How CPA financial planning firms can move forward post-pandemic

By Megan Hart

IMAGE BY LVCANDY/ISTOCK
IMAGE BY LVCANDY/ISTOCK

Like all accounting professionals, CPA financial planners have seen changes brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. They had to adapt to working with clients in new ways, such as meeting with them virtually rather than in person. Many turned to remote work, and some added remote staff from outside their geographical area. Firms also saw clients alter their personal and financial goals due to the pandemic, with some choosing to retire earlier than expected. And firm leaders, too, reassessed their priorities for their firms. Some, realizing how much need existed for their services, planned for expansion, while others chose to streamline and refocus their practices, or to look ahead to succession.

Though the pandemic continues to affect the accounting profession, firms are starting to anticipate what will happen after it. CPA financial planners offer the following advice on how firms can build on the changes they made during this period and prepare for what's to come.

CAPITALIZE ON TECHNOLOGY

Both clients and staff grew more comfortable with working together remotely during the pandemic. This enhanced trust in technology has changed how financial planning practices operate. Before the pandemic, Dirk Edwards, CPA/PFS, J.D., sometimes flew 150,000 miles annually to meet with clients, but now those interactions often take place by video. "It's been an interesting transition because I've always been so hands on," said Edwards, whose firm, Edwards Bradley, is based in Portland, Ore., and in North Carolina. "I could usually see their space, see how they interacted, their body language, how their homes look — basically see whether their lifestyle correlates with the data they provided."

Though many planners have resumed in-person meetings, firms shouldn't overlook the opportunities that remote technology brings. Clients, Edwards said, are now adept at and comfortable with working remotely. It's possible to take a hybrid approach to engagements, meeting with clients in person or virtually depending on what's most convenient and comfortable for them, or to take on clients from outside your geographical area.

Increasing your use of remote technology may help you bring on more clients, and not just younger ones. Regardless of their generation, clients expect access to online tools that allow them to check their financial progress and easily connect with their advisers, said Mark Astrinos, CPA/PFS, president and founder of Libra Wealth. Astrinos is based in Silicon Valley, where a high level of personal service is expected, and he leverages technology to help provide it. "I invest very heavily into technology, both with time and money, because at the end of the day, it allows us to provide a better client experience, and it allows us to use our time more efficiently," he said.

When Astrinos started his company almost five years ago, he didn't want to be tied to an office, which, he said, meant being intentional about choosing technology that works together seamlessly. As remote work has become more common, Astrinos recommends investing in strong cybersecurity software and good communication technology. He also suggests choosing a project management software or customer relationship management software that makes it easy to track your projects and organize your data.

Remote technology can also help with staffing. Thanks to advances in video technology, L.K. Benson & Company in Baltimore has hired remote employees from other parts of the United States — giving the firm an advantage in the competitive labor market, said principal Chris Benson, CPA/PFS. The firm now has nine employees.

Similarly, communications software allowed Edwards to bring on a partner, Sarah Bradley, CPA/PFS, who lives on the opposite side of the country. "Being able to do things by video, it's been such a blessing," he said.

TAKE STOCK OF YOUR LONG-TERM PLANS

The stressors of the past two years have caused many people to rethink what's important to them — clients and CPAs alike. Firms can benefit by focusing on a niche or a certain type of client, said Michael Goodman, CPA/PFS, president and founder of Wealthstream Advisors in New York City. His firm, which has 23 employees, places an emphasis on working with clients who receive compensation via stock, and that's by design. To find a niche, he recommends that firms look at their clients to see whether they share any common factors. If your firm isn't focused on any niches, he said, identify areas "that a few [staff] folks have some curiosity about" and which "make sense from a business standpoint. Then go all in." Learn as much as you can about your chosen specialty, whether that requires research, joining organizations or associations, networking, or other means, he said.

Edwards chose to scale down his practice after reassessing his priorities. He used to operate bicoastal offices before realizing his passion was working directly with clients. He now works with one partner and a variety of subcontractors. They meet regularly to discuss issues such as software, changes in the marketplace, and developments with clients, he said. The process of scaling down happened over time, Edwards said, and it required "laser focus" on what the firm would — and wouldn't — do.

At the same time, Edwards said, he has been surprised by the number of new clients who've reached out to his firm amid the pandemic, which he credits in part to the reputation and positive relationships the firm has with existing clients. "It has reinforced for me the incredible positive impact that we can have on people's lives," he said.

If your plans include growth, don't wait too long to hire staff, Benson advised — a misstep he's made in the past. He used to delay hiring because he worried the firm wouldn't be able to keep new staff members busy all year, but he has learned it's good to have some slack in the system. In the past, "we've had to turn clients down because we didn't have capacity to help them," he said. That can slow growth for firms that aim to expand, he said.

Benson's firm is also concentrating on succession. The firm was founded by his father, Lyle Benson, more than 30 years ago. Chris Benson recently turned 40, and — while he has many years until retirement and his dad is still working — he's already considering who might take up the mantle after him. "We want our clients to be taken care of, and clients have said they appreciate the continuity," he said.

EXAMINE YOUR FIRM'S CULTURE

Research shows burnout has contributed to the high turnover rate facing America's professional class. With the current competitive labor market and changes to work habits wrought by the pandemic, it's more critical than ever to consider your firm's culture, Goodman said. "I think we sometimes focus on the mathematical and business-type stuff and leave out some of these soft concepts. When we all went to work from home, our culture was impacted. We had to figure out how to maintain and evolve it," he said.

He recommends talking about your culture frequently to find out exactly what your employees are looking for — even if it's expensive and time-consuming to provide. "We have emphasized our culture by placing the team at the top of the firm's focus," he said, even prioritizing it above clients and shareholders.

PROVIDE OPPORTUNITIES FOR LEARNING

With the rapid pace of change occurring in technology and in the accounting space it's imperative for CPA financial planners to keep learning, said Manny Glazier, CPA/ABV/CFF, CGMA, of Manny Glazier PC in the Detroit area. Clients of all ages are coming in with different needs, he said, and with more financial planning knowledge, intensifying the need for planners to stay up to date. Glazier, who is pursuing the PFS credential, said many clients are bringing specific questions and seeking different kinds of help compared to the clients he worked with early in his career, many of whom had plans to retire with no debt and live off a pension and Social Security, as was common in Detroit. Now Glazier and his colleagues are doing more detailed projected cash flow analyses, often looking for areas where clients can reduce their expenses, to show them how their spending habits could impact their future.

Glazier makes learning a priority in his practice, inviting all three full-time CPA financial planners on his staff — not just senior employees — to participate in educational webinars and online trainings. By February, everyone in his office had already exceeded the required 40 hours of CPE for this fiscal year — even though they don't need to finish until June 2022.

"I think you're not properly serving your clients if you don't keep up," Glazier said. "Twenty years ago, you could take one class a year and you'd be fine. Now I think it's more important than ever to keep up on a weekly basis."

Edwards agrees that CPAs must keep current and recommends networking through professional organizations. He's a member of the Oregon State Bar Association and past chairman of the AICPA's Personal Financial Planning Executive Committee. In fact, he first met Bradley through the AICPA, and he has connected with other experts who've helped him better serve clients. For example, he was able to reach out to specialists he met through professional organizations when two offshore tax issues came up for his clients last year.

DON'T LOSE SIGHT OF HUMAN CONNECTIONS

With the rise of remote technology, CPA financial planners may need to make more effort to preserve the relationships they've built with clients. Clients, regardless of generation, appreciate a personal touch, Benson said. His father still works with some of his original clients. He has attended their children's weddings, and some of those children have grown up to become clients themselves. Those enduring relationships are good for the firm, and they're built off personal connections, Benson said.

It's possible to build strong relationships with your clients virtually, he said. But it might take a bit longer. During initial meetings, Benson aims to get his clients talking. "Too often advisers try to spend those meetings doing all the talking to show how much they know or how they can help the client, but it's much more important to listen," he said. He offers advice and recommendations only after he gets to know the person, and he shows them he cares by answering the phone or quickly replying to emails, even if just to say he received the message and he'll get back to them later with a detailed response.

Communication skills will always be the most important quality CPA financial planners can possess, Goodman said. "I can't take credit for this quote, but I use it all the time: Clients don't care how much you know until they know how much you care," he said. "That basically comes through in communication."


About the author

Megan Hart is a freelance writer based in Florida.To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Courtney Vien at Courtney.Vien@aicpa-cima.com or 919-402-4125.


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"Adapting to Workplace Culture in a Virtual World," CPA Insider, July 19, 2021

"The Pandemic Pushed Us Forward. Let's Keep Evolving," CPA Insider, April 26, 2021

"Show Clients Empathy in Uncertain Times," JofA, July 16, 2020

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