllership service. So kind of what Adam talked about earlier is, you know, it's really hard for us to do the financial statement review, not that we don't do it, but it's hard for us to do that review if we don't have the forecasting. So it's a very natural next step up in services. We are doing your financial statements for you. But wouldn't it be nice to have an expectation of what the next six months are going to look like? So it's really an easy process to move someone from that transactional service, to that controllership service, but also talk about what it means, because forecasting really is that consulting services that a lot of clients aren’t getting.

Adam Hale: Yeah, and so my favorite subject, which is leverage, this type of service is also where a lot of our clients start using us to help manage cash flow. In some instances we will pay bills, that kind of thing. But typically we're forecasting for short term cash flow, like 13 weeks out, getting real granular with who owes us money, who owe, timing, making sure there's no business interruptions due to poor cash flow. So this is where the other person on our team, so not the CFO, is going to lead a 15 minute to 30 minute call with somebody on the client's team. So if they have an internal accountant hat's doing all the bills, doing all the invoicing, that's the person we're going to meet with, and then we're going to give a summary to maybe the owner, or perhaps the owners in that meeting. Again, if it's a smaller company, maybe they have more of their hands into everything. But again, this should be primarily driven by the senior accountant and our position. You know, the accountant that's on the client relationship end, because they're the one reconciling the bank account, using the tools, putting together the cash flow. That is a weekly cadence. So we tell clients right away, the meeting is going to be 15 minutes to 30 minutes, depending upon questions, depending on how the works flow in at that time were planned. Now, it's also a great way to keep clients on their toes with their AR. I mean, how many clients do we have whenever you know, it's always like, how do I collect faster?

Jamie Nau: Yeah one of the first questions our clients ask, and it’s the reason they come to us, it’s our AR is getting too old and we need to figure out a way to manage that process better. So having that conversation in this meeting is very beneficial for that, because you can't get collect if you're not aware of it. An invoice getting close to that thirty days. You know, it's better to be ahead of it and say, we're getting close to that due date. Let's make sure we keep an eye on it as opposed to, now it’s up to 60 days and we have now reached out to him yet. So that just having that weekly conversation keeps them on their toes.

Adam Hale: Absolutely. And lets them see the impact like, hey, we're not going to be able to make payroll in two weeks if we don't get X, Y and Z in. So by having that conversation it’s super helpful. Then what it also does, this is kind of the internal cheat, is it gets our team super familiar with the details. So we all of a sudden know who Jamie is. We know who Adam is, we know who's Summit is, and we know where all these different expenses are because we're having conversations about them. So whenever we go to do our month and close, it makes the process way faster, because if things are miscategorized by their internal team, whatever we can see, that we know it doesn't belong in office supplies. You know, we know it belongs in professional fees, or whatever that is. So I think that insight for me as well as is another reason why I push that service. And then, of course, the client gets to clean stuff up too.

Jamie Nau: Yeah and one last benefit too, is that for our senior accountants, it gives them training and work. We're talking with the client. We don't want accountants to come to work at Summit and just be in a backroom, plugging away at numbers. We want our accountants to be people-people, and be able to get in front of clients and talk to them. If they're talking in these meetings, if they see something during the other meetings that I'm running, or a CFO is running, they are not going to be afraid to speak up because they're used to talking to the client. They have that familiar voice with the client. They can say hey, one thing I was thinking about is this, and to have that partner, as opposed to just someone doing work for you and a CFO meeting, goes a long way.

Adam Hale: Yeah, exactly. It's just about cleaning things up as you go, because it's also an opportunity to, you know, throughout the week, if there's weird things that people are throwing to ask my accountant or ask my client, that's our opportunity to hit it in real time and get it shifted over. So that meeting is pretty essential. So we sell that with our controllership service, a little bit more than 50 percent of the time. So that's a pretty big meeting for us again. So now we're talking about two meetings, or one meeting a week from the accountants role, and then every other week pretty much with the CFO. And you can actually, in some instances, move that revenue recognition meeting off of the CFO if you wanted to even leverage yourself a little bit better. And then the CFO really needs to pop in on that financial performance review. Now, you might have an internal meeting prior to that, of course, to get on the same page with the accountant so that you're not telling a different story than what they've been hearing and seeing because they're going to be closest to the information. I think that's super important to. The internal meeting.

