By William K. Velekei, CPA, CFP
Unprecedented. Abnormal. Historic. Pick any of these adjectives to describe 2020 and it would be fitting. The same descriptions can be used for our business models, strategies, and firms. Any formal business plan completed at the beginning of 2020 was dramatically affected by COVID-19 as the entire economy had to pivot as the virus unfolded. But, as Albert Einstein is suspected of saying, in the middle of difficulty lies opportunity.
This has been especially true for CPAs. While we often think of financial planning and accounting as a defined science hemmed in by numbers and spreadsheets, 2020 highlighted CPAs’ ability to embrace the abstract, empathize with clients, and explain behaviors. CPAs were required to wear different caps and manage interchangeable titles this year, from adviser to therapist. This much is evident, the CPAs who grasp the future are providing value through solutions and concise communication. This year has proven that advice is our most valuable commodity, relationships are imperative, and trust is paramount.
For years, there have been predictions regarding the future of the CPA profession – from audit to tax, and advisory to financial planning. On one end of the spectrum, computers were supposed to have taken over the industry by now; on the other, complacent firms unwilling to embrace the future should have been left behind. The reality is that most firms found themselves in a middle ground: growing their technology and software while seeking the best talent to continue to provide the value-add services our clients pay us to do. Then, the world changed.
COVID-19 has provided CPAs with a glimpse into the future and how firms should position themselves today for tomorrow’s success. While software saves time preparing a tax return or financial plan, no algorithm can think critically in a rapidly changing environment to give a client timely advice. Technology has helped everyone connect more easily than ever; however, there is no replacement for an opportunity to personally ask how a client is feeling. The most successful professionals and firms of the future will provide value to clients through a mix of technical practice background in tandem with soft skills and the ability to relate to the clients who hire us. It may sound like an oxymoron, but as we grow our technology it is time to get more personal with our clients.
Business and personal financial planning have always blended, especially when working with business owners. An owner’s business decisions will often affect their personal financial situation, and vice versa. This year, hard decisions had to be made – often and swiftly. It is hard to remember a time in which the regulatory and legislative landscape were changing at the pace we experienced. From specific planning opportunities embedded in the CARES Act to the Payment Protection Program (PPP) loans and forgiveness rules for businesses, CPAs came to the front lines to interpret complicated language and provide thoughtful advice, which directly affected businesses, individuals, and families. CPAs have built on what we have always been: trusted advisers.
To provide the best advice to clients, however, CPAs must be willing to develop relationships to get to know their clients’ unique personalities and financial situations. Tailored solutions are no longer a luxury; they are a requirement for all clients. Relationships are hard work and take time to build, but in the COVID-19 era a lifelong relationship can be forged in the matter of months.
There is no handbook for a year like 2020, but it has offered CPAs an unforeseen opportunity to lay the groundwork for future success. Firms should maintain a high bar and build upon the work that has been done this year. It has not been easy, but it has been appreciated. Clients find value in knowing they have a relationship with not only a CPA, but also someone who is their trusted adviser. Going forward, more will be expected from CPAs, including a broad background and diverse experiences that they will simultaneously incorporate into comprehensive business and personal financial planning. We have risen to the challenge, though at times it may have seemed never ending. The future is here, and it is bright.
William K. Velekei, CPA, CFP, is a senior financial adviser at Corbenic Partners, a private wealth management firm. Currently, he serves as the president of the PICPA Lehigh Valley Chapter. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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