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Technically, your planning practice could be better

Shutterstock_304478969Is there even a day that passes anymore in which you don’t read, hear or watch a story about the wonders of technology? New apps, new computer systems and entirely new technologies are emerging and being put into practice at dizzying speeds. Cutting through the noise and knowing which technologies are best for your planning practice can be complicated, but ignoring the value technology can add to your practice carries a heavy price in lost efficiency and opportunity.

Are you still driving a manual?

Spreadsheets used to be the go-to tech for organizing and assessing a client’s finances and your resulting financial plan. Handy but labor-intensive, spreadsheets were and are prone to errors and omissions. Other old-school trappings like physical copies of client’s financial data, wills or healthcare directives presented other problems related to security, inaccessibility or loss of the paperwork due to disaster or misplacement.

The modern planner no longer has these concerns. At their fingertips is an arsenal of technology ready to step in, reduce risk and increase customer satisfaction. By creating efficiency and automating tasks once done by hand, planners can spend the time freed up going through the planning process with their clients. It’s simply a matter of assessing, learning and implementing the best technologies for your practice.

It’s not eenie, meenie, miney, moe, but it’s not calculus, either.

Choosing technology solutions can seem daunting. It’s easy to feel like you have to be an expert on the available technologies to ask pertinent questions, but that isn’t the case.

Technology vendors can often be found at planning conferences, and they’re more than happy to chat with you about the best applications for their solutions. In lieu of that, the websites for these technologies often have forums, FAQs or “live chat” help you can use to get more information and address your questions. The only questions you’ll really need to come armed with are ones specific to your practice and how you can use the technology to serve your clients.

A good place to start developing the questions you need to ask is to determine what kind of firm you want to be. If you’re planning to remain a sole practitioner, some technology solutions might not scale well for you or be cost-effective, for example. Similarly, some solutions don’t scale well for larger practices. As you review your technology needs, ask if the solutions you’re investigating work well for your firm’s intended size.

Next, think about your clients’ needs. While the full range of possible combinations of technology are beyond the scope of a blog, there are some big-ticket technologies you might want to consider.

Financial planning software

Financial planning software is a must in today’s market. In the past, clients could ask questions that would require running manual simulations to understand the impact of a proposed change. With planning software, changes can be tested in real time, while the client participates and sees what the impact of that new car purchase or extra annual vacation might be.

Planning software allows clients to feel more like a participant in the planning process, and it gives you the flexibility of answering their questions about changes to their plan on the fly. You can also easily share with them the stress testing process, assessing outcomes based on a variety of economic environments and personal finance changes. This allows you to add value for your clients, and advice that guides them in an assortment of real-world scenarios.

Customer relationship management (CRM) software

Clients respond well when they are made to feel special. And nothing feels more special than having someone remember the little things about you that make you who you are.

Do you have a client whose kids recently won a sporting event or academic honor? Maybe you noticed their company was recognized with an award, or you know they have an important birthday or anniversary coming up. CRM software can help you keep track of these details, helping you build a closer relationship with your clients. Imagine getting a notification a week in advance of a client’s milestone birthday, for example. Not only can you send a card or gift or make a call, you can keep track of planning milestones that could accompany those birthdays. This allows you to be proactive with your clients, talking to those who hit the minimum ages for social security payments, or the age for taking a required distribution. This type of connection is more than just good customer service; it demonstrates you’re paying attention to your clients and taking their lives into account before even they do. In my practice, we even use this software to keep track of what our clients prefer to drink when they visit our offices, so our front desk manager can provide excellent experiences for our clients even in the waiting area.

Client portals

A secure client portal allows clients to upload their documents from the convenience of their homes. This would be benefit enough, but the portal can help clients in other ways. I once had a client need access to a copy of a healthcare directive they couldn’t find. Since they’d uploaded it to the portal, they were able to download and print it right at the hospital. It’s hard to put a dollar value on that kind of peace of mind and service.

Making it work for you

Implementing new technologies doesn’t have to be a chore. Here are some simple things you can do:

  • Test new technologies with a small group in your firm (or with a few trusted clients if you’re solo). Work out the bugs and get your questions answered before going broad.
  • Talk to other firms of a similar size about technologies they use and how they benefit from them. Ask about lessons learned to help speed your adoption.
  • Be flexible. Technology is rapidly evolving and updating. You want to make sure your solution is always providing the best bang for your buck.

The AICPA PFP Section’s technology for planning & tax advisory services business toolkit offers a wealth or resources designed to help you get your practice up and running with cutting-edge technology.

Jennifer Birchett, CPA/PFS, Wealth Advisor, TrueWealth Management. Jennifer has broad experience with high net worth individuals, corporate executives and multi-generational families to plan, preserve and enhance their wealth. You can email her at jbirchett@truewealth.com

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