More than most accounting professionals, CPA financial planners delve into the intimate details of their clients’ lives. For a financial planning engagement to be successful, customers must actually make themselves vulnerable – sharing their personal and financial habits, of course, but also their hopes, dreams, and goals.
The first planning meeting is therefore a crucial point in any successful financial planning relationship. Seasoned CPA financial planners share best practices to help you establish yourself as a trusted advisor and ensure a successful and productive engagement.
Make it easy for your customers. Your customers need to feel comfortable sharing with you so that you can add real value. For Susan Tillery, CPA / PFS, President of Paraklete Financial Inc. in Atlanta, one of the primary goals of the initial consultation is the comfort of her clients. She neglects to even look at her financial documents until she talks to them at length about her life. “If I can spend an hour learning more about my clients and getting them to share, I think it’s a very successful meeting,” said Tillery.
Benjamin Dorsey, CPA / PFS, Director of Tax Strategy at Cassaday & Company in McLean, Virginia, also structures the initial consultation so that his clients feel relaxed. “I try to keep things as informal as possible and not clutter them with charts and graphs,” said Dorsey. “The first meeting is about building trust.”
Dorsey enjoys reading his clients’ previous experiences working with financial planning professionals. “I ask them whether they have had a history of working with accountants, insurance professionals or financial advisors, and whether or not the relationship has been fruitful,” he said. Dorsey believes that once he has a handle on his clients’ financial planning history, he can more effectively determine the best course of action.
Take their financial temperature. Once you’ve successfully encouraged your clients to open up about their financial lives, it’s time to dive into their documentation. Thomas Tillery, Vice President of Paraklete Financial, presents prospective customers with a “shopping list” of financial documents. Customers are expected to bring 15 to 20 separate returns including tax returns, bank statements, and estate documents. He then reviews the information to gain an understanding of a customer’s financial base and identify their most pressing financial problem, or what he calls a “triage” event.
Often times, the triage event they identified isn’t the reason the client originally arranged the meeting. For example, he often finds that his clients do not have an appropriate estate plan. “Often times the client wants to discuss their investment portfolio, but I have to tell them to set up a revocable trust first,” he said.
Adjust their expectations. CPAs need to be clear about their approach to financial planning and what the customer can expect from the relationship. New and prospective clients need to understand that the client and CPA need to work together as a team to identify and achieve the client’s goals.
Often times, your approach can be different from what the customer originally envisioned. “Clients pay me to be a lawyer and educator, not a yes man,” said Thomas Tillery. He makes sure prospects know that assignments span at least eight to ten sessions, and that financial plans always require some degree of change as they go.
Dorsey also finds that he often has to change his customers’ expectations. At the first meeting, Dorsey makes it clear to his client that his approach is geared towards building a long-term, stable portfolio with a focus on allocation. “I advise my clients against investing too much in the latest trend, be it cryptocurrency or something else,” explained Dorsey. “For me it’s about hitting consistent singles and doubles instead of swinging after the home run.”
Determine if they are suitable for your practice. It is important that your client aligns with your financial planning philosophy and approach. Thomas Tillery does this by having “high expectations of the customer as a participant in the financial planning process” and emphasizing that he is jointly responsible for its success. He alerts clients that unexpected events can occur during the assignment, such as an economic recession or company failure, that could affect the process. He also lets them know that it is his job to impart the knowledge they need to “enter into a sensible dialogue with their advisors” and “arrive at concrete solutions”.
Some interested parties find this approach is not for them. In fact, Thomas Tillery notes that most of the prospects he has contact with never get around to signing an engagement letter. “We find that many of those who come through 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 company.
Susan Tillery emphasized the importance of maintaining a robust network of professionals to whom customers and prospects can be referred. In one case, she discovered that a prospect, an employer, was experiencing significant ERISA problems. She referred the client to a trusted lawyer and advised her to prioritize solving these issues. “The attorney was able to deal with the ERISA issues, after which I met again with the client and began a productive relationship,” said Tillery.
The sensitivity of personal financial planning requires a high level of interpersonal and professional competence. Be careful and sincere at the initial planning meeting to get your relationship with prospects off to a good start.
Susan Tillery and Thomas Tillery will speak online and live at the Building Your Tax & Financial Planning Advisory Business Workshop from July 24-25 prior to AICPA & CIMA ENGAGE 2021 in Las Vegas.
AICPA & CIMA ENGAGE 2021, the premier event for accounting and finance professionals, will be a hybrid event this year. Join us July 26-29 at the Aria Resort and Casino in Las Vegas or online for keynotes and sessions on accounting and auditing; VAT; Technology; Guide; personal financial planning; Diversity, equity and inclusion; and more.
– Joshua Wiesenfeld, CPA, is a financial investigator at Labaton Sucharow LLP. To comment on this article, contact Courtney Vien, a senior editor at JofA, at [email protected]