There are two types of client interviews. There are financial planning interviews with existing accounting clients, and then there are conversations with new financial planning prospects who are not accounting clients of the firm.

When meeting an existing client of the firm to introduce yourselves as financial planners, keep the context of your relationship in mind. That client in front of you has a vision of who you are based on what you've done for them over all the years of your relationship.

In some circumstances, it may be your actions that are blocking their ability to see you as a planner. On the other hand, it could be your actions from this moment forward that will lead them to conclude that you are the right choice as their planner.

Clients of your accounting firm who see you as a forward-thinker, someone who is always there to help them grow their business or to do proactive tax planning, will generally be the most receptive to new services. If they see you as a last-minute, overworked bean counter who is frequently too busy to spend quality time with them, then your likelihood of having a good financial planning interview are slim to none.

 

HOPES AND DREAMS

Bridging your existing relationship to that of a personal financial planner requires a different skill set than preparing a tax return. The financial plan is about vision, dreams and a lot of personal matters that many CPAs think are too soft or touchy-feely to get them excited. But when you get down to it, most people want to have their financial house in good order so that they can live the lifestyle that they want. And that is completely qualitative. So a good client financial planning interview must have a significant qualitative tone.

Some call a qualitatively driven client interview life planning or financial life planning. Discovering what is important to your clients and how they want to spend their 168 hours per week is the key to a great interview. For some clients, this is like pulling teeth. For others, it is exactly what they were looking for. Most clients want to build lasting relationships with someone who can listen and understand, perhaps even help iron out a few conflicting goals between the spouses or business partners.

What doesn't work in a first financial planning interview is a CPA who wants to prove how smart they are and use this as the basis for why a client should give them unconditional trust for a very personal financial planning relationship. Some clients may be offended if you use your brilliance to give answers and advice before you understand what they want to do.

 

FIRST STEPS

Getting into the meat of the interview, make sure that you have a written agenda. Consider starting the meeting in an open-ended fashion by asking your clients what specifically is on their mind with respect to their finances and if there is anything in particular that they'd like to discover or accomplish in this meeting. Make the objective of the meeting clear to your client and to your staff. Objectives for the client interview would be to understand their goals, objectives and vision for their future and to see if the firm can help guide them through the ever-changing landscape of issues that may prevent success. At this point, you should not cast judgment on their vision, but merely take good notes and document what they'd like to accomplish.

At this interview, you also need to get a good understanding of all of the client's quantitative data. You need to know how much they earn, how much they spend, and what they own, as well as the form of ownership, the value and the basis.

Also, dig into their insurance. Learn about their protection for property, casualty and liability. Understand their benefits. And learn about their life, disability and long-term-care ownership. Also remember to ask for things that don't jump out at you from doing a tax return - matters such as retirement accounts or annuity holdings.

The topic of price or cost also deserves a slot at this initial financial planning interview. Most CPAs can estimate the cost of an accounting or tax engagement after an hour or so. After you do a few financial plans, you will be able to price a financial plan after a one-hour interview.

In some very complicated situations, we have reserved the right to examine their documents and statements before we commit to a fixed planning fee. And this may be my last point about plan pricing: In my experience, clients like to know that there is a flat fee associated with the service, as opposed to hourly billing. In the hourly billing world, you are inviting questions about bills and building in inherent bias against the client calling you because of their fear that the meter is running.

For clients who are not already clients of the accounting firm, the meeting content and purpose is essentially the same, except for the trust part of the relationship. Remember this: If they are not clients and they're coming to see you for a financial planning interview, they probably already assume that you have the level of competency needed, so don't spend a lot of time pounding your chest about your credentials and experience.

That interview with a non-accounting firm client may be more qualitatively driven than quantitative. I recently held a first meeting where I didn't record a single number. The discussions were largely qualitative and ended with an agreement to move forward. We then sent a follow-up letter to include the financial information that we needed to see, a sample engagement letter and a suggested time frame for our next meeting.

 

START NOW

Each interview is as different as every planning case. You'll learn something new at each meeting. If you would like further guidance on the specific questions to ask in an interview, I'd also suggest further study. A great book on the topic is called Questions Great Financial Advisors Ask, by Alan Parisse and David Richman.

In the early days, you should commit certain questions or discussion tracks to memory. This may sound weird to you, but it will work. Until you master the language of the best in the business, you are not in a position to adapt and make the language your own.

A good client interview will include more than one person from the firm. This is important if you plan to involve others from the firm with the planning engagement or if you've got contextual issues of how the client sees you.

The perfect client interview is the ultimate combination of art and science. The artful part is gaining trust and allowing your clients the freedom to talk freely and discover their options and possibilities for a great life. The science part is the technical analysis, the memo writing and the software utilization. For most CPAs, this part should come easy. But don't underestimate the need for relationship building. Unlike tax season, financial planning is a year-round business. The best planners build durable, year-round relationships that can only build after a great first meeting and a lot of time.

John Napolitano, CFP, CPA, PFS, MST, is CEO of U. S. Wealth Management (www.uswealthmanagement.com) in Braintree, Mass. Reach him at (781) 848-2390.

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