What CPAs must do at the first financial planning meeting

By Joshua Wiesenfeld, CPA

More than most accounting professionals, CPA financial planners delve into the intimate details of their clients’ lives. In fact, for a financial planning engagement to be successful, clients must allow themselves to be vulnerable — sharing their personal and financial habits, certainly, but also their hopes, dreams, and goals.

The initial planning meeting is therefore a crucial juncture in any successful financial planning relationship. Experienced CPA financial planners share best practices to help you establish yourself as a trusted adviser and ensure a successful and productive engagement.

Make clients comfortable. Your clients must be comfortable sharing with you in order for you to provide true value. As far as Susan Tillery, CPA/PFS, president of Paraklete Financial Inc. in Atlanta, is concerned, making her clients feel comfortable is one of the primary goals of the initial consultation. She refrains from even glancing at their financial documents until talking with them at length about their lives. “If I can spend an hour learning about my clients and getting them to share, I consider it a very successful meeting,” Tillery said.

Benjamin Dorsey, CPA/PFS, director of tax strategies at Cassaday & Company in McLean, Va., also structures the initial consultation to ensure his clients feel relaxed. “I try to keep things as informal as possible and avoid overloading them with charts and graphs,” Dorsey said. “The first meeting is all about establishing trust.”

Dorsey likes to get a read on a clients’ previous experience working with financial planning professionals. “I ask them whether they’ve worked with CPAs, insurance professionals, or financial advisers in the past, and whether the relationship was fruitful or not,” he said. Dorsey feels that, once he has a handle on a clients’ financial planning history, he can then more effectively determine the best course of action.

Take their financial temperature. Once you have successfully encouraged your clients to open up about their financial lives, you can dive into their documentation. Thomas Tillery, vice president of Paraklete Financial, issues prospective clients a “shopping list” of financial documents. Clients are expected to come bearing 15 to 20 separate statements including tax returns, bank statements, and estate documents. He then reviews the information to establish an understanding of a client’s financial footing and identify their most pressing financial issue, or what he refers to as the “triage” event.

Often, the triage event that he identifies is not the reason the client initially arranged the meeting. For instance, he frequently finds that his clients do not have an appropriate estate plan in place. “Often the client is eager to discuss their investment portfolio, but I have to tell them to set up a revocable trust first,” he said.

Adjust their expectations. CPAs must be clear about their approach to financial planning and what the client can expect from the relationship. New and prospective clients need to understand that the client and CPA will need to work together as a team to identify and achieve the client’s goals.

Frequently, your approach may be different from what the client had initially envisioned. “Clients pay me to be an advocate and educator, not a yes man,” Thomas Tillery said. He makes sure prospective clients know that engagements comprise eight to 10 meetings at a minimum and that financial plans always require some level of modification as they progress.

Dorsey, too, finds that he often must modify a client's expectations. At the first meeting, Dorsey makes clients aware that Cassaday & Company’s approach centers on building a long-term, stable portfolio with a focus on allocation. “We discourage our clients from investing too much in the latest hot trend, whether it’s cryptocurrency or something else,” Dorsey explained. “For our team, it’s all about hitting consistent singles and doubles rather than swinging for the home run.”

Determine whether they are a good fit for your practice. It’s important that your client is aligned with your financial planning philosophy and approach. Thomas Tillery does so by establishing “high expectations for the client as a participant in the financial planning process,” stressing that they share responsibility for its success. He makes clients aware that unexpected events may arise during the engagement, such as an economic recession or the failure of a business, which can affect the process. He also lets them know his job is to give them the knowledge they need to “come into reasoned dialogue with their advisers” and “arrive at specific solutions.”

Some prospects find that this approach is not right for them. In fact, Thomas Tillery finds that most prospective clients he connects with never get to the point of signing an engagement letter. “We find that many of those who do report to the initial consultation are better off working with a different type of professional,” he said. He estimates that 35% of referrals choose to work with his firm.

Susan Tillery stressed the importance of maintaining a robust network of professionals to refer clients and prospects to. In one instance, she discovered a prospective client, an employer, had significant ERISA issues. She referred the client to a trustworthy attorney and advised her to prioritize resolving those issues. “The attorney was able to deal with the ERISA issues, at which point I met with the client again and commenced a productive relationship,” Tillery said.

The sensitive nature of personal financial planning demands a great deal of interpersonal and technical skill. Take a thoughtful, sincere approach to the initial planning meeting to get your relationship with prospective clients off to a great start.

Susan Tillery and Thomas Tillery will speak at the Building Your Tax & Financial Planning Advisory Business Workshop, held online and live in Las Vegas on July 24–25, prior to AICPA & CIMA ENGAGE 2021.

AICPA & CIMA ENGAGE 2021, the premier event for accounting and finance professionals, will be a hybrid event this year. Join us at the Aria Resort and Casino in Las Vegas or online, July 26–29, for keynotes and sessions on accounting and auditing; tax; technology; leadership; personal financial planning; diversity, equity, and inclusion; and more.

— Joshua Wiesenfeld, CPA, is a financial investigator at Labaton Sucharow LLP. To comment on this article, contact Courtney Vien, a JofA senior editor, at Courtney.Vien@aicpa-cima.com.

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