Every financial professional has their own vision of what makes a great financial planner. and in our CPA financial planner space, practitioners humbly define themselves as great because of their knowledge and years of experience. CPAs are among the best educated and smartest financial planners that i've worked with in my 30 years as a CPA financial planner. of course these are very important factors, but it isn't the only thing that clients will speak of when asked to define what they like about you. i learned this the hard way.

Early in 2013, my firm spent hundreds of thousands of dollars with a consulting firm conducting primary research with our best clients asking this exact question. Experience and knowledge was in the top ten reasons why they liked our advisors, but it was only one of about 25 reasons that surfaced. What I really learned with this process is that it doesn't really matter what I think makes a great financial planner. What matters is what your clients think makes you great. In our busy lives, little time is devoted to asking clients what they like about you and what more they'd like to see from you. Let me share what I learned.

As you define yourself as a financial planner with experience and knowledge, remember to talk about why these are advantages to your clients. Your access to rich sources of knowledge to answer a wide range of questions will give clients confidence that your advice is based on a long history of changing circumstances for clients just like them. Their ongoing benefit is the ability to call on you for just about any financial topic that may come up to guide them using language that they understand. When advice is dispensed using industry jargon and technical terms, clients get confused and may be less likely to make prudent decisions.

After my first decade as a planner, I began to study the most successful practitioners and found that people skills and building great relationships with clients were just as important as technical skills. Clients want to be served by someone that they know and someone who takes the time to get to know them. Clients want a planner who understands their family dynamics and someone who knows what they like to do when they're not at work. Utilizing a holistic life-planning approach to know your clients' dreams and vision will guide your advice and strengthen your client relationships. Frequently, the people with the great people skills are not the most technically competent, but that doesn't have to be a limiting factor. Clients understand that being a subject matter expert in all areas of law, taxation, investing and insurance is not possible. What they want is the confidence that you've assembled a team of experts that work together well.

 

GREAT TEAMS

Great financial planners know themselves well. These top performers know their strengths and weaknesses, and build teams to complement their strengths and to perform where the planner is weak. This is easy to see on the technical side, and most financial planners do a good job of letting their clients know what they do not do. For example, most planners do not practice law, and these great planners may still oversee client legal needs by having access to qualified legal counsel for any need that arises.

The same may be true for tax preparation, insurance or asset management. Some firms offer all of these services, and others refer subject matter experts outside of their firm. What is important to your clients is feeling that their interests are being served by top-level professionals, and that those services and products are being orchestrated so that each professional knows what the other is doing and the many moving parts work together in totality.

The team needed inside your office to serve the clients of a great financial planner is significant. While it doesn't take a huge staff to have a great financial planning office, it does take a great staff. Being a sole practitioner without adequate staff automatically disqualifies you as a great financial planner. Your work product may indeed be great, but there is more to it than the work that you personally can do today.

Clients expect you to behave in the same manner they are asked to behave in. And that includes a succession strategy to recognize that even you, the great financial planner, may get stricken with a dreaded disease or simply not wake up for breakfast one day. Clients also recognize that it isn't a great use of your time to fill out forms and perform the many administrative tasks associated with a great financial planning relationship. If you start talking about your succession plan with clients, and the people already assisting with client service are a part of that plan, your business will elevate to new levels. Another element of elevated service occurs when your clients begin to build significant relationships with your support staff.

 

NO SHORT CUTS

To be a great financial planner, you must actually deliver financial planning services. To me, there is a distinction between financial planning and wealth management. They both start with the six-step process defined in the CFP training, with no short cuts. If you wonder what topics or services should be included in the process of creating a comprehensive financial plan, just take a look at the PFP checklist offered to CPA PFS members through the American Institute of CPAs. The checklist is daunting with its dozens of pages and multiple checklists, but it is a terrific eye-opener to the subject matters requiring attention during the financial planning process. To be great, you must cover all of the subject matter included in the AICPA guide. The distinction between financial planning and wealth management lies in the nature of the relationship going forward.

If you are doing a financial plan as a one-time engagement, you should guide your client through the maze of their personal and business finances and advise on the entire array of subjects, goals and needs for that client. This advice and the document that you use to memorialize the advice may be valid at the time of delivery, but it can change very fast. It is entirely possible that your advice needs updating the next day, month or one year later. Stuff happens; economies, tax laws and personal situations change frequently, and the advice must adapt to accommodate these changing circumstances. As one engaged to prepare a financial plan, one could argue that you did your job with the planning engagement and have no obligation to advise your client beyond the completion of that plan unless re-engaged.

As a wealth manager, however, I believe that you are signed on for an ongoing, proactive and holistic relationship where you as the fiduciary do bear the burden of advising clients under changing circumstances. That means guiding clients through changing laws, economies and even personal or family changes. You can observe changing laws and economies simply by being in the trenches as a day-to-day financial planner, and proactively advise your client through these changes. The personal or family changes are not things that you would learn unless you have a regular dialogue and relationship with your clients. It is impossible to act in your clients' best interests if you are not very familiar with their personal objectives and have the methodology built into your service model to stay on top of changing personal circumstances. A plan for communicating and documenting those communications can help to know your clients better.

One of the top reasons why clients change financial planners is a lack of communication. A great financial planner will discover how frequently a client wants to see or hear from them, and then meet or exceed that objective. There are many different schools of thought regarding how much communication is enough. That's why great planners will ask the client what satisfies their needs to communicate with you. At a minimum, "A" clients should be spoken with at least monthly, with face-to-face meetings as frequent as quarterly. For longer-standing relationships, quarterly face-to-face meetings may turn out to be too frequent and ebb somewhat over time, but it is better to have too many meetings than not enough. Great planners also make it clear to clients that they can call you any time, including nights and weekends using your cell phone. Important events don't always happen between 9 and 5.

 

PERSONAL TOUCHES

Beyond meetings and personal calls, there are other methods of communication frequently employed by great financial planners. My planning team sends a brief weekly newsletter. What started as a weekly market report has morphed into a personal touch point where clients get to know the members of my team personally by sharing personal stories of their hobbies, families and insights. Frankly, I'm quite surprised at the numerous comments and replies that we get about the personal information when compared to the weekly letter focused on markets and planning. We also send out quarterly performance reports and unique articles or links that we believe will be of interest to a specific client.

Social media is coming on strong as another method of communicating with clients. It may be through LinkedIn, where a client can see your professional image and your interactions with other professionals, or Facebook, where you may share more personal information of interest to clients. Many advisors do not embrace social media, but more are hopping on board each day. Research has shown that the buying habits of wealthy clients include using the Internet and social media to "check out" their potential service provider many times before actually calling. Not having an Internet presence with a good Web site and social media presence will make it harder for your ideal clients to find you.

A final defining characteristic of a great financial planner is their ability to be a great head coach. Are you able to coordinate the efforts of all of the professionals needed to support your clients' financial situation and all they want to accomplish? Eliminating fractured advice that clients may receive and coordinating everything may actually prevent things from falling through the cracks. Common tasks that fall between the cracks include titles to assets not changing in accordance with the estate plan, reviewing the performance of life insurance policies, making loans to family members or having outdated valuation formula's in buy-sell agreements.

Being great is not easy. There's only one World Series champion, only one president of the United States, and only one principal of your local high school. If you strive to be a great financial planner, you will be the last and only financial planner that your client will ever have.

For more on what makes a great financial planner, see our interview with John in ATTV.

John P. Napolitano, CFP, CPA, PFS, is CEO of U. S. Wealth Management (www.uswealthmanagement.com) in Braintree, Mass. Reach him at (781) 849-9200.

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