CPA INSIDER

Talk to tax clients about what’s really on their minds

The right conversations can lead to new service offerings.
By Dawn Wotapka

Many CPAs who work primarily with tax clients are interested in offering them other services such as retirement planning, estate planning, and investment planning. However, CPAs often have concerns about how best to present these additional services to clients without coming off as pushy or aggressive.

To gain some insight into what it's like to open these conversations with tax clients, we spoke with Maggie Beach, CPA/PFS. Beach and her partner formed New Vision Wealth Management in late 2016 as an affiliate of her partner's CPA firm, New Vision CPA Group. Beach took the lead in running the new firm, and these days she's focused on helping clients with a wide variety of money issues ranging from 1040s to funding retirement — and everything in between.

What types of services do you offer in addition to tax?

Maggie Beach: Ongoing financial planning, which includes tax, retirement, estate, risk management, and investment planning for individuals and families. Our planning engagement includes an initial holistic plan that covers all the areas above along with goal planning, budgeting, and cash flow. Once the plan is presented, we implement the plan using the Seasonal Planning approach with quarterly meetings and monthly check-in "touches," including email newsletters and conversations via email and phone when necessary.

We also offer one-time planning engagements that focus on one or two areas, such as education or retirement planning, with an implementation strategy. We also have an option for asset management but don't have a minimum requirement.

When might you offer a tax client these services?

Beach: Usually when we're working on a tax return and discover that something has changed or someone calls us about a life event. For instance, when a client comes into an inheritance, the conversation starts with the tax impact on the estate and the assets. Then, the conversation turns to estate planning. We can't start that, however, until we talk about goals. It's almost like an onion that you have to keep peeling back.

Alternatively, we'll see the age of a dependent on a tax return and inquire about college plans. There are so many things that we can pick up from the tax return that can open up the door to the conversation.

Clients trust us already. They want to continue these conversations because they love the fact that we understand how these life events are going to impact them. We're already doing the taxes for them and know their finances pretty well. It's easy for us to back into it by saying, "Listen, you have these other issues to deal with and we can help. Here's what we can do."

What language do you use to start the conversation about these services?

Beach: It's usually situational. For instance, if we find during a tax prep meeting that they are struggling with liquidity needed to pay their taxes, we have an organic discussion that starts with cash flow and how to better manage their withholdings or estimated payments. This usually leads to a discussion around other things that are on their mind, like paying for college or saving for retirement.

Another conversation starter is retirement. Many of our clients are small business owners who are busy putting every penny into their business and haven't saved for their own retirement. Part of our tax planning involves a discussion around retirement plans, when appropriate.

Finally, we have many discussions around saving/paying for college. We've worked with clients to develop a college funding plan, which includes saving up for college, as well as a spending plan once their children enter college and debt management after graduation. Naturally, this has led to financial planning engagements.

How have your clients responded? 

Beach: At first it was very slow. Some of our clients saw us only as their tax preparer. They equated financial planning with asset management. Now they are embracing tax preparation as a part of the planning process, and we're expected to triple our financial planning revenues in 2020.

What lessons have you learned along the way?

Beach: Have a niche. For the first two years, I was trying to be all things to all people. I wasn't focused, which affected my confidence. Once I started to define a niche, I was much more organized and confident; however, defining my niche was a little more tricky since there were several markets that I could service. Ultimately, I went with family caregivers and the sandwich generation because there is such a need to help this market.

How do you bill clients?

Beach: I am fee-only, which means that I don't sell any commission-based products. I charge depending on service. A single plan without major complications could start at $1,500. Ongoing planning ranges from $1,500 to $5,000 per year, based on complexity and the degree to which the client needs hand-holding.

What advice would you give to other CPAs considering offering financial planning services? 

Beach: Know yourself first. It sounds cliché, but knowing your "why" is really important. When I first started, I was very uncomfortable "selling" my services. I didn't think people would want what I was offering. But learning what was important to me and why I wanted to help family caregivers has truly made a difference in how I approach my clients and prospective clients. I don't see myself as selling anymore; rather I'm serving them. I'm finding that after I put a plan together for them, they ask if we can manage their assets, too, so I find us managing more and more assets, which is pretty exciting.

How much time should someone allot to gearing up to offer these new services? Is additional training involved? 

Beach: At first, I spent about 30% to 40% of my time gearing up to offer financial planning. I had to learn the financial services profession — the compliance requirements and what services and products are available. Last summer I got the AICPA PFS [Personal Financial Specialist credential], and now I spend about 80% of my time on financial planning and the other 20% on tax services.

How does having an accounting background prepare CPAs for financial planning?

Beach: A large part of financial planning is based on tax — for instance, the timing of gains and losses, distribution rules, titling of assets, etc. Clients' decisions have both short- and long-term effects, so you can't effectively advise clients without understanding the tax piece. My accounting background allows me to look at my clients through a tax lens while also taking a step back and looking at the whole picture through my CPA/PFS lens, resulting in more comprehensive financial guidance.

Finally, being a CPA/PFS offers a higher level of credibility since we are held to a very high standard. As such, clients trust us. When I speak with a prospective client, I often hear them say they want an adviser who can also prepare their tax return in addition to doing their financial planning.

Visit the AICPA Tax and Financial Planning Services page for free resources to help you start offering more services to your tax clients.

Dawn Wotapka is a freelance writer based in Georgia. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Courtney Vien, a JofA senior editor, at Courtney.Vien@aicpa-cima.com.

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