Whether a CPA firm chooses to provide personal financial planning services or not, the keys to the success of your client's financial future may be materially enhanced if the CPA simply pays attention and goes a little above the call of telling them what happened last year.
Unlike some CPA practitioners, I believe that a progressive and caring CPA should always take the opportunity to make sure that their clients are well served across the financial spectrum.
Starting with those who choose not to provide the service, pay attention to the telling signals that a tax preparation engagement can send you. Something as simple as noting that the 1099s from their bank or brokerage are held in joint names screams that there may not be an estate plan in place or that the plan in place is not complete or fully implemented. Most clients with significant assets should consider using trusts to hold title to their financial assets. If you notice the joint title and ask a question or two about their estate plan, it will quickly tell you whether they are in need of help.
Other financial matters that can be discovered through the tax prep process include items such as loss carryforwards, retirement contributions and family governance. Loss carryforwards, for example, may indicate a lack of coordination between the investment plan and the tax plan. This is something that may actually be the result of neglect on the part of both the investment advisor and the CPA, but don't worry about who's to blame. Suggest a solution or introduce a holistic wealth advisor who can coordinate these two moving parts of your clients' financial life.
Retirement contribution reviews can also originate a deeper discovery discussion. Asking if the client can afford to contribute more, or if a different type of plan would be helpful, is just the start. You can also ask where the money is invested and what the client's process is for managing these assets. In many cases, you may be surprised to see that there isn't much thought that goes into the investment choices being made inside the plan, and that an introduction to a qualified investment professional may be in order.
Family governance matters can be discovered easily through the traditional accounting engagement. The joint ownership of rental property often reveals that there isn't a partnership agreement or any other document that drives the substance of that joint ownership. Issues such as capital contributions, distributions from the property, and provisions for death or disability are frequently ignored when you discover rental properties held jointly. Of course, there is no problem until there is a problem. But a problem such as your joint owner losing a lawsuit and getting a large judgment placed on their assets may put a crimp in your ability to do anything with that rental property. The issues here that are easily discoverable may touch on their asset allocation, estate plan, tax plan and risk management plan. Clearly, these are issues for a forward-thinking advisor. Again, even if you choose not to provide financial planning services, this is a chance for you to help your clients with an introduction to a financial professional.
Choosing not to provide the planning service seems to be what the majority of firms are doing today. But sitting back and letting all of their open issues go by your tax prep or accounting services unnoticed year in and year out is not providing the best service that your best clients need and deserve from you.
DON'T KEEP SECRETS
For those firms that have decided to engage with planning services, your first key to success lies in the awareness of the services by your clients and the willingness of your partners and staff to provoke the client with discussions highlighting some of the deficiencies that your accounting and tax prep services have discovered.
Many firms still keep their financial planning and wealth management services a big secret. They keep it secret from their clients and they keep it secret from other financial services providers. Not telling those financial services providers that you've worked with before about your licenses and your planning divisions can be both disingenuous and deceitful. I've heard many reasons why CPAs choose to not be truthful with these other financial service providers; for instance, many offer the fear that traditional referrals will stop as the reason for this secrecy. Not only is telling them the stand-up thing to do, but it may reveal opportunities to collaborate that can enhance both client service and your planning division.
Many would agree that CPAs might not exactly be the best marketing and sales professionals in the financial world, but keeping your wealth management services secret from your clients and staff seems ludicrous. Your financial planning efforts will never be successful if they are not marketed to clients. I'm not talking about cave-man marketing where you obnoxiously try to push the service on every client; I'm talking about a tasteful marketing and communications plan that will have your clients keenly aware of these capabilities within a year or so. This is easily done, but will take some effort.
The next key is making sure that you've devoted the proper resources to market, communicate and then deliver the services that you've marketed and communicated. Canned or white-label ghost-written marketing is better than nothing, but often is not the best way to reach your clients. A customized approach that recognizes your firm's current culture and client base will work best. This may focus on the niche markets that you serve or simply be written in such a way that it is consistent with the messages that your clients currently receive from you. The key is making the time to do this or finding the financial planning partner who can deliver these critical marketing and communication services for your firm.
CHOOSE CHAMPS -- AND CLIENTS
To succeed, the financial planning division needs an internal champion. This champion must be responsible for everything from the marketing and communications to building the service model to proficiently and profitably offer the planning services. For a firm with partners, collaborate regarding the business plan and set expectations. Expectations must be set for everything from revenue targets to the other partners' role in cross-selling these upscale and valuable services.
For sole practitioners, it boils down to your willingness to create the necessary hours to drive this part of the practice. To succeed, your first year may take up at least 400 hours of infrastructure-building and meetings from what used to be billable time. There is no short cut to success.
Once you get the message out, the next key is to make sure that you are soliciting the right clients. Many CPAs feel that they need to start with their smaller clients where the stakes may be lower. This too can become problematic. Smaller clients may not need the full proactive and holistic wealth management process. Your relationship with smaller clients is often not as strong as it is with your better clients. For this reason, the smaller client may be less forgiving about fees and billing, as well as their expectations of the service. Your better clients often wish they could see more of you anyway, so financial planning provides you the opportunity to do just that. Serve them at a higher level and spend more time with them. This will deepen your relationship and drive greater value in the overall relationship.
The last key, which is hidden in the previous paragraph, is that the most success is being garnered by offering a proactive and holistic wealth management process. Too many CPAs focus on investments or insurance, and end up offering service no better than any previous service providers that your clients may have engaged. Don't be like the others, and merely give lip service to wealth management while simply looking to get the assets - offering a completely holistic and robust wealth management offering is the stickiest way to build a sustainable wealth management practice.
Early in the entrance of CPAs into the financial planning world, many simply became investment advisors and began to manage money or work with a third-party asset management firm. While this worked for some very large firms or a select few of the small guys with very loyal clients, the greatest enterprise value has been built by those offering services that are more robust, detailed and responsive than the others from Wall Street or the insurance industry.
Proactive and holistic service includes a thorough analysis of all parts of your clients' financial lives. This includes the core areas of cash flow today and in the future, risk management, tax planning, investment planning, retirement planning and estate planning. It also includes your addressing specific issues that arise such as education planning, elder planning for parents of your clients, or their desires to buy or sell a business. Not only do these issues need a thorough analysis at the beginning of the planning relationship, they need to be reviewed and updated regularly as facts and circumstances change.
This last part, in my opinion, is the most beneficial distinction that you can offer your clients. Your commitment and ability to make sure that every part of your clients' financial lives is in order today, and stays that way forever, is the best way to demonstrate your value distinction. Communicate that distinction clearly and directly with your clients about just how that will happen. In our firm, clients receive a custom road map that will illustrate the areas to be monitored and maintained, along with the service schedule regarding when the next update will occur.
John P. Napolitano, CFP, CPA, is CEO of U.S. Wealth Management in Braintree, Mass. Reach him at (781) 849-9200.
For more strategies to boost your financial planning practice, see our video interview with John.
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