Earn CPA Respect and Referrals With Savvy ‘Lunch and Learns’

By Helen Modly, CFP, CWPA, and Sandra Atkins, CPA/PFS
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Horsesmouth Essential: CPAs are tough to convert to referral sources. They don’t know what you do or how you do it. But if you position yourself as an expert through a “lunch-and-learn” continuing-education program, CPAs will come to value what you can do for their clients.

Ever invite a CPA you barely know out to lunch in hopes of developing a professional relationship that would lead to referrals? Did it feel like a bad blind date?

The CPA probably remained on high alert for any sign of a sales pitch and kept completely guarded. As a result, you ended up learning little about his practice that you couldn’t have gleaned from his website.

You probably brought colorful, glossy brochures and wanted to talk about why your firm is such a good fit for his clients, and blah, blah, blah. Oh—and you most certainly paid the bill.

Why are CPAs so reluctant?

As a rule, CPAs have a cautious, risk-averse nature. For the most part, they don’t like salespeople, and—however much you may disagree with them—they definitely think of FAs as salespeople. Their clients represent a long-term, profitable income stream, and they are not interested in doing anything to threaten that stability. After all, no client is going to leave them because they didn’t refer you, but who knows what might happen if they do and it goes badly.

Considering how difficult prospecting and closing are for most CPAs, you can understand why they are so protective of their clients. Don’t take it too personally. Even CPA firms that have added financial planning or investment services struggle to get their practitioners to refer clients to their own in-house providers.

Don’t sell—teach

An effective approach for engaging CPAs is to provide something they need in a comfortable, convenient setting. All CPAs must acquire at least 120 hours of continuing professional education (CPE) every three years from a variety of sources.

Summer is a good time to suggest doing a CPE program in most firms, because business is slower than it is during the rest of the year. In fact, many CPAs struggle to stay productive during the summer. However, any time of year is fine as long as it’s before tax season. You can develop a CPE program for them and offer to present it in their office while they enjoy a brown-bag lunch. We call our program “Lunch and Learn,” and we did several of them in the summer and fall of 2008. They enhanced our image as experts, and we already have two scheduled for this spring.

Choose a relevant topic

Pick a topic that you feel is timely and relevant to a CPA’s practice. Research it thoroughly. Find out not just what is available in our industry, but also what their industry has to offer on the topic. In the academic or medical field, this stage would be called a review of the literature.

You’re gathering all you can on the topic, from all resources. Take any continuing-education programs on the topic that you can find—again, those offered by not only our industry but theirs as well. Talk with any CPAs with whom you already have good relationships to assess their interest in your topic.

We selected IRAs for our topic. Based on our personal experience with a messy custodian problem, we know that this is a confusing area and that many CPAs are not up to speed with the rules. We also know that most CPAs have little or no experience with the logistics of working through the inconsistent rules and practices of different financial institutions.

Develop your content

The first step in developing any presentation is not PowerPoint. If you start there, you’ll end up with one of those dreary presentations where you are reading your own endless, cluttered slides. Ugh. Nobody wants to sit through another one of those.

To develop something more interesting, sit down and write out everything you have learned about your topic. Determine how best to organize it so that you are presenting the information in a clear, organized framework that would make sense to CPAs. Remember, their priorities will be different from yours. For example, you may be interested in getting the accounts transferred into your assets-under-management program. A CPA is likely to be more interested in being hired to do the estate tax return.

Review your content, and review it again

If your ultimate goal is to leave the CPAs respecting you as a competent professional, you can’t have a sloppy or inaccurate presentation. Fact-check everything, even the points you think you know inside and out. Try to poke as many holes in your own work as possible. Have a few knowledgeable colleagues review it as well for any mistakes. Document your sources and authority—tax codes, private letter rulings, etc.—for everything in your presentation.

Develop your presentation materials

Now you are ready for PowerPoint. You should plan on no more than one slide for every four to five minutes of presentation. A typical CPE hour is 50 minutes long, so 10 to 12 slides will be your target. No slide should contain more than a few lines of text.

Even if you don’t anticipate using a projector for your presentations, PowerPoint will enable you to create handouts with three slides to a page. Copies of the slides serve as notes. They make it much easier for your audience to keep up with the presentation, rather than trying to scribble down everything you say.