Jamie Nau: Yeah, I agree. I think if you're going to give up the revenue recognition I think the big thing is understanding it, because obviously the most important number to most of our clients is, how did I do this month? And that's comes from revenue. So if, you know, they had four hundred thousand dollars in revenue, which you have no clue how accurate that is, or what customers cause that, or any of that stuff, then you really are going into the meeting blind. So it is really important to review that revenue recognition. Get your hands on it and make sure that it's reasonable, and makes sense because the last thing you want to do is say hey, you booked $400000 this month, and then two months later find out the senior accountant was making a mistake, or data is coming in wrong, and that $400000 a month is actually only $200. And you have to go back and fix it two months later, which is just never fun conversation to have.

Adam Hale: Yeah, which is where the KPIs come in, because that revenue recognition is probably going to have a lot of hands, and some of the KPIs as well. So really, if you don't get that part right, it's going to get super messy. But I do think that regardless of whether you're in that meeting or not, it's really good to have that closed meeting internally with your other person, because, again, they're going to have conversations with the client that you don't have. They're going to be handling communication that you don't see, vice versa as well for the client. This is your opportunity also to loop in the accounting on bigger picture stuff and let them know. That way they can have their eyes and ears open whenever that stuff does come across their desk.

Jamie Nau: And I think that's a huge part of leverage. If I'm not going to attend all the meetings, and the seniors not going to attend all the meetings, we still have to communicate with each other. You know, maybe the client made an off comment about, oh, we're thinking about adding this new product going forward, and we had a little conversation about it, and the senior never hears that, and then two months later, they start doing it. Then seniors is like, oh I haven’t heard about this before. That looks that looks pretty bad on us as a client provider. So it's important just to have those conversations and say hey, what did you talk about with the client this week? This is something I heard, and just kind of have that touch base so you are aware of those things as well. You want to make sure you look like a team, even if you’re trying to leverage each other as much as possible.

Adam Hale: Yeah, and I would also say, on the casual call, it's not that the CFO can never be in that that call because the CFO can cover for the accounting if they need to. Also, if there's really bad cash flow stuff, and you got to do some gaming of where things are going to be, sometimes that's a good opportunity for the CFO to kind of add weight to that conversation to help clarify direction, calm nerves, and make sure everything's going great as well.

Jamie Nau: Yeah I definitely agree with that. So we talked about the transactional services. We talked about the controller level services. So let's bump it up one more level. So what does the Virtual CFO meeting schedule look like?

Adam Hale: Yeah. So this is whenever we're talking about typically one to two meetings a week. So the cash flow, let's still just assume that we're doing cash flow first. Virtual CFO client, that's that separate weekly call, we already covered that. Now, on the Virtual CFO side, we typically like to create a leadership call. So that's kind of, you know, back to your original point, what's this thing look like? You know, we used to call it just a weekly meeting. Now we call it the leadership meeting. The leadership meeting takes a couple different forms. If the client has a pretty big internal executive team, then we can join that call. We can update the first few minutes on the cash flow, you know, if everybody's privy to that kind of information, or we can give some kind of other dashboard or report, you know, during the Virtual CFO time. So maybe we have five, or ten minutes carved out to do a little one off conversation in that weekly meeting. For clients where they're a little bit smaller, we will typically come up with the agenda for each one of those things. So we'll have a biz dev call where we want to talk pipeline, and see how the sales are going, and just gut check the forecast. Make sure that we're holding the salesperson accountable. We'll have another meeting where it might just be dedicated to again, the revenue recognition. That might be another call where we're talking about some forecasting. Then we might have a more formal forecasting call with different people on the team. Then we'll have our performance review meeting. You know, there's a couple of those other side meetings that have to happen.

