CPA INSIDER

Getting ready for the big sit-down with clients

CPAs review notes and listen closely, among other things, to get the most from annual meetings.
By Sarah Ovaska-Few

Meetings around tax filing deadlines are a regular chance to connect with clients, but they can be more than just a check-in. They're a prime way for accountants to glean information that can affect tax strategy or to let clients know about firm offerings that could benefit them or their business.

With so much on the line — from building client relationships to potentially discussing new services — it's a good idea to think ahead of time about how to structure and approach these meetings. Below, three experienced CPAs share their approaches to client meetings.

Take notes — and review them. The first step to a successful client meeting is knowing what's been going on in your clients' lives and businesses, said Amber Goering, CPA, CGMA, co-owner of Goering & Granatino, P.A. in Overland Park, Kan. 

She makes sure to review past client notes before any big meetings. In addition to her firm's policy of carrying forward detailed notes, firm team members also keep in regular contact with clients throughout the year, with the frequency of calls and other contact varying based on clients' needs.

Knowing more about their clients allows the firms' accountants to better advise and steer them toward beneficial tax strategies, Goering said.

"We're passionate about getting to know the client and their circumstances surrounding them," she said.

Understand your clients' situation. Having a good sense of his clients' needs helps Craig Franklin, CPA, anticipate what services his firm may have to benefit them. Franklin, owner of Craig Franklin, CPA, P.C. in San Antonio, Texas, draws most of his clients from three groups: health care practitioners, real-estate investors, and high-net-worth individuals.

Having that focus means he's been able to dive deep in the particulars of those fields and has a better understanding of what could best help his clients and their small businesses.

Then when he has those regular meetings, he can mention to his clients the type of services he's provided to others in similar scenarios. Those offerings include setting up salary payments or tax withholding structures for household help such as nannies and home health aides.

Franklin encourages his clients to talk to him before any major financial transactions, so he can look at potential tax liabilities and benefits and provide suggestions to structure arrangements advantageously. For his physician clients, he makes a direct comparison to their work: Just as doctors use all the information they can gather to make the best possible medical decisions for their patients, he's trying to give them the best advice he can on their financial picture.

"We want them to follow our advice and our processes too," Franklin said.

Try to meet in person. Rapport tends to build best when the annual meeting to prepare tax filings happens in person, said Craig Ballentine, CPA, a principal with Patterson, Hardee & Ballentine in Franklin, Tenn.

It's a chance to go over the numbers in person, but also to have conversations about related life issues that may have tax implications — like thinking about buying a vacation home or expanding the business to a second location. Those conversations don't always happen when people aren't in a room together, he said.

"Face-to-face is appreciated," he said. "It emphasizes our roles as trusted advisers."

If an in-person meeting isn't possible, he'll have a phone conversation or virtual meeting. Though the output is the same — he can go over all the issues he needs — he does feel that the interactions mean clients are less forthcoming than if he were sitting down with them in person.

Virtual firms have found they've been able to develop strong relationships with clients without meeting in person, and opting for videoconference calls over telephone calls can help solidify those relationships.

Use agendas wisely. CPAs have differing opinions and preferences on how they use agendas in their meetings. Figure out which way works best for your personal style, and make that a practice going forward.

Franklin, the San Antonio-based CPA, chooses not to hand out agendas for his in-person meetings until after the meeting is over. He finds that too many clients, when handed a piece of paper before a meeting, will focus on that, and it can bog down the flow of the meeting itself.

"I've noticed clients will start getting distracted," he said. Not having a paper copy in hand "helps everyone get focused."

Instead, he frequently displays a copy of the agenda on a screen on which he also can go through numbers and various financial scenarios with clients.

Ballentine, meanwhile, sends out a detailed agenda before the day of the meeting, so clients know what they'll be talking about and can bring related thoughts and ideas. He then shares copies of important documents at the meeting to aid discussions.

Determining what works best for your style, and that of your clients, will go a long way in helping you steer the meeting.

Highlight your offerings. Throughout the year, Goering's firm asks managers and partners to list services that might benefit each client. Those offerings are then brought up in the client meeting to see if added services might be advantageous.

"We want our team members to think proactively for the client," Goering said.

Her firm is creating targeted materials for new and high-value clients, with information about how the firm works, its offerings, and general tax and financial information. The goal is to showcase how the firm's various offerings can help different clients.

Listen to what clients say. It may seem obvious, but keeping a close ear to what clients are telling you can lead to needed insight as well as opportunities to introduce some new products that might help them, Ballentine said.

If a couple who own a small business mention that things are going well, but that they're keeping their books in Excel and working into the night to send out invoices, it could be a chance to mention that the firm can help with accounting services such as bookkeeping and invoicing, he said.

No matter what your approach is during regular meetings, take the time beforehand to refresh yourself on each client's needs and think through what may benefit them. It not only helps clients, but also it could help cement the practitioner-client relationship for years to come.

"Just take the time to do it right," Franklin said.

Sarah Ovaska-Few is a freelance writer based in North Carolina. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Chris Baysden, a JofA associate director, at Chris.Baysden@aicpa-cima.com.

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