Jean-Luc Bourdon

Do You Know What Is Most Important to Your Clients?

How to find out, respond to and incorporate your clients’ foremost life priorities.

June 6, 2011
by Jean-Luc Bourdon, CPA, PFS

Benjamin Franklin once said “The use of money is all the advantage there is in having it.” Indeed, the value of money to its owners is in how it can assist in shaping their ideal life vision. As such, money inevitably expands beyond the numerical framework we use to quantify it and literally comes to life. While CPAs are uniquely equipped to handle the quantitative aspects of money management, the personal and qualitative aspects require a knowledge only our clients possess: what matters most to them. How then do we comfortably draw out their vision and integrate it with our own expertise?

Integrative Accountancy

For lack of a better approach, many professionals zero-in where their expertise begins. “To the man who only has a hammer in the toolkit, every problem looks like a nail” [Abraham Maslow]. Financial advisors generally begin a conversation asking clients about their financial goals. Alas, clients rarely relate to this terminology. They simply have life goals, for which they hope to have financial resources. Imagine a travel agent asking about how many miles you aspire to travel, rather than where you want to go. Similarly, a tax-preparer may overlook the personal story a Form 1040 tells. For example, there may be insufficient retirement savings or excessive mortgage debt. Addressing such concerns may be far more critical than the tax liability for a particular year.

CPAs who take into account important life circumstances will continue to be most relevant, helpful and valued by their clients. While we are most at ease “playing to our strength” amidst financial complexity, this personal aspect may sound uncomfortable or complicated. This can easily be overcome by stocking our toolkit with some very simple communication tools. Some of them have been successfully applied by universities and hospitals in the field of healthcare to integrate all aspects of a person’s life. The general concepts are equally relevant to accountancy. Think of it as holistic “wealthcare” if you will.

Empathic Listening

In a radio interview, physician, clinical professor of family and community medicine at the University of California San Francisco (UCSF), and author Rachel Naomi Remen extoled the art of listening to patients. She prepares her medical students to handle some of the most difficult situations by teaching them the power of undistracted attention, of simply being there and listening. Her only instruction is: Listen generously.

When Remen asks her students to reflect on a person who helped them at a hard time in their lives, she finds that one of the most helpful things that person did was listen. One of the least helpful things was to give advice without knowing the full story.

It should be refreshing and liberating to realize that CPAs can be helpful with personal and even difficult topics by simply listening and not offering advice at all. As Indian Theosophist Philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti expressed succinctly, “Freedom from the desire for an answer is essential to the understanding of a problem." Freeing ourselves from self-imposed expectations to have all the answers allows us to focus on listening and understanding.

Say, What … ?

To draw our clients’ experience and knowledge into our work, it is far more helpful to ask good questions than to find answers. Asking the right questions helps clients discover their own answers, solutions and resources. A principle of executive and life coaching is that the most important questions don’t seem to have ready answers. As such, a true process of discovery does not involve fact finding as much as it requires bringing to the surface knowledge the clients had, but of which they were not aware. In other words, the right questions facilitate brainstorming and “a-ha moments”.

The kind of questions that help CPAs and clients become more aware and see things more clearly tend to be “what” questions, rather than “why” questions. They are also open-ended, short and direct. For example:

  • What is most important to you now?
  • What would it take to reach your goal?
  • What obstacles do you see?
  • What would help?
  • What do you need to move forward (resources, people, information, expertise, etc.)?
  • What are you willing to do?
  • What is the time-frame to achieve your goal?

A CPA colleague asked me, as CPA, PFS, to talk to a homebound elderly client who might run out of money by gifting too much to an adult daughter. I used coaching questions to assess the client’s resources, needs and preferences for care, comfort and peace of mind. When I asked what she wished to do for her daughter, the client said, “I always want to help her.” I asked what would most help her daughter. The client paused and then realized, “she needs a budget.” To go from this discovery to implementation, I only had to ask, “What would it take to make this happen?” The client had the answers, to which I just had to find the questions.
CPA Central

With an enhanced knowledge of our clients’ circumstances and perspective, CPAs can be more effective within the scope of our own services, as well as identifying resources for needs we perceive that are outside our expertise. As trusted financial advisors, CPAs are in a unique position to embrace and maintain a focal position in our clients’ lives. Ideally, a CPA, tax-preparer might incorporate job, housing, health and family issues into tax consultations and coordinate with other professionals (such as a CPA, PFS) to address other specialized needs. CPAs who want to be even more helpful in clients’ increasingly complex lives may expand their de facto financial-advisor role by obtaining a financial-planning specialization.

As preparation for the Personal Financial Specialist exam, the AICPA and the American College offer a self-study set of material that includes a total of 32.5 hours of CPE, covering financial planning, income tax, estate planning, retirement planning, employee benefits, investments and insurance. CPAs who wish to take the PFS exam this summer, need to register by June 13, 2011.

Bottom Line

Generous listening and thought-provoking questions are two simple tools that can be used to help CPAs address what matters most to clients and how to best utilize their financial resources to achieve it. These tools can also become the foundation for a systematic “coach approach” to client communication and wealth planning. This expanded topic will be covered at the 2012 Advanced Personal Financial Planning conference. Regardless of the extent to which CPAs use these tools, they will expand their broad wealth-care approach to client service and help effectively address their clients’ foremost life concerns.

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Jean-Luc Bourdon, CPA, PFS is a wealth manager with WalpoleFinancial Advisors, LLC (WFA) in Goleta, CA. Bourdon currently serves on the AICPA’s PFS credential committee. He is past chair and member of a PFP Networking Group. Bourdon volunteers as a financial literacy advocate. His opinions and comments expressed within this column are his own and may not reflect those of WFA or the AICPA. 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. For CPAs who want to demonstrate their expertise in this subject matter apply to become a PFS Credential holder.