Jamie Nau: I think this is where we get a little bit snow flaky sometimes occasionally for our Virtual CFO clients, because they are our highest paying clients, and they are our lifetime and largest customers. So like you said, some clients might want you to run a business development meeting where you're running in the pipeline, you're doing all that calculation. Some clients may already have that covered, but they still want to have a meeting about something else. One of the meetings I'll have is a project meeting, or we're just touching base about what are the active projects we're working on, because everybody's had those clients where they're constantly throwing stuff at you. Oh, we need you to build this for us, and you billed this for us we now have this question. And if you don't have that meeting, where you just update the status on those projects, you're going to miss out on it. So you this is where you read the client and figure out what their biggest needs are. That kind of fills that fourth meeting oftentimes. What makes the most sense for this client? Oftentimes if they are already having a leadership meeting where they're talking and they have a great agenda, sometimes it's just you attending that meeting and listening, and throwing your two cents in at the end, or having your dashboard that you report on. So this is where we do get a little bit of unique to the client based on their needs because they are that highest level of service.

Adam Hale: Yeah, I would say, though, it still comes back to the need for the agenda. Like you said, some of our clients have a very tight agenda. A lot of them follow that, you know, the level 10 EOS kind of structure to where it's very structured. Then others are a little bit loose, and maybe we run a couple of the meetings per month, that kind of thing. It's also a great way to get sticky with other people on the team as well if they don't have that leadership team, because then you can find out who the other key players are on the team, and maybe have a one-on-one with them to kind of talk through their part of the budget or the forecast, that kind of thing as well.

Jamie Nau: There's a large benefit to that. You know, I think that Adams used the word stickiness. But the big thing is, if the client's evaluating their budget and they're looking at all their costs, you want as many people going to bat for you as possible. You want the marketing guys to say, I can't live without that Summit meeting. You went the CEO saying the same things. The more people you have going to bat for you, the easier you're going to be, that cost they need to have when times are tough. That's usually, when you say the word stickiness, that's usually what I hear.

Adam Hale: No absolutely. Then of course, you know, whenever it comes to financial statement time, we will lead that meeting as well. But if they do have a leadership team, it might be an abbreviated executive summary. So sometimes you might have to split that meeting out between like just the owner, where you get super granular and talk about everything. And then other times you might have more of a high level. So it is a little bit more custom. We always tell the clients, you know, between four and six meetings a month is what that typically looks like. We try to keep it to a weekly cadence. So it's typically just those four. But sometimes you have to have those spin out meetings, especially if they already have a very defined leadership team meeting, because then you will have to have a separate revenue recognition meeting, you know, that kind of thing.

Jamie Nau: And forecasting. Forecasting is always necessary. Sometimes those conversations are quick. You look and say, you know what? Nothing's changed this month, let's keep things rolling as they are. But sometimes that conversation can really go down a rabbit hole, and take a full hour where you're talking through some plan they're planning on implementing and say well, let's play it out. Let's see what happens. if you're 50 percent successful at it, let's play. You kind of go through the scenarios and that can take a little while. Sometimes, you know, the owner finds that really important. But, you know, all six other people in our leadership team are like okay, this is too much detail for me.

Adam Hale: Well I think you bring up a great point. I mean, nobody wants to be in a meeting where there's nothing to be said and you're just kind of fill in air. So I think that whenever you begin an engagement, explain to people that it's up to an hour, and we usually recommend by the way, 50 minutes. It's kind of like whenever you go to get a massage, you know, you get a one hour massage, you're only getting a 50 minute massage. Like, that's the reality of it because they need time to prep the room, go to the other part. You know what I mean? Like they need that in-between time. They can't stack every hour on top of one another, even though we're hopping in and out of virtual meetings. It's the same thing for us. You know, you've got to go to the bathroom, or you got to grab something, or maybe you have to review an email before you hop on a call with a client. You know, that kind of thing. So I highly recommend setting 50 minute meeting times rather than one hour. Make sure that you make that clear to the client at the beginning, even though it's on their calendar for 50 minutes, say, okay, we've got 50 minutes today, let's cover this, that and the other. And if they don't have a structure, look into EOS. Look into doing a level 10 meeting. I think that structure, we use it internally here at Summit, I think it works really well. You know, you can get off track a little bit, but, you know, you can always try to reel it back in with that kind of structure as well.

