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. 

Join Tom for a CE Event on July 25!

On July 25, Financial Planning Advocate, LLC will be hosting a CE event with Tom Tillery as the presenter and will address the subject of Updates in Estate Planning: A Review of 2014 Changes and Their Impact on Clients’ Estate Plans.

Topics to be addressed will be: an overview of the estate planning process: regulatory updates on the DOMA decision and it’s continuing impact on the personal financial planning process; standalone retirement trusts and asset protection; continued use of GRATs; the use of discounts for lack of marketability in estate planning. The Webcast will be held on Friday, July 25, 2014 at 1:30 PM EDT. The course is approved for one hour of CPE and CE. To register for the class, please email us at hello@ttillery.com. Virtual Seating is limited.

Life Insurance: How Much Do You Really Need?

The fear of death follows from the fear of life. A man who lives fully is prepared to die at any time.   Mark Twain

There is a great deal to take away from this quote by Mark Twain. I concur with his sentiment. However, dying at any time presents an unacceptable financial risk to survivors unless the deceased is fully insured for life insurance.

The risk of a pre-mature death is a catastrophic failure of one’s dreams and goals. In today’s society, individuals ‘mortgage’ [French word meaning payable unto death] their futures by borrowing against their potential wages. The result of an untimely death is that the bills all come due at a most inopportune time. [Read more…]

Risk Transfer in the Financial Planning Process

No man is worth his salt who is not ready at all times to risk his well-being, to risk his body, to risk his life, in a great cause. —Teddy Roosevelt

I have been looking for an opportunity to use this wonderful quote by Teddy Roosevelt. It is from an article in the New York Times (12/08/1915). The article is a summary of his remarks for the Harvard Advocate in which he promotes the need for military curriculum at schools of higher learning.

The purpose of today’s posting is not to advocate for military curriculum, which I do support, but to discuss risk management in the personal financial planning process. It is human nature to seek security. Security may be defined as the absence of risk. Once the basic needs of food, clothing, and shelter are met, the next need on the list for most of us is a sense of safety/security. [Read more…]

Why can’t we be friends? Part 2 in an 6 part series

It was in 1975 during my enlistment with the U.S. Air Force that I first heard the song “Why Can’t We Be Friends?” by the American Funk band War. The song was the title track of an album, which bore the same name. This song, like many by the band, was socio-political in nature and addressed the senseless animosity between races in the United States. Also, NASA played this song was played during the linking of U.S. astronauts and Soviet cosmonauts for the Apollo–Soyuz Test Project.

I would like for all of the various financial planning credentialing entities to hold hands and sing: “Why can’t we be friends?” The needless bickering and infighting is senseless, without purpose, and detracts from the profession. All of this ‘chest thumping’ about ‘my credential is better than your credential’ is a waste of their membership’s valuable resources (dues). [Read more…]

Use credit wisely and build a strong reputation

Establishing credit is a great deal like establishing a reputation. Ben Franklin said “It takes many good deeds to build a good reputation, and only one bad one to lose it.”  Establishing credit, whether a consumer is just beginning, or starting over, can be daunting. However, I have seen that with a little knowledge and a few simple steps a consumer’s credit may be established in short order.

The first step in the consumer’s journey is to check their credit report. The credit report is the reputation that a consumer has built over time by those “many good deeds”: timely payments on credit cards, car loans, mortgages and student loans; payment of rent or utility bills; responsible management of a checking account. These items are all a point of reference for a credit report. [Read more…]

Debt & Moderation

I typically begin a posting with a quote. Today’s posting on the need for, and the responsible use of debt, provided several challenges in the quote department. One challenge is current popular opinion which states that all debt is Biblically and morally wrong. The second challenge, and perhaps very revealing, is that quotes on the responsible use of debt, outside of economic circles, is very limited.

In our practice we use debt with our clients in a variety of ways: asset protection, short term cash flow needs, and as an investment. The ‘true north’ in the application of debt in financial planning is moderation. Moderation as a quotable phrase provided a more substantial harvest. [Read more…]

Begin with Personal Financial Ratios

In his ground breaking self-help book, The Seven Habits of Highly Successful People, Stephen Covey presents an approach to being effective by attaining goals and aligning oneself to “true north” principles of character. Habit two teaches “Begin with the End in Mind.” Whenever I teach students or clients the importance of personal financial ratios, I always make sure that I share this principle. The personal financial ratios are a goal to strive toward and a goal to be obtained.

The first step in the process is to create what is commonly referred to as a budget. Susan Tillery, CPA / PFS, CFP® has coined the phrase “spending plan.” I find this title to be very empowering: it emphasizes choice in spending decisions. Once the spending plan is completed it should be reviewed in light of the following financial ratios. [Read more…]

A Voice for Moderation

“In life,” said he, “these were so squint of mind

  As in the handling of their wealth to use

No moderation – none, in either kind.

—The Comedy of Dante Alighieri, L’Inferno,

In his tour of Hell, Dante confronts those who have been condemned for the sin of greed; and in particular, greed with regards to wealth. He describes the greedy as being closed minded and having no moderation. It does seem that wealth has that effect on many.

One of the basics of personal financial planning is moderation on both the planner and the client’s part. Some synonyms for moderation are: self-restraint, self-discipline and self-control. In recent years, as I have reviewed the work of other personal financial planners, I have seen a lack of moderation. [Read more…]

The Buck Stops Here!

The Recession of 2007 – 2009 generated a great deal of blame and finger pointing. In my mind I visualize the recession as a “multi-car accident” with everyone fleeing the scene and pointing their fingers at the “other guy” as the responsible party. No one hung around to be accountable.

Actually in U.S. history, no one is more accountable than President Harry S. Truman, the haberdasher from Independence, Missouri. He inherited the “multi-car accident,” World War II, the Cold War, and global inflation. But on his desk was a reminder of a strong truth: “The Buck Stops Here.” Many do not know that prisoners in the Federal Reformatory at El Reno, Oklahoma, made this sign. On the reverse side of the sign are the words “I’m From Missouri.” [Read more…]