One of the best business development moves you can make is to hold formal meetings with a small group of your very best clients, allowing you to seek their advice and insights about your practice.

These meetings can add real value to your business, because they’re an opportunity for you to hear what you are doing well and where you need to improve — from the most important people you serve. Your top clients are more likely to participate in these meetings than you may think, because they have a vested interest in helping you continue to offer them the best experience and solutions.

One elite advisor we work with — Koel Loyer of Stonegate Private Counsel in Toronto — has been very successful at getting feedback from client board meetings, which he holds three times a year.

We gathered some suggestions from him, as well as our own recommendations; these tips should help other advisors conduct similar meetings to get great insights and actionable results.

SMART AGENDA

First, create an overall structure for your meetings by setting an agenda. Almost any challenge you are facing or any opportunity you want to pursue is fair game, but your issues will most likely be concentrated in a couple of areas: marketing and business development and the client experience.

The former could include a discussion of prospecting challenges, a request for feedback on a new series of workshops you’re trying to develop, or how to best find and work with teams of outside experts on clients’ advanced planning needs. Client experience concerns, meanwhile, could include communicating more effectively during volatile markets, enhancing your investment strategy or launching a new service offering.

Loyer, for instance, says one debate revolved around sending clients birthday e-cards instead of mailing paper cards (turns out his clients really do value those handwritten cards); another focused on whether to use a new technology tool during quarterly meetings to help clients assess their progress toward goals.

On the business development side, the group has helped him determine how to structure and run seminars and social events designed to attract new prospective clients; the panel also helped him refine his preferred client profile, taking it from a largely quantitative description to one that includes personality traits — such as being family oriented and interested in travel. “They helped me hone in on who we are ideally suited to work with,” says Loyer.

You’ll also want to select an appropriate location. Successful sessions tend to be conducted in a large boardroom at a private club or at the advisor’s office, or perhaps the function room of an upscale restaurant. Loyer conducts highly formal and structured meetings in his own boardroom. Formal agendas are sent to participants well in advance of the meeting, along with any tools or resources that will be discussed.

“The meetings are more effective by being formal, versus trying to talk about issues over lunch or dinner. It keeps us focused and efficient,” he says. “My members are busy business owners and clients. The way I see it, they are doing this as a favor to me, so I try not to abuse their time.”

CREATE STRUCTURE

Create a defined process for the meetings so they run smoothly and effectively, and enlist staff or other team members to take care of tasks like setup and emails to the group. Some advisors hire professional facilitators to run their meetings so that they can stay focused on the discussion among the group members; Loyer has an assistant take detailed notes. 

I suggest using the following three-stage process for these meetings:

1. Review the “state of the practice.” Give an overview of current conditions at your firm. Inform participants of some of the successes to date, and provide some select financial data (like the number of client relationships, or current AUM) so they understand your practice’s overall position. Then tell participants where you want to take the firm — including any key targets and goals.

2. Present key topics and discuss. Introduce the major issues you want to discuss. You are looking for good insights and advice regarding key business challenges you need to address or important
business development opportunities that you want to capture. “We brainstorm ideas and then talk through them to arrive at action steps we want to take,” says Loyer.

3. Debrief and follow up. Close out the meeting by agreeing on two or three key action items that you will explore based on the group’s insights. Also ask what aspects of the meeting worked well and what could have worked better, so you can improve each future meeting. This last step is important for encouraging your clients to continue to participate.

Don’t worry if it’s tough to elicit comments immediately, by the way. “Our first meeting was hard because people didn’t know each other well and were shy to talk. But soon they were very willing to speak up,” says Loyer. “We also remind everyone at the start of each meeting that everything said is confidential, that it’s an open forum where they should feel free to express themselves candidly — with no judgment or repercussions.”

After each meeting, review and evaluate the results with members of your internal team. Between meetings, keep your client-participants informed of action steps you’ve taken as a result of their ideas and advice — either formally, with interim conference calls, or informally via ad hoc conversations.

SUCCESS TIPS

Keep in mind a few key points that will make your meetings especially effective in both the short and long term:

  • Listen, don’t sell. These meetings are not the appropriate forums for you to ask clients for referrals or additional assets to manage. These clients expect to be treated as valuable resources who are there for their insightful comments; they will not appreciate it if you make them feel like sales targets. Your primary job is to listen to what they have to say to you.
  • Reward participants. “We hold quarterly wine dinners that cost $100 per person, as well as other events over the course of a year. We never charge our members or their spouses, as a reward and thank you for their help,” Loyer says. “It’s a little thing, but it encourages them to stick around and continue to help, and it helps them bond and know each other by ensuring that they will be at the events together.”
  • Be organized. Nothing sinks a meeting faster than unclear objectives and a lack of structure. Your top clients are important people who are most likely extremely busy. They have agreed to spend time and energy to help you build a great practice. Don’t repay them by conducting rambling, unfocused meetings that go nowhere and waste time.
  • Don’t wait to be perfect. As with many initiatives, advisors may want to hold off on conducting meetings until they feel perfectly prepared and know with certainty how the meetings will go. If you wait to get the whole thing perfect, though, you’ll never do it at all. Instead, be willing to move forward even if you’re not 100% sure. Just be up front about it. 

“I didn’t know what I was doing at first, and I told the members that,” Loyer says. “I said, ‘I have never done this before but I’m so grateful you are here and let’s see what we can accomplish together.’ ”
Strategy sessions that include direct client input can help you understand your clients’ evolving needs and concerns, provide them with a truly exceptional experience, generate rock-solid client loyalty, capture new opportunities for growth and differentiate yourself from your peers.

Make sure you can fully leverage the experiences, knowledge, connections and insights of your most valuable assets: your top clients.

John J. Bowen Jr., a Financial Planning columnist, is founder and CEO of CEG Worldwide, a global training, research and consulting firm for advisors in San Martin, Calif.

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