If you’re creating an annual plan for 2023 with your clients, you’re probably well underway. For some clients, this might be one meeting, and, for others, it could be a series.
Whether it takes one meeting or a series, your goal should be to re-strategize with each client for the next three to five years, not just the next 12 months. Really hone in on evaluating what the current year to date looks like for them and then realign on big-picture goals by acting as the facilitator. As you move through the process, here are three things that you should be doing right now.
Ask the Right Questions
Create a solid plan for next year and–as Adam Hale, Partner at Anders CPAs + Advisors, says–you can “gut check” any client questions, suggestions, or rogue ideas. But, before you can do that, you have to make sure you’re asking the right questions now so that when they come to you throughout the year (and they will come to you), you can refer back to the plan and keep the client aligned on the path to achieve business growth.
Some questions to ask:
- Are we still heading in this direction? Or should we pivot?
- What do we want to change going forward, if anything?
- What other things do we want to do now that we know more about than last year?
- If last year’s plan didn’t work out, what was wrong about our original assumptions?
- What tweaks do we need to make?
- Was last year’s plan too aggressive or did we set goals that were too lofty?
- What does our hiring plan look like?
- How many positions do you want to fill?
If you’ve done annual planning with this client before, you’ve got your baseline already. If this is a fairly new client and you haven’t gone through the annual planning process before, your baseline will be information from the onboarding and your monthly forecasting meetings.
Remember, you’re reviewing all the metrics and KPIs that you've already planned out in their forecast. Now you’re simply logic testing and goal setting–pushing back and asking the client to spend a little time thinking about how they're going to do things differently if they want to achieve (even) stronger results.
Make Sure the Process is Collaborative
The annual planning process needs to be collaborative: The plan is only useful insofar as you have the client’s buy-in and understanding, which is why it may take longer than just one meeting.
One way that I like to involve my clients with the planning process is to create different models and let the client play around with the metrics. I use a simple tool, like a G-sheet, and let them plug in different numbers and scenarios to see what the numbers would look like.
This kind of collaboration enhances our strategic ability to guide the client. As we work within these models, it becomes pretty easy initially to say, “Well here's three different ways you could do that.” And they can look at it and say, “I don't like that. Let's change these kinds of things about it.”
They’re not just looking at a paper copy of some numbers that I came up with; they are taking an active role in visualizing the outcomes. I like to call this process “financial wisdom transfer” because clients are taking ownership of the process and investing in their company’s financial future.
Encourage the owner not only to interact with the models with you but also make it a team effort. This is a great opportunity to bring departments together, such as operations, finance, personnel, and sales. Encourage your clients to ask specific questions from each department manager to anticipate their needs going into a new year and how those needs affect the plan.
For example, using the models, your client and their respective managers can look at metrics on revenue per employee to ask questions like: When should they hire? What roles/positions need to be filled? They can use placeholders so the model predicts when they need to hire.
After meeting with their team, meet with the client again and talk about efficiency. What metrics did they discover with the team? You can take those scenarios and plug them in the plan to discover what impact it might have on the business, allowing you to anticipate needs in the future and be more efficient in managing those needs.
When we set aside time to have strategic conversations, it helps our clients feel like we understand their business. We want them to view us as a member of their team, not as a vendor. Annual planning meetings help set the foundation for long-term relationships. Once you get to your second year with a client, you’ll see: they look forward to it.
That’s why, for most of my clients, I feel like when we talk about the annual plan, I'm already aligned with what their next year is going to look like, because I understand their future goals. When we meet in our monthly forecast meetings, I’m always using the annual plan as a point of reference for decision-making. With that data and context available, we have something to compare to their year-to-date performance that allows us to forecast more confidently.
If this is your first annual planning process with a new client, it’s a great time to invest in that relationship. When you start working with a new client, you have to make some assumptions about their business. But as you go through annual planning, you’re peeling back the layers and discovering new things that will make your future predictions more accurate.
In the early days with a client, there’s a greater chance someone is going to throw you a curveball–whether they decide they want to change course 180 degrees or shoot for a pie-in-the-sky target without the plan to back it up. Those are never fun conversations to have, but if you always keep in mind your role as a facilitator and walk them through the necessary steps they need to take to flesh out that plan, it’ll be a net positive for your relationship overall.
As you continue to meet with your clients to finalize their annual plans, remember that this meeting is the first step in the process for 2023. Don’t make it a standalone meeting once a year; build it into your service model and charge a premium for it. A lot of firms make this mistake. It’s hard to sell the value of the annual planning process to a client who hasn’t been through it, so as you pick up new clients, build the value into your pricing. This exercise shouldn’t be out of scope; it should be part of the plan, so structure your fees that way. The annual planning process will pay benefits throughout the entire year for you and your clients.