Do you know what really happens during tax appointments?
A CPA reveals all.
April 9, 2012
Years ago, when I joined a CPA firm and took over the clients of a retiring tax preparer, I was in for a surprise. I had prepared to face a stereotypical number-crunching exercise based on intricate tax rules. I had studied, learned the software and felt ready to tackle tax returns. Yet, I was unprepared for what tax appointments were about.
My mentor Cor had taken tax appointments to their highest level — an art form — by the time he retired at age 80. He could complete a tax return by hand in minutes. The year Cor retired, he and I handled his tax appointments together. When clients realized that, this time, he was truly retiring, many clients got teary-eyed. One explained that he was like a father to him, while another said she’d known Cor all her life.
Because Cor chatted with his clients in a particular tone, feel, content, and comfort similar to that of a dear and respected relative. The range of personal topics involved problem children, marital issues, grief, regrets, dreams, financial plans, health problems, and old age. He always provided wise counsel or fatalism with good cheer and always with deep empathy.
Over the decades, Cor guided his clients through the vicissitudes of life. Little of it had to do with taxes. One client said he was able to retire early by simply doing what Cor repeated yearly: pay down your mortgage and save money.
Cor’s example made it clear to me that tax returns are just the occasion. The yearly appointment provides a foundation of trust, respect, privacy, and familiarity. What evolves from it can go far beyond taxes and can lead to profound professional relationships. When my mentor reminded an elderly client that she needn’t file a tax return and asked why she kept coming back, she simply replied: “I just come to see you.”
Of course, Cor demonstrated what the best tax appointments should be. As all proficient CPAs know tax appointments are a personal blend of tax preparation, personal finance advice, and life conversations. Many CPAs say clients are comfortable discussing a wide-range of personal matters that they would not otherwise discuss with their relatives. Emotional situations are common enough for many CPAs to have a box of tissue within clients’ reaches. Surprisingly, the robotic stereotype of the CPA tax preparer does not fit the deep human aspect involved in the work we do. And unfortunately, neither does our formal education.
As a novice tax preparer, there were two areas for which I was most unprepared:
Having seen how influential a well-rounded trusted adviser can be, I was determined to fill the gaps.
The resources that helped me most came from the community of like-minded peers who made up the Personal Financial Planning (PFP) Section at the AICPA. The vast majority of PFP section members are tax preparers with various degrees of involvement in helping clients with financial issues (estate, retirement, education, investment planning, etc.). Initially, the resources I found in the PFP section helped me answer clients’ personal finance questions. Ultimately, the section also helped me develop personal finance expertise, become a financial planner, and earn the Personal Financial Specialist (PFS) credential.
Thanks to clients involved in life coaching, I also discovered that guiding clients through diverse life circumstances has its own discipline and principles. Taking a coach approach to personal conversations helps steer clients comfortably and effectively through issues outside our expertise. Unlike tax, where a little knowledge is dangerous, a little coaching awareness and practice is surprisingly transformative (see Do You Know What is Most Important to Your Clients?)
Football coach Jimmy Johnson said, “The difference between ordinary and extraordinary is that little extra.” That is particularly true of tax appointments, where a little extra guidance will, over the decades, greatly impact your client’s financial security, retirement, legacy, children’s education, and much more.
Much of what really happens in tax appointments goes far beyond taxes. Clients not only trust CPAs’ tax expertise, they trust their overall integrity and guidance. As such, clients often share with us personal financial and life concerns. Formal CPA education does not prepare us to provide such guidance, but the resources to rise to the occasion exist within our profession. The most important resource, however, may be a great mentor (see Great Mentors Shape Great CPAs) to exemplify how influential and beneficial our profession can truly be.
Jean-Luc Bourdon, CPA, PFS, is a principal with Kozak Financial Advisory, located in Santa Barbara and Camarillo, Calif. Bourdon currently serves on the AICPA’s PFS credential committee. He is past chair and member of an AICPA PFP Networking Group. Bourdon volunteers as a financial literacy advocate. His opinions and comments expressed within this column are his own. This information is being provided for informational purposes only and does not constitute investment or tax advice.
* The AICPA’s PFP Section provides information, tools, advocacy and guidance to CPAs who specialize in providing tax, retirement, estate, risk management and investment advice to individuals and their closely held entities. All members of the AICPA are eligible to join the PFP section. CPAs who want to demonstrate their expertise in this subject matter can apply to become a Personal Financial Specialist credential holder.