How Client Education and Communication Tools Can Benefit Your Practice
Juggling client needs with our schedules is a common issue facing financial planners. Learn how you can save time and improve client retention.
January 17, 2008
by Daniel Snyder, CPA
As CPA financial planners, our clients turn to us for direction and advice on a wide variety of financial topics. On any given day, we could be asked about the differences between retirement plan options, the tax implications of a particular investment, how to deal with an excessive amount of personal debt, how to best invest a sum of money, or ideas on the best college funding programs. The list goes on and on.
While none of these topics are foreign to us, we can all use assistance in effectively communicating the information to our clients. A variety of web-based programs have been developed that assist with client education and communication tasks. Companies, such as Forefield, BizActions and Emerald Publications, provide both content and communication platforms. These tools can provide significant benefits to the CPA planner and our clients; specifically in the areas of time management, client retention, and client identification.
Dan Snyder, Technical Manager in the AICPA PFP Section recently talked with Leslie Michaels, CPA/PFS, CFP® on this topic. Leslie has her own firm, Michael Associates, LLC which provides fee only tax, financial, estate and investment planning to individuals, their families, trusts and family businesses. Michaels began her career in tax and financial planning at Ernst & Young where she worked in Personal Financial Planning for 16 years. She also worked in private industry in finance with a large regional multi-family residential construction and management firm as well as with a national manufacturing firm.
Dan Snyder: What are the typical features of these Web-based programs?
Leslie Michaels: They provide information on a wide variety of financial planning topics in an easily searchable format. The information can be packaged in various methods for delivery to the client; typically either as a PDF file for printing or e-mailing. They usually allow for personalization with both the advisor’s and the client’s information. Periodic alerts to the advisors on significant changes are extremely helpful.
Snyder: Give us an example of how you might use this in your practice?
Michaels: Well, a small business client who’s considering a Simple IRA Plan for his employees and might request additional information on retirement plans. In a matter of minutes, I can search for educational pieces that discuss that topic and identify which ones are going to best meet my client’s needs. My company logo and masthead is already loaded in the system, so by adding the client’s name, I can create a customized PDF of quality well-researched material. By providing this to my client, I am both meeting their immediate needs and establishing myself as their initial contact for financial questions.
Snyder: So client education is an important part of your practice?
Michaels: Absolutely. Clients need to be fully informed and have a good understanding of the planning strategies we’re recommending. Tools like these allow me to easily present concepts so the client can understand the impact of the strategies we are discussing. This in turn increases the likelihood that our recommendations will be implemented.
Many times the planning process involves other professionals such as attorneys. If I can arm my clients with basic information, then the client’s time with other professionals will be more productive, potentially saving them time and money. Bottom line, these tools help me to simplify the learning curve with my clients.
Snyder: How do these tools help you and your firm with time management?
Michaels: First, it reduces the research time. I can very quickly pull together a wide variety of information with an indication of the relevance to my search criteria. Doing the primary research to get to this point would be time-consuming. As I consider this information and my client’s needs, there might be additional more focused areas I need to research using other tools.
Second, it allows me to delegate work easily to my staff. They can pull together appropriate information for my review and approval, and then they can send it on to the client. My client’s questions can get answered in a timely manner, even when I am away from my office.
Third, it saves me on presentation preparation costs without sacrificing quality. I know that anything that is mailed, e-mailed or presented to my client will be consistent with the guidelines I have set. The consistent look also helps my client quickly identify it with my office and anything that reinforces that relationship is valuable. However it still allows me the flexibility to customize it for particular situations.
Snyder: How else do these tools help you with client retention?
Michaels: Regular and continuous contact with clients strengthens the relationship and it’s always nice when a client thanks you for giving them information before they asked for it. Contact might be as simple as a regular monthly newsletter or a summary of a current topic that’s in the news or related to an event in their life. Throughout the engagement, we’re always looking for ways to reinforce the planning and education and ways to put our name in front of them in a non-intrusive manner. The wide variety of content these tools provide enables me to easily provide timely educational material on pertinent topics.
For example, if the client has children, I might put together an overview of the college funding options and send it to them. This does several things: It reinforces my position as a financial professional they can trust, it might strike a chord and cause them to ask more questions and it certainly positions me defensively if other people raise the issue.
Trigger events are important. They could be a significant birthday, a market shift, birth of a child, or an addition of a key employee. These tools give me the ability to find quality articles that relate to these events and by extension, reinforce our client’s relationship.
Snyder: Can these same strategies be used to identify new clients for your firm?
Michaels: Absolutely. Many times these same issues are easy conversation starters for client prospects or referrals and these tools allow us to follow up in a non-obtrusive manner.
Snyder: These tools sound very flexible.
Michaels: They provide both customizable technical content and an easy communication tool. Many times, there is no reason you cannot use the education content for other purposes like a seminar or maybe a simple monthly newsletter. Most of these companies also offer more specific products for these purposes, but this gives you an interim step.
Snyder: Any other features you have found beneficial?
Michaels: With significant events or updated practice management tools, Forefield provides timely and periodic alerts of information posted to their site, such as the recent AMT patch legislation. These alerts can help you or your staff stay current and if appropriate be used to provide a summary to clients.
Snyder: Any final thoughts?
Michaels: I have been using these types of tools for years, and as you can see am very enthusiastic about them and their benefit in my practice. In all fairness, I should disclose that I use the Forefield Advisor product. This is one of several types of software that I use in my practice and I cannot imagine not having this tool at my fingertips.
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Daniel P. Snyder, CPA, is Technical Manager in AICPA’s Personal Financial Planning Group.