Michelle Golden
Michelle Golden
Creating Trust As a Financial Adviser: Leveraging the PFS Credential

How do you become worthy of trust to manage others' wealth? "Trusted adviser" is an oft-used tagline, but trust can’t be claimed. Learn how to earn it!

November 17, 2011
by Michelle Golden

Whenever we want to communicate successfully, we should begin by contemplating:

  • Who’s the audience?
  • Who am I trying to connect with? and
  • What are their needs?

And in that spirit, put yourself in the shoes of a person with a fair amount of wealth. To place your hard-earned assets in someone’s hands, you need to feel, deep down, a strong sense of trust in them.

What effectively conveys trustworthiness?

Think about what plays into establishing an initial feeling of trust. To trust someone, there has to be rapport. Simply, we’ve got to have a “good vibe” from the prospective advisor. In his book, The Thin Book of Trust: An Essential Primer for Building Trust at Work, trust expert Charles Feltman says there are four distinctions of trust: sincerity, reliability, competence and care. Rapport can only exist if we perceive someone is sincere: that s/he means what s/he says. Shared belief systems, good listening and the adviser’s confidence all play into this: 

  • Reliability. Being counted on is easy to establish and easy to mess up. It starts with the first phone call and requires consistently showing up and delivering as promised. Any slip up needs repair that starts with a sincere apology, i.e., one without blame avoidance.
  • Competence. Competency and care are where the Personal Financial Specialist (PFS) credential really comes in and where this credential has advantages over other financial planning credentials. 
  • Care. Feltman define care as “I have your best interests at heart.” This differs from sincerity, but can’t be effectively conveyed without sincerity. The CPA advantage here is huge because of a CPA’s inherent objectivity as well as proximity to the client’s day-to-day needs and changing circumstances. It is important to convey how the CPA adviser is unique in the ability to help the client make more informed financial decisions in the context of his or her personal and business circumstances. Lastly, fee-only compensation adds to the objectivity element.

The prospective client assesses competence, i.e., whether the advisor has what’s required to do the job, in a variety of ways. A powerful way is the recommendation, especially from someone they know. Evidence that people have been pleased with service and care creates a track record of stability.

While advisers can never use testimonials or past performance to illustrate credibility, evidence that the adviser’s comments opinions are regarded with merit goes a very long way. Third-parties are valuable here as well.

Being quoted in the media is a fantastic way to show that an advisor is worthy of respect. Whether on local or national television, online or in publications, obtaining these features on a periodic basis goes a long way toward building trustworthiness. There are companies that specialize in getting media placement for advisers, but a publicist isn’t necessary as advisers can achieve features achieved directly just as well. The AICPA helps with opportunities for media exposure including writing and speaking and the AICPA provides exceptional media training geared specifically toward PFS credential holders.

The more PFS credential holders are active in the public eye, the higher the value of the credential. To further enhance recognition and stature, the AICPA works to make sure that the PFS credential is routinely mentioned by personal finance reporters in The Wall Street JournalNewsweek and Kiplinger's Personal Finance and other publications. Part of this is helping to get PFS holders featured.

Once featured, be sure to leverage your media mentions. PFS Michael Goodman of Wealthstream Advisors does an excellent job of this on his website.

The PFS credential

Specialty credentials are further proof of the knowledge and skill that convey competence as an advisor. Among the various credentials out there, the PFS, only being available to CPAs, stands apart. This means that there aren’t as many PFSs as some of the others, so while rarity from exclusiveness is a terrific differentiator, explaining the credential is sometimes a little tricky. I once heard an advisor say, “The PFS is like the CFP, only for CPAs.” Yikes! That description falls short of explaining the differences between the credentials and the equivalent of telling a prospect: “I’m just like my competitor, only I’m not.” You don’t want to both validate your competitor and put yourself at their level in defining yourself.

Instead, articulate your uniqueness as a CPA adviser in a way that reassures people they are making a wise choice putting their faith and assets in your hands and excites them about working with you.

With the PFS comes a high level of assurance about the adviser’s objectivity and integrity as well as financial knowledge and experience in practice. CPAs with the PFS credential bring an unparalleled understanding of how to help clients benefit from complex decisions about taxes, retirement, estate planning, charitable involvement, risk management, investments and insurance.

And when set against the backdrop of other types of advisers involved in unscrupulous practices, the integrity piece is big. The PFS adheres to the AICPA code of conduct and are proficient in and keep abreast of all compliance issues. Ethics are the lifeblood of a practicing CPA.


Average competence is generally assumed by a prospect and benefit of the doubt is usually applied. When interviewing multiple-service providers, your prospect, frankly, has a difficult time identifying a lack of competence. This is why everything you do to stand above the others, showing greater trustworthiness and additional credibility, helps you seal the deal and land the choice clients.

 Rate this article 5 (excellent) to 1 (poor). Send your responses here.

Michelle Golden, president of Golden Practices Inc, is a growth strategist. She is also a senior fellow at the VeraSage Institute. For more information on this topic, join Michelle and the other speakers the 2012 Advanced PFP Conference on January 16-18, 2012 in Las Vegas.

* 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. PFP Section members, including PFS credential holders will benefit from additional resources on this topic in Forefield Advisor on the AICPA’s PFP website at aicpa.org/pfp. 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.