How CPAs can work more closely with female clients

Make sure women clients’ voices are heard.
By Sarah Ovaska-Few

It may be more important than ever for CPAs to improve the way they work with female clients. More women are running their own businesses and have their own high-profile careers. Women now are in charge of more than half of personal wealth in the U.S.

CPAs need to think about how they interact with their female clients, to ensure they aren't inadvertently offending them or failing to understand their needs, said Gina Chironis, CPA/PFS, CEO of Clarity Wealth Management in Orange County, Calif.

One of the biggest mistakes an accounting professional can make in a business climate is to direct questions and information to the men in a room, while ignoring the women, said Chironis.

"Don't assume that the female counterpart is ignorant," she said.

Instead, she suggests that CPAs meeting with male-female couples ask both partners what their comfort level and interest are around financial matters, and tailor their approach based on the answers. 

There aren't hard-set rules on how to work with female clients, said Charlotte Beyer, the author of Wealth Management Unwrapped. Beyer speaks frequently about how professionals can meet the needs of high-net-worth women and couples. However, taking the time to determine an individual client's working style and expectations will help avoid gender-based missteps, she said.

Several experts shared their thoughts about how CPAs can build closer working relationships with their female clients.

Make sure both members of a couple attend meetings. Older women, especially those in traditional marriages, are sometimes left out of important discussions about wealth management and tax liabilities, said Jill Shipley, a Palm Beach, Fla.-based managing director of family dynamics and education at boutique wealth firm Abbott Downing. That can create a problem if the husband falls ill or dies and the wife is left struggling to understand her own financial resources and responsibilities.

Shipley, who works with high-net-worth individuals, suggests that clients bring their significant others to participate in important meetings. This gives everyone a chance to get to know each other, as well as allowing the couple to make decisions together and both be educated on their financial realities.

Shipley also finds that women tend to view financial information through different lenses than men.

While her male clients tend to want quick, boiled-down answers, Shipley said many of her female clients make decisions while considering how they affect the family as a whole. 

"They're thinking about a longer list of things and that can get complicated," she said.

Learn to listen. Before setting an agenda for a meeting, Beth Gamel, CPA/PFS, a managing director with Argent Wealth Management in Waltham, Mass., recommends reaching out to see if the client has any particular concerns or topics she would like to cover. That allows the client to set her own priorities.

Gamel also suggests using open-ended questions in meetings with clients.

Sometimes, accountants can be nervous when meeting with clients, and can talk too much, or not allow enough time for clients to respond and share their thoughts.

"You need to become comfortable with silence," Gamel said. 'People provide you more information when you just stop talking."

Hire diverse associates. Having a team that's varied in gender, race, and age can make a firm more attractive to clients, Beyer said, because it allows clients to see themselves reflected in the firm's associates, and reassures them they will be respected.

Shipley cautions against assuming clients will want an adviser of the same gender. "Not all female clients want to work with female advisers," she said.

Instead, she said, talk to clients and determine together what work and communication styles they prefer, and then match them up with practitioners from there.

Avoid jargon. The accounting profession uses plenty of insider terms which can be baffling to outsiders. Gauge your client's level of financial literacy, and then provide explanations for the technical terms or acronyms you use.

"Your job is to make the client feel smart," Gamel said. "Give the person time to ask you lots of questions and really give time to create that safe space."

Make sure the physical space in your office is comfortable.  Avoid holding client meetings in rooms that can be intimidating, such as an office where the CPA sits behind a large wooden desk and clients face him or her in smaller chairs.

That can make clients feel as if they aren't on equal footing with their adviser, Shipley said.

Chironis frequently meets clients in an area of her office that has a couch and comfortable armchairs. That puts her clients at ease, and generates more conversation, a key goal in preliminary meetings where she is getting to know her clients' goals and needs.

She tends to have a large number of clients who are older women, sometimes widowed. To meet their needs, she also makes sure the room has a hard-backed chair, which some of her older clients find easier to get up and down from.

Chironis also always has a tissue box present. Finances can be an emotional topic, especially when clients have recently lost someone, and this gesture sends the message that tears won't bother her.

Reach out. It's also a good idea to check in regularly to make sure your client is happy, Beyer said.

She suggests reaching out by phone, email, or even in person at a meeting and asking, "If we were to make this relationship better today, what might you like to see?"

That allows for open dialogue, and a chance to rectify any discomfort the client may have had.

PFP/PFS Section members have access to the Women's Resource Center by Broadridge Advisor, a guide to the planning needs of female clients.

Sarah Ovaska-Few is a freelance writer based in North Carolina. To comment on this story, email senior editor Courtney Vien.

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