Show clients empathy in uncertain times

By Samiha Khanna

In recent months, Susan M. Tillery, CPA/PFS, has fielded calls and emails from dozens of clients worried about their assets, retirement plans, and other money matters.

In times of crisis such as the COVID-19 pandemic, Tillery has learned that sometimes the best way to respond to anxious clients is just to be a good listener.

“These days, I’m listening not knowing what they’re going to share with me, not thinking I have to give them an answer, but truly just listening to what they’re saying and empathizing,” said Tillery, president and CEO of Paraklete Financial Inc. based in Atlanta. “If I can listen with a mindset of humility — realizing maybe I don’t know exactly what they need — I can hear much more empathetically.”

Tillery and fellow financial planning expert David A. Stolz, CPA/PFS, president of Stolz & Associates PS in Tacoma, Wash., shared several tips on how to communicate with clients during the pandemic in a June 8 presentation that was part of ENGAGE2020 (an archived version is available to ENGAGE attendees), including the following:

First, take time to resolve your own worries. CPAs work so hard to ensure their clients’ finances are in order so they can have some peace of mind in a crisis like this, Tillery said, that they may forget to address their own feelings first.

“The most important thing I want to share is that we have to work on ourselves first, as CPAs, to become calm and find that peace that will continue into the conversation with the client,” she said, suggesting such self-care strategies as meditation, breathing exercises, and fitness. “Once we have done that, we can truly be present in the moment and fully devote our attention to what the client needs.”

Reach out to clients consistently. Don’t wait for clients to contact you, Tillery and Stolz said. Reach out to clients regularly and let them know you’re there to help.

Both experts said their firms have sent emails to all clients letting them know they were available for appointments and offering information on changes in the markets, investments, income tax deadlines, and more. Stolz has even created short online videos that tackle confusing topics, such as what small businesses need to know about the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, P.L. 116-136.

While mass emails to clients are a great way to share information, there’s no better way to connect with a client than to reach out personally, Stolz said.

“A mass email is not the same as calling somebody one-on-one and saying, ‘Hey, I’m just checking in to make sure everything is OK.’ That means a lot to people,” he said.

Acknowledge what you don’t know. The planet hasn’t experienced a pandemic with this kind of global impact for many years, so there are a lot of questions clients have that we just don’t have the answers for, Stolz said.

“I think you just acknowledge that you don’t know, and probably the other person doesn’t know the answer either, and that’s OK,” he said. “A little uncertainly isn’t always bad. You just have to kind of remind yourself and others that we don’t have control over all of these things we might be worried about, and we have to try to live in the spaces that we can control and try to let the rest go.”

Don’t reinvent the wheel. Many clients will have similar questions, whether they’re small business owners asking about Paycheck Protection Program loans or individuals concerned about asset allocations, Stolz said. Rather than creating new resources to help each client, he recommended finding information from reputable sources online that could answer some of these common questions, such as this COVID-19 resource center from the AICPA.

Through it all, it’s important to remember that relationships are the foundation of personal financial planning, Tillery said.

“Personal financial planning is really about the relationship,” she said. “There’s so much technical detail involved in financial planning that we sometimes forget that.”

Tillery and Stolz discuss helping clients navigate uncertainty in this podcast, courtesy of the PFP Section.

The AICPA’s and CIMA’s most comprehensive conference, ENGAGE 2020, is all digital this year. Join us online July 20–24 for keynotes and sessions on accounting and auditing, tax, technology, leadership, personal financial planning, and more. Several sessions will cover the impact of COVID-19 and related legislation affecting clients, practice management, and the profession at large.

Samiha Khanna is a freelance writer based in North Carolina. To comment on this article, contact Courtney Vien, a JofA senior editor, at Courtney.Vien@aicpa-cima.com.

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