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Life transitions trigger an opportunity for deeper client service

GettyImages-516896270It’s no secret that a phone call can change a life’s trajectory. Two decades ago, I received a call that not only had a deep impact on my family, but also sent me down a career path to help my clients navigate critical life transitions — unexpected and otherwise.

Unexpected events and major life transitions offer a critical opportunity to assist clients.

Over 20 years ago, my mom called and asked if I had talked with my dad that day. He had recently suffered some health issues but was doing well, so I assured her that he was probably out for coffee with friends. The day did not end well. I soon discovered that my dad had passed out while driving due to adjustments in medications and died in a one-car accident. He was only 64.

After dealing with the immediate grief and repercussions of my dad’s death, I began contemplating how to balance living for today and planning for tomorrow. My dad had passed away at a time when most people are preparing to retire. Over time, I recognized a difference in the way I was talking to my tax clients. I found myself engaging in broader personal financial planning conversations beyond taxes.

Life’s ups and downs each come with specific financial implications. CPAs serve individual clients on the good days (marriage, births and retirement) and bad (aging parents, divorce and death). But are we stopping to listen or consider how we might help? Do clients have a plan for the loss of a loved one? Have they considered how to address an aging parent’s needs? How are they balancing retirement funding while saving for their children’s education?

Broaden your knowledge and position yourself as the trusted adviser.

As I listened to my clients, I knew I needed to deepen my expertise in all aspects of their financial lives. Tax knowledge serves as a critical foundation when planning for retirement, estate, investments and risk management. But to be able to address the broader financial picture, pursuing the Personal Financial Specialist (CPA/PFS) credential was the most logical path.

In a recent AICPA survey of high-net-worth and high-income prospects, “2 of every 3 participants said that the credentials an individual holds are very important when selecting a financial planning professional.” To me, obtaining financial planning education and a credential that aligned with my CPA ethics and thought process was the perfect way to go. The AICPA® offers not only the comprehensive PFSTM exam, but also the Personal Financial Planning (PFP) Certificate Program, a more flexible option to help you grow your  financial planning skill set and work toward the credential.

CPAs have the skills to successfully produce financial planning solutions; we are process-oriented, analytical and we know how to talk with people about money. Keep in mind that you don’t have to be the expert in everything. Clients appreciate having a primary point of contact and as such, CPAs can oversee the overall picture while bringing in specialists or partnering with other professionals where needed.

Slow down, listen and connect to discern clients’ needs.

Stories are a powerful way to connect. Hopefully, you haven’t walked through anything as jarring as the unexpected death of a family member. But, chances are you have an engaging story of your own. It doesn’t have to be complicated or life-altering. It could be as simple as, “My spouse and I were talking about our retirement plans recently; what are you thinking about retirement? How much longer do you want to work?” Those questions can open a conversation about a universal topic that is a great first step into a broader planning discussion. They are not intrusive, but valuable!

The key is to ask open-ended questions, slow the pace of your meeting and listen. Instead of beginning a tax return delivery meeting with, “Anything new?”, ask instead, “How are you doing? Has anything been on your mind about your finances?” Then wait. Be prepared for some awkward silence; I promise you they are worth the 20 seconds of discomfort. Resist the urge to jot down notes and listen as you would with a trusted friend.

Asking the right questions and then listening can help you discern what is most important to your client. Is it a safe retirement? Passing money to heirs? Funding grandchildren’s schooling or leaving a charitable legacy? Perhaps complications of aging are affecting a loved one.

Once you’ve given your client an opportunity to tell their story, ask if they’d like you to follow up. Set up a second meeting, offer to help run some numbers or look at their scattered accounts. These simple steps are incredibly valuable to your client and may be the genesis of a personal financial planning relationship — and perhaps, like me, a new direction for your career.

If you aren’t sure where to start, you’re not alone. The AICPA PFP Section developed a Tax and Financial Planning Services hub with toolkits, checklists and guides designed to help not only initiate these conversations but also transform your practice.

My dad’s death opened my eyes and ears to the needs of my clients as they face the certainties and uncertainties in their own lives. As a tax preparer, it can be difficult to slow down the hustle of your practice to relax into these conversations. But, when you do, clients are anything but hesitant. After all, you may be one of the few people they talk candidly with about their finances.

David Stolz, CPA/PFS, has more than 20 years of experience working with high-net-worth individuals in tax preparation, investment consulting and personal financial planning. He serves the profession as chair of the AICPA Personal Financial Specialist Credential Committee. His wealth management firm, Stolz & Associates, is based out of Tacoma, WA.

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