[IMGCAP(1)]As a young CPA interested in taxation and financial planning, I kept piling on the designations and the CPE to know as much as I could as a personal financial planner. This is how we CPAs are schooled — knowledge is power. But as I grew as a business owner and professional, I realized that knowledge is only power if you properly apply that knowledge.
Knowledge without the ability to understand your clients and coordinate the efforts of all the subject matter experts in your clients’ lives may in fact make you the sharpest tool in the shed — but one that is likely to remain unused season after season.
In the early 1980s, as I prepared for the American Institute of CPAs’ PFS exam, I recall reading in Chapter One of the PFP manual that a CPA needs good communication skills to succeed as a financial planner. At the time, I didn’t quite get it. The manual went on to say that a financial planner is frequently called upon to be the catalyst for the client to get them to do things that are in their best interests that they don’t really want to do. Whether it is their need to complete an estate plan, dot the i’s on their business succession plan or buy the insurance they need for their family or business, your clients love to procrastinate. But a great financial planner has to ask the right questions and be persuasive in the delivery of their advice and the execution of those recommendations.
Being a good communicator is imperative. When it comes to financial planning, the part of communication that is most important is your question-asking and listening skills. A great planner must come up with strategies that are born from the client’s perspective and feelings, not the planner’s. A planner can stand on their head and talk to a client about the benefits of diversification as it may relate to any one investment or the family business, but if the client insists on maintaining that sub-optimal allocation, it is the planner’s job to assess, document, and recommend a course of action factoring in the way a client wants to deal with the issue.
PICK YOUR CLIENTS
This leads us to a discussion of the types of clients that a planner is serving. To be great is one thing, but to be all things to all types of clients is nearly impossible. A planner should focus on the types of clients that they serve and want to serve, and build their skill set to enhance that service model. A great financial planner will decline to serve a client whose needs they cannot meet.
This cuts to both sides of the ideal client. For example, I deploy a robust, holistic and proactive planning service that is governed by a 20-plus-page checklist of areas to examine and offer advice. It takes more than 20 hours to complete this process for even a simple case. Therefore, it isn’t likely that smaller clients will engage with my team, as they don’t want to pay for that due diligence and probably do not need such an extensive effort to get the guidance that they need.
The opposite is also true. If a planner is working with smaller, simple cases and thinks that they can handle a very large, complicated case just because it walked through the door — good luck. It’s hard to be great when you are in unknown territory.
Client selection is even more critical if the planner has any singular subject matter expertise or industry specialization. If a planner comes from an investment background, with little knowledge or experience in matters of risk management, gaps may develop in the plan from the lack of knowledge about risk management. Similar issues may arise with an industry specialization. If your specialization is with traditional married or single families that are executives of companies, then a new client with multinational issues or a large business may expose the plan to matters that you didn’t even think about.
WORKING WITH A TEAM
A great planner is like the head coach of a professional sports team. That head coach knows just how important each assistant coach is to the team’s overall goals. The head coach’s job is to help chart the course of the team alongside team ownership, and then empower all assistant coaches to do what needs to be done with their area of specialty to accomplish those goals.
In your clients’ financial lives, there are many assistant coaches. There are investment people, retirement plan people, several types of insurance agents, lawyers, bankers and accountants. For some of our team’s sophisticated clients, I’ve counted over 20 assistant coaches, all barking orders and making recommendations to the client. And in most of these cases, the client was acting as their own head coach before we entered the scene. Most of these assistants are competent, but there is rarely any professional interaction or coordination among and between the various subject matter experts, and as a result, significant financial matters often fall through the cracks.
A good example that plagues most of your clients is the full implementation of their estate plan. Just look at all the 1099s that you’ll see during the tax preparation process from accounts that are still in joint names. Who is the professional that will be proactive enough to see that there are trusts in place for estate planning? Even worse, many of your clients probably have trusts that are not being utilized. Whose fault is that?
Further complications from your client being their own head coach arise when there are conflicts regarding the advice rendered. Frequently the client is smack in the middle of professional disagreements between their service providers. How many times have you been called by your client with a question about something that an insurance agent or an investment professional recommended that you think is inappropriate for them? A great financial planner will elevate the client’s role to that of the team owner, where they can see the entire field clearly and begin to articulate their goals and feelings a bit more clearly.
A great financial planner will not only make sure that each significant area is monitored and reviewed regularly, but they will have the systems and processes set up to be sure that this is a part of the overall service model for the delivery of planning services. Included within these systems and processes is a method of communicating with the client’s other professionals to be sure that we have benefited from their subject matter expertise.
From mid-November through the end of December, the focus for my team is to be sure that we have no tax surprises when the client gets to filing season. Each of our clients’ CPAs are consulted with, with forecasts prepared as needed to mitigate the possibility of missing something from a tax planning perspective. Whether the considerations include a Roth conversion, harvesting gains or losses, or providing guidance on gifting strategies, a competent CPA firm is a welcome and important part of those discussions and plans.
Look to help your clients by finding them a holistic, proactive, head-coach-type of planner — or adjust your firm’s service model to be that professional.
Early on in this article, I shelved the importance of subject matter expertise in favor of communication skills. But a financial planner needs to understand that it is impossible to be the subject matter expert in all areas of financial planning. If one spends their entire life studying and researching, it would be a challenge to understand everything from divorce planning through the unwinding of a defined-benefit pension plan. Nevertheless, the planner must have a good understanding of these issues and be able to go deep in some of the areas of expertise required.
The great planner will build a team of subject matter experts in two ways. One is for each client engagement. As some clients come to the table with advisors or assistant coaches who may be helpful, the great planner must learn to evaluate these professionals and work with them to accomplish the clients’ objectives. Each planner also needs a team of subject matter experts that they can use as a resource. The resource team can serve as a bullpen for clients that may need a replacement subject matter expert or simply to consult or corroborate regarding what you have discovered and advised.
A litmus test as to just how successful a financial planning practice is can be seen during volatile investment markets. This type of environment is one of the biggest fears of many CPA firms, and is often cited as the single reason why they don’t build a wealth management division. They are afraid of lousy investment performances ruining the client relationship, whereby the firm is tainted by sub-par performance and eventually loses both the wealth management business and the accounting business.
A successful financial planner doesn’t wait for the clients to call in to express their concerns. The successful planner makes outbound calls to their clients to let them know that they are paying attention and to see how the client is doing during volatile times. The successful planner also discusses volatility, and the range of expectations for the portfolio based on standard deviation reports and history during the planning process so it shouldn’t be the first time that they receive an education on volatility.
But in short, the planner who is holistic, and not just giving lip service to planning while they oversee assets or sell products, has deeper relationships than those who do not give proactive and holistic advice. Clients in these better relationships appreciate the depth and scope of services offered by a true wealth manager, they understand the volatility that they may become exposed to, and in most cases will not terminate the relationship with the advisor just because of performance.
The combination of art and science is what makes a planner great. As yet another tax season begins, make a resolution not to let open issues linger in your clients’ lives. Find them a planner who can serve as a financial head coach to make sure that every area of their life receives elevated attention and service from a caring professional. You might even be that professional yourself!
John P. Napolitano, CFP, CPA, is CEO of U.S. Wealth Management in Braintree, Mass. Reach him at JohnPNapolitano on LinkedIn or (781) 849-9200.
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