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accountant discussing terms of engagement with new client

How to ensure a potential client is a good fit

The initial consultation is an important part of the client onboarding process. This is where you meet the client, get a feel for the type of relationship you will have with them, and set the terms of engagement. It can take years to hone and refine the client onboarding process. Below are some tips to help you ensure a potential client is a good fit, starting with the initial consultation.

Before meeting with a client for the first time, you want to already feel confident that this new relationship has the potential of being a good fit. Whether this be through a new client questionnaire, an initial meeting, or whatever works for you, it’s important to have a consistent process to vet clients. This will save you time down the line.

Introductions and meeting purpose

Set the stage for the conversation, and establish yourself as the facilitator of the meeting. Introduce yourself and your team, and let the client know that the purpose of today’s meeting is to get to know each other a bit better, establish a rapport, and ensure that this relationship is going to be a great fit for both sides. Make sure that the client knows that this is not the time to go over their books and get work done; there will be plenty of time for that once you are moving forward with the relationship.

Learn about the client … be sure to listen

It is very important to make sure that the client feels heard from the very start. Try to listen and take notes without interjecting or offering solutions at this time. Be sure to ask:

  • What is the client’s company vision? What do they love about what they do? What are they working to accomplish?
  • What are their current pain points?
  • What are they looking for in a bookkeeping/accounting/advisory/coaching relationship?
  • Who else is on their team?

*Special story #1 – When asking who is on the client’s team, Ingrid Edstrom - founder of ‘Priestess of Profit’, likes to use the analogy that the client is the coach of the soccer team, and they are one of the players on the field playing for them to win. It is their job to empower them to lead the client business and the team, and part of that includes knowing who else they are playing with. As a strategy consulting firm, they need to know if they have a tax preparer, financial advisor, business coach, bookkeeper and so many more important roles. Does the client have a key employee that the team at Priestess of Profit may be working with closely? This way, they can “pass the ball” to the appropriate person when the need arises, or see when there is a hole in the client's defense and recommend a colleague who can help.

Make a resources folder and share it with clients

Now that you’ve heard a bit about the client, it’s time to offer them a bit more information about your team and your firm. Make sure that the client doesn’t leave the meeting empty handed, you could put together a resources folder for them that acted as a visual aid for this part of the conversation. Now, this process is virtual, sending them links to resources and surveys via email.

You could start by beginning with a “Who’s on Your Team” worksheet and then share the items below. (When meeting with a client remotely, you could send them these forms as attachments in advance.)

  • About Us – Go over your firm’s Vision, Mission, and Purpose with the client. Show them that having a relationship with them is more than just a job to your team, and that this is a big part of what makes you Trusted Advisors. 
  • Our Team – This worksheet should show your full team at the firm, including photos and brief bios. This way the client can put a face to the name of each person they might ever speak to. It also discourages “imprinting,” which is when the client forms an attachment to a single team member and will not talk to anyone else.
  • Client Rights and Responsibilities – Have a written document that clearly defines what the client can expect from you, as well as what you expect from them. Offer this printed out in their packet during the initial consultation, have it available to view on your website, and be sure to reference it as an addendum in your service agreement. This will establish your relationship as a two-way street, where both parties hold the other accountable. 
  • The Roadmap – Remove the fear of the unknown by showing the client the step-by-step timeline of what your developing relationship will look like over the next several months. This will remove pressure and miscommunication while also opening the conversation to discussion about potential important deadlines and extenuating circumstances that could affect your plans together. 
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Next steps: the Discovery phase

If everything in your conversation has been going well so far, you can now begin the planning process with the client to begin the relationship. This is sometimes known the Discovery phase. There are a few important pieces to emphasise here:

No changes are made to the client’s books during the discovery period; it is research and review. This is what helps you create a clear starting place and be able to price the project from an educated perspective rather than taking a guess.

The Discovery Phase is a valuable service, and it needs to be priced as such. To make it easier, use a checklist and give the client a Discovery Report at the end of this phase, complete with recommendations for next steps.

Be sure to give yourself enough time to really do the Discovery Phase justice. You could schedule Discovery for the calendar month following the month in which you are first meeting. If the client is in a hurry, then you can discuss with them how their expedited timeline may alter the flow of your work and the price of the engagement.

This is when you would set the price for the Discovery phase. Generally by this time you have an idea of how much of a mess you may be walking into. Keep in mind that, while no changes are being made to the books, you are working to document all of the issues you can find to help eliminate surprises as you move forward with the relationship. Vary your pricing depending on the client’s size, complexity, and potential mess.

*Special story #2 – When discussing the Discovery price, this is when the client will often ask what the monthly maintenance is going to cost them down the line. Ingrid Edstrom’s favorite analogy to give them is Housekeeping. Pretend that you want to hire someone to regularly clean your house, and you want to know how much it will cost each month. Now pretend that your house hasn’t been built yet. You don’t know how many rooms you have, which ones have carpet vs. hardwoods, or how much of the maintenance you are planning to do yourself. Do you do your own laundry and dishes, or is that expected of your housekeeper? Until they have a better understanding of what this is going to look like, there really isn’t a way to ballpark a price for the monthly maintenance.

That being said, it will set the client’s mind at ease to have even a wide ballpark. After sharing that analogy with them, let them know the pricing range they could be looking at from your minimum price to some of the higher figures.The important thing is to reassure them that the value you offer always exceeds the price. That will set their mind at ease, and show them that you are on their team.

The Un-Sell

Generally known as the “close.” This is when others would try to “seal the deal.” Before you do this, make sure that you know that this relationship is going to be a great fit for both sides. Don’t use any manipulative tactics or hard sales techniques. If you want to love the relationship, then make sure to lead with transparency and honesty. Try “the un-sell”

Ask yourself, are they a good fit right now? Are you sure YOU want to take on this relationship? There is no sense in wasting time for both parties if your gut is telling you “no.” It may come down to the client’s communication style, demeanor, or maybe the software they use isn’t your favorite. Whatever the case may be, if you’re not feeling stoked, you don’t have to work with them.

Ask yourself, are we a good fit for them right now? Maybe your workload and timeline is not a match for their needs. Maybe you don’t currently have the training in the apps they require. Maybe they would simply be better suited with someone else, and maybe you even know who that person is. If you are able to listen to their needs for an hour and wrap up the conversation with, “I think I may not be the best fit for you, but I know who is,” you get to be the hero in the eyes of that client as well as the other professional you refer them to.

Ask them how they are FEELING about the discussion today. Encourage them to be honest. Focus on connection and superb service, not the need to close. Understand that if it is not a fit for them, it is ultimately not a fit for you, either. This will help you release attachment to the outcome so that you don’t inadvertently make the client feel pressured.

If, and only if, both sides feel excited to move forward and comfortable that there is a clear understanding of price and expectations, this is when you ask, “Are you ready to sign a Discovery proposal for the price we discussed.” This is the fish or cut bait. Some potential clients are full speed ahead until it comes time to put money on the table, and then some true colors start to shine. This is important for you to know. If possible, get payment before beginning work.

Follow up immediately

If all signs are pointing to YES on both sides, use the momentum of that great interaction to make sure to get everything in writing as quickly as possible. Don’t wait for things to cool off, and definitely don’t give the client a reason to question your follow through. Endeavor to get the proposal out to the client either that day or the next, depending on the time of day. Follow up the proposal with an email thanking them for the opportunity to work with them and letting them know how excited you are. Use this opportunity to get everything in writing and reiterate the timeline. Encourage them to contact you with any questions, and remind them that you do need a signed proposal as soon as possible so that you can set aside the time needed for them in your calendar.

Believe it or not, with just a little bit of practice all of that can happen in a single one-hour conversation. This process can save your team quite a lot of time and headache. Only ever focus on the relationships that you are confident you will love.

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This article originally appeared on the Firm of the Future site by Ingrid Edstrom.