Client Advocacy: Susan Tillery Takes a Unique Approach

Susan Tillary 2x2.5What does an ancient biblical word meaning “Holy Spirit” have to do with financial planning in the 21st Century? Plenty, according to Susan Tillery, CPA/PFS.

Susan is president and co-founder of Paraklete® Financial, Inc., a fully-integrated personal financial planning (PFP) firm with offices in Georgia, North Carolina, and South Carolina. With more than 30 years’ experience in financial services, Susan sticks to one, basic tenet: placing her clients and their financial well-being first.

We recently sat down with Susan to learn about her unique service model, business mentality and outlook on the profession.

AICPA: Paraklete operates on a fee-for-service model and your catchphrase is “An Advocate in Financial Services.” What is this model all about, and how does the advocacy tagline ladder up to your firm’s operations?

Susan Tillery: Your Advocate in Financial Services” comes directly from the meaning of the name of our firm; Paraklete is the Greek word for advocate, counselor and one who walks alongside you, which best describes what our business model is all about and what we offer our clients.

We don’t manage assets and we don’t sell products; rather, we create a personal financial plan for our clients and then act as their advocate in educating them and implementing their plan. Because we don’t sell anything, manage assets, or receive or pay referral fees, we are able to be completely independent and objective when creating and implementing the client’s plan.

We also arrange and attend the client’s meetings with their investment adviser, estate attorney, CPA, insurance adviser, retirement plan designer, private banker and business attorney, among others, to implement their plan. If the client does not have an adviser in a needed discipline, we will make introductions to at least two advisers and attend these meetings. If the client is already working with certain professionals, we also work with them and integrate everyone into the client’s team.

AICPA: That’s different from the traditional model other CPA financial planners offer. How is this a competitive advantage?

ST: I think consumers are looking for something different from the traditional financial planning model; they want independent, professional advisers to assist them in their financial journey because the process is too complicated and time-consuming to manage on their own.

As a result, they need a fiduciary/advocate they can trust. Who better to fill this role than a CPA/PFS who offers only advice and advocacy? Rather than thinking of this model as giving us a competitive advantage, we look at it as the only way to offer PFP. When we began offering this service model, we did so without the intent of giving us a competitive advantage, but rather, with the assurance that it is the right way to provide these services.

AICPA: So, you refer clients to professionals who can work with them on asset management and products; how do you develop your referral network?

ST: Tom, my husband and business partner, and I have been in Atlanta and in the financial services arena for more than 30 years each. We have met many professionals offering many different financial services, and meet new people every day.

Before we refer our client to professionals, we run a background check within their specific discipline. Then, we meet with them and share our vision for servicing our clients, as well as our approach. If they are in agreement with our service model, we introduce them to one client.

We observe and make sure their actual service and fees are what they promised. If they display integrity and the client has a good experience with them, we begin to introduce them to other clients who need their services. This professional has also had a chance to observe our integrity, service model, and to meet and network with the other professionals on the team. In turn, they begin to refer clients to us.

AICPA: What do your clients say to you about your role as a PFP?

ST: They are thankful they were introduced to us. Many of them are excited to finally understand the complexities of their financial life and the many financial decisions they have to make. Some even say it’s as though they received an MBA in personal finance. This is very rewarding to us.

AICPA: How do you think having taken care of your clients’ financial planning needs has altered your relationship with them, if at all?

ST: Most of our clients are high net worth and busy people with many responsibilities. They enjoy the fact that we are CPAs and treat the engagement with professionalism, from an educational perspective. Great respect is generated on both sides.

AICPA: What advice would you give another CPA or firm who may be wrestling today with the decision of offering financial planning services?

ST: My advice is to begin offering financial planning services to your clients; if you don’t, someone else will. Your clients are looking for a trusted adviser to assist them in their financial journey. You, as the CPA are the trusted adviser. We have had several CPA firms establish PFP services through Paraklete; they are profitable and their clients are thankful their CPA provided this service.

Dan Snyder, CPA, Senior Technical Manager-Personal Financial Planning, American Institute of CPAs. This article recently appeared on the website AICPA Insights and is used with permission.