More than most accounting professionals, CPA financial planners delve into the intimate details of their clients’ lives. In fact, for a financial planning engagement to be successful, clients must allow themselves to be vulnerable: to share their personal and financial habits, to be sure, but also their hopes, dreams, and goals.
The initial planning meeting is therefore a crucial time in any successful financial planning relationship. Experienced CPA financial planners share best practices to help you establish yourself as a trusted advisor and ensure a successful and productive engagement.
Make customers feel comfortable. Your customers need to feel comfortable sharing with you for you to deliver real value. For Susan Tillery, CPA/PFS, president of Paraklete Financial Inc. in Atlanta, putting her clients at ease is one of the main goals of the initial consultation. He refrains from even looking at their financial documents until he talks to them at length about their lives. “If I can spend an hour learning about my clients and getting them to share, I consider that a very successful meeting,” Tillery said.
Benjamin Dorsey, CPA/PFS, director of tax strategies at Cassaday & Company in McLean, Virginia, also structures the initial consultation to ensure his clients feel relaxed. “I try to keep things as casual as possible and avoid overloading them with charts and graphs,” Dorsey said. “The first meeting is about establishing trust.”
Dorsey enjoys reading about a client’s previous experience working with financial planning professionals. “I ask them if they have worked with CPAs, insurance professionals or financial advisors in the past, and whether or not the relationship was fruitful,” she said. Dorsey feels that once she has control over a client’s financial planning history, she can more effectively determine the best course of action.
Take your financial temperature. Once you’ve successfully encouraged your clients to open up about their financial lives, you can dive into your paperwork. Thomas Tillery, vice president of Paraklete Financial, issues prospective clients a “shopping list” of financial documents. Clients are expected to come in with 15 to 20 separate returns, including tax returns, bank statements, and estate documents. He then reviews the information to establish an understanding of a client’s financial situation and identify their most pressing financial problem, or what he calls the “triage” event.
Often the qualifying event you identify is not the reason the client initially arranged the meeting. For example, he frequently finds that his clients do not have a proper estate plan. “Often the client is eager to talk about his investment portfolio, but I have to tell them to set up a revocable trust first,” he said.
Adjust your expectations. CPAs need to be clear about their approach to financial planning and what the client can expect from the relationship. New and prospective clients should understand that the client and the CPA will need to work together as a team to identify and achieve the client’s goals.
Often your approach may be different from what the client had initially envisioned. “Clients pay me to be an advocate and educator, not a yes man,” said Thomas Tillery. He makes sure prospective clients know that commitments are at least eight to 10 meetings long and that financial plans always require some level of modification as they go along.
Dorsey also finds that he often has to modify a customer’s expectations. At the first meeting, Dorsey informs clients that Cassaday & Company’s focus is on building a stable long-term portfolio with a focus on allocation. “We discourage our clients from investing too heavily in the latest trend, whether it’s cryptocurrency or something else,” Dorsey explained. “For our team, it’s about hitting consistent singles and doubles instead of hitting for the home run.”
Determine if they are suitable for your practice. It is important that your client is aligned with your financial planning philosophy and approach. Thomas Tillery does this by setting “high expectations for the client as a participant in the financial planning process,” emphasizing that they share responsibility for its success. He advises clients that unexpected events can arise during the engagement, such as an economic downturn or a business failure, that can affect the process. He also lets them know that his job is to give them the knowledge they need to “enter into a reasoned dialogue with their advisers” and “arrive at specific solutions.”
Some prospects find that this approach is not right for them. In fact, Thomas Tillery finds that most of the prospects he connects with never get to the point of signing a letter of engagement. “We found that many who report for the initial consultation are better off working with a different type of professional,” he said. He estimates that 35% of referrals choose to work with his firm.
Susan Tillery emphasized the importance of maintaining a strong network of professionals to refer clients and prospects. In one case, she discovered that a prospective client, an employer, had significant problems with ERISA. She referred the client to a trusted attorney and advised him to prioritize resolving those issues. “The attorney was able to deal with the ERISA issues, at which point I met with the client again and began a productive relationship,” she Tillery said.
The sensitive nature of personal financial planning demands a great deal of interpersonal and technical skills. Take a thoughtful and candid approach to the initial planning meeting to get your relationship with potential clients off to a great start.
Susan Tillery and Thomas Tillery will speak at the Building Your Tax and Financial Planning Advisory Business Workshopperformed online and live in Las Vegas July 24-25, prior to AICPA and CIMA PARTICIPATE 2021.
AICPA and CIMA PARTICIPATE 2021, the premier event for accounting and finance professionals, will be a hybrid event this year. Join us at the Aria Resort and Casino in Las Vegas or online July 26-29 for lectures and sessions on accounting and auditing; tax; technology; leadership; personal financial planning; diversity, equity and inclusion; and more.
— Joshua Wiesenfeld, CPA, is a financial researcher at Labaton Sucharow LLP. To comment on this article, please contact Courtney Vien, a JofA main editor, in Courtney.Vien@aicpa-cima.com.