When I think of resources for the financial planner, it makes me think of those that would create leverage, scale and profitability for a wealth-management business.
But after my 30 years of hanging around CPA financial planners, I've learned that many planners perceive their needs for resources as knowledge-based. Resources that demand attention include research on tax matters or mutual funds, or software that can enhance your ability to get the job done more quickly and accurately.
However, a seasoned financial planner's knowledge is not the only resource needed. It's impossible to know everything that there is to know about financial planning. The subject matter is too deep and complicated for complete mastery. I believe that it's more important to know where to get the knowledge needed on a particular issue when you need it. Sure, knowledge is important. It's one of the differentiating factors that CPAs have - a deep knowledge of many areas related to financial planning, such as taxation, fiscal control and organization. But greater knowledge isn't what makes the difference between a great planning business and a practice that also does some financial planning.
HOW THEY DIFFER
Always keep in mind that the financial planner role is different than the CPA role. As the CPA you are expected to be the subject matter expert. As the financial planner, you are expected to be the personal financial head coach or orchestra leader. As such, you should be accountable to see that any allied professional on the client's team is competent and doing their job well in helping your client achieve their goals and objectives.
The resources necessary to build a successful CPA financial planning practice or division can be broken down into categories. These categories would include knowledge, technology systems and processes, and time.
Beginning with knowledge, the CPA financial planner has a unique advantage over someone entering the financial planning profession from a financial sales career or a completely unrelated profession. From earning an accounting degree to the rigors of passing the CPA Exam, plus time in the trenches ticking and tying or doing tax returns - all serve to build one heck of a technical base. From there, however, it is not necessary to master every topic inside the financial planning process as you would your tax software.
In each area of the planning process, from risk management and insurance through estate planning, are professionals who devote their entire working lives to these topics. What makes you think that you could ever be as competent as one who devotes all of their time to a particular subject matter? It is best to surround yourself with subject matter experts who can deliver the knowledge and service that you need to successfully orchestrate a comprehensive planning solution for clients. The use of subject matter experts can be accomplished in one of two ways.
ASSEMBLING THE EXPERTS
One way to assemble subject matter experts is to house the expertise in your office. The office where the experts are all in house is frequently referred to as an ensemble office: an ensemble of professionals that are needed to orchestrate the complexities of your clients' financial life, all under one roof. This method is prohibitive, however, for the small practice or the start-up division of a larger CPA firm.
For smaller or newer practices, it is critical to assemble a team of experts from your local area or market niche. This is so important, yet rarely functional beyond mere referral relationships with allied professionals. Your collection of experts that are independent from your office is frequently referred to as a loose ensemble. And I believe that it is as important for your loose ensemble to perform as well together as the Boston Symphony. This sometimes happens by accident, simply by working together for years, but it can also happen on purpose and relatively fast if you develop the system for exactly how the team will interact, communicate and service client needs.
I advise a simple agreement or a terms-of-engagement memo that outlines each party's responsibilities to each other. Examples of the responsibilities outlined in this agreement would include copying each other on all correspondence, the introduction of additional experts, or invitations to and/or debriefings from all client meetings. A great team wins championships and the hearts of clients. Financial planning is not an individual sport.
IT BEGINS WITH CRM
Technology would be the next big category of resources that can help make a good financial planning business great. There is far more to the required technology resources than simply your choice of financial planning software. Examples of the technology needed beyond financial planning software are CRM, paperless archiving, aggregation software, and client-facing portals and Web sites.
Your CRM system could be customized to be the backbone of your planning division. Having a system that reminds you to call clients or set meetings will once again differentiate you from the average financial planner. After all, the No. 1 complaint of dissatisfied clients is that their advisor reaches out to them too rarely.
A good CRM system will also manage your marketing and communications plan. Are you chuckling yet? I haven't seen many CPA firms that even have a marketing and communications plan. Yet for those that do, their clients know about the firm's planning capabilities and that the firm wants to do that work for them. Those without a marketing and communications plan hear this line from clients almost daily: "I didn't know that you could do that for me."
The paperwork burdens from compliance and the complexities of the planning process drive every advisor crazy. A paperless imaging and archiving system will ease much of this burden. Paperless for financial planning isn't quite as advanced as it is for tax practice, but you can buy systems that offer automated application filling, straight through-processing to custodians or other vendors, and compliance-approved archiving.
Technology resources for your clients are also important. As a small practice, competitive forces dictate that your technology looks as good as that of the behemoth direct marketers. That would include a Web site for your practice that does more than offer electronic brochures of your firm. It should include a portal that allows them to look at holdings and even a way for them to get access to important documents, such as wills and insurance policies, that you can archive for them. I like client-facing systems that have a two-way mirror, allowing the advisor, the client, or one or more of your subject matter experts to also access the system.
TYING IT ALL TOGETHER
The last category of resources necessary to build a great wealth management practice would be systems and processes. Most CPAs have terrific systems and processes for their accounting practice. You have engagement checklists, routing sheets or online workflow, and levels of review to ensure quality control. These systems were probably built after years of testing in the trenches.
But for financial planning engagements, scalable systems and processes are very rare in CPA firms. Even though financial planning is a relatively new area of service for the profession, there is no excuse for having undocumented systems and processes for everything from client engagements to quality control. We already mentioned that all of this can be created and implemented through your CRM system. Good systems and processes can help to ensure consistency and completeness of client engagements.
Having a scalable, documented system for the delivery of advice will add efficiency and streamline your delivery process. Many financial planners find the actual planning part of the engagement to be very time-consuming.
There is no need to create financial planning systems and processes from scratch. But understand that acquiring good systems and processes is rarely 100 percent turnkey. You can acquire great systems from several of the industries' coaching programs, a broker-dealer, or software vendors. The systems and processes that you develop for financial planning should be customized to be consistent in look and feel with the systems and processes that your clients are accustomed to from the accounting side of the practice.
As a slave to time reports for generations, CPAs know the value of time in a professional practice. But for financial planning professionals, time means more than tracking and an hourly billing rate. It starts with making the time to develop the planning side of the business. Without exception, you'll first need to carve time out for the financial planning division every week to make it successful. CPA planners whose planning division isn't growing are probably getting drawn back into the accounting side of the business to the detriment of the financial planning division.
Acquiring the best resources in each categories does not have to be expensive. You can partner with other firms to get many of the resources you need. Schedule your financial planning time into your calendar for each week and respect that appointment.
If you don't know where to start, start by investing your time in a business plan. A great business always starts with a clear vision of what you'd like to do, who you want to serve and an understanding of how you will find the clients to do it for - except in your case, you already have the clients to serve. It's merely a matter of letting them know that you're open for business.
John P. Napolitano, CFP, CPA, is chairman and CEO of U.S. Wealth Management, a Braintree, Mass.-based financial services company.
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