Don’t fall prey to all the cutesy things you can do with PowerPoint. Keep these considerations in mind:

  • Leave the animated transitions and sound effects for your vacation photos.
  • Avoid dark backgrounds on the slides, as it makes the handouts hard to read.
  • Each slide should present no more than one to three points, and there should be a logical transition between points.
  • Try to restrain yourself to one or two legible fonts.
  • Keep the font size large enough to read on-screen and on the handouts. A good rule of thumb is nothing smaller than 18 points. Keep italics to a meaningful minimum.
  • Use the notes section for your presentation notes. Don’t use full sentences, just prompts for high points you want to be sure to include.
  • PowerPoint can convert your presentation slides to an outline.

You can also create a leave-behind visual that summarizes your content in some way. The CPAs will keep it, and when the situation presents itself, they’ll pull it out and look at it again. Your name and logo will be printed on it, of course, so they’ll be reminded of who has provided this just-in-time help.

Other materials

Visit the Association of International CPAs for the requirements that a presentation must meet to be eligible for CPE credit for CPAs. The requirements are very broad, but they usually include identifying the field of study, the length of the presentation, identification of the presenter, a certificate of attendance signed by the presenter including all of the above, plus the location and date of the presentation.

There is often a requirement that each CPA sign in as well. We created a sign-in sheet that we maintain, as well as a certificate of attendance on our letterhead that we distribute at the end of the presentation.

Evaluation forms

We created a short evaluation form with open-ended questions to help us identify any other opportunities. Our questions are:

  • Did you learn anything new?
  • How well did the presenter seem to know the material?
  • How well did the presenter deliver the material?
  • Was this session worth your time?
  • What other topics would you be interested in having for a “Lunch and Learn”?

We have learned through our evaluation forms that our local CPAs are interested in several topics that we can easily develop additional presentations to cover. I can’t think of any better use of our time than speaking to a room full of CPAs who consider me an expert!

Getting started

We created a short proposal for our program that we send to the most senior partners at firms we are interested in addressing. Along with our proposal, we send excerpts of the evaluation sheets from our prior presentations.

These partners are the ones who will have to approve it anyway, so you might as well start with them. We believe strongly that nothing worthwhile is free, so we charge $250 for our program, thinking that this is probably a lower hourly rate than the most senior partners, but more than their managers or staff charge. Our hope is that this encourages them to send as many people as possible, since it doesn’t cost them per person.

The Proposal for Our CPE Program

Source: Helen Modly, CFP

Giving the presentation

When your presentation is scheduled, remember that they will be eating—not you. Bring your program materials, attendance certificates, sign-in sheet, evaluation sheets, and any leave-behind resources you’ve created. I also bring my trusty copy of Tax Facts for the current year, just in case.

Arrive 10 minutes early to settle into the room you will be using. In our case, it has always been their conference room, and we’ve been getting anywhere from six to 12 people attending. Start on time, and finish on time, leaving several minutes for questions. Do not read your slides or notes word for word. Use the slides to jog your memory. Tell stories that help the CPAs relate to your topic. Spend some time thinking up appropriate anecdotes and practicing them so they come off clearly and easily.

Your goal is not to provide your audience with every bit of minutia available on your topic, but to give them an overview with enough detail to facilitate a reasonable understanding. You want to be perceived as an expert resource available to them. Invite them to call you anytime a question regarding your topic comes up.

If you are not comfortable speaking to a group of CPAs, take an executive presentation skills course, or some other public speaking training. Be knowledgeable, thorough, professional, and friendly. Try to keep your presentation lively, even if the topic is a technical one.

Other venues

Your state society of CPAs can provide additional guidance and will likely be willing to review your outline and materials. When we submitted our outline, I was asked to deliver the presentation to the annual meeting of my state’s CPA society last fall.

We are also in the process of developing this same program to meet the legal requirements for continuing legal education (CLE). This is a bit tougher, and we will probably partner with an attorney who is already registered to deliver CLE programs. We hope to present at the monthly lunch meetings of our local bar association.

With a little research and a bit of practice, you could be using lunch-and-learn programs to fill your pipeline with new prospects that are referred to you by one of their trusted advisors. Instead of wearing yourself out trying to reach new clients one-on-one, focus on developing your local CPAs into new referral sources that can provide an unlimited stream of new clients.

Helen Modly, CFP, CWPA, is a principal with Buckingham Strategic Wealth, in their Middleburg, VA office. She was awarded the 2010 Financial Planner of the Year award from the FPA National Capital Area. She is a member of FPA and NAPFA. She can be reached at hmodly@bamadvisor.com.

Sandra Atkins, CPA/PFS, is the former president of Focus Wealth