Jamie Nau: Yeah, no, I definitely agree with what you said there. So real quick, I want to throw our email address out there. So we want this show to obviously evolve, and we want to get your input as the listener. So if you have any questions, or recommendations on topics for us, please feel free to email us at: cpa@summitcpa.net We look really forward to hearing from you. So Adam, we're getting close to time here. Any final topics in this area of discussion that we didn't get to yet?

Adam Hale: No, I think we covered everything. Again, it's just about keeping it light, setting expectations and going with a regular cadence. Even if you have to move that time each week. Go ahead at the beginning of the relationship and say hey, we're going to meet Mondays at noon. I think that's super important. Say, this is what we're going to talk about during the call. Go ahead and put it right in the meeting invite, you know, what the agenda is going to be, or what the structure of the meetings going to be.  That will go a long way to making sure that you get in and out. And if the meeting only takes 10 or 15 minutes instead of an hour, make that clear. We're not here to fill the hour. We're here to solve this problem. If everything's good this week, it doesn't mean that I want to pass on a meeting. I would still like to talk to you for five minutes before we cut, because that regular cadence is going to be great. If you don't do that, what you'll find is you'll push meeting after meeting, after meeting after meeting, something will blow up and then we'll be like, well you never meet with me. You're not doing what you said you were going to do. So even if there's nothing to be said, show up, talk for five minutes. See how their day is going, talk about their kids. Doesn't really matter, Move on.

Jamie Nau: I think the two things that I would take away from this podcast is there's two pressures you feel when you get into this business. I think one of them is to Adam's point, you're going to want to fill the time, and that's a big mistake. Again, if you have topics, you don't want to rush through it. But if you've talked about everything you want to talk about, you can tell the client has talked about everything they want to talk about, just end the meeting. Don't try to fill the minutes and try to try to come up with stuff. That's the one thing, I think you feel a lot of pressure off when you move into the service. Now, a lot of your meetings will go the full hour, but that's fine. That that's good as well. But again, don't think you have to hold that full 50 minute meeting. And I think the second is the silver bullet. Adam mentioned this briefly, but I think that there was a long time at Summit where we were all talking about needing a silver bullet every time we talk with a client. You don't need a silver bullet. You don't need to be fixing their business every time you talk. You don't need to come into every meeting where they say, wow, Jamie just changed our whole life with this one meeting. That's not the point of our business. The point of our business is to have a structure. To provide services that are important to them. Don't feel like you have to come to every meeting with this great idea that they never heard of before.

Adam Hale: Yeah, because businesses, when you're running a business, it's like you're on a huge ship. You're not in a race car. You're not going to be able to go left and right really super-fast. For us, it's just about being that center of gravity for the client. The North Star is what we talk about all the time. Every Monday at noon, we're having a conversation. If you have questions, I'm going to be able to give you my advice. We're going to be able to work through problems to those kind of things. If you can do that for the client, that's the true value add. It's not coming and telling them, oh hey, you've been running a successful business for the last 10 years, you totally missed these five things and I'm going to show them to you. Otherwise, we would just charge an absolute fortune with those, hand them over, and we wouldn't be talking about all this other nonsense. That's just not the reality. 

Jamie Nau: For sure. I think that's a lot of times when clients come to us, the number one thing they're coming to us for is consistency. Like a lot of times they know what the financial numbers look for look like, but they haven’t looked at them in six months. So the fact that you're doing these things every month routinely, and they're never going to be missed, is what they're looking for when they come to come to you with these services.

Adam Hale: And if they're not, tell them that's what they should be looking for. Sometimes you have to do a little bit of that, too. It's all about expectations for sure.

Jamie Nau: Well Adam, like I said, I think this was a good topic. Hopefully it calmed a lot of fears out there of people that are listening to this podcast thinking, I’d love to do CFO services, but there's no way that I can talk for four hours a week to all my clients. So hopefully this has calmed a little bit of those fears.


Structuring client meetings for success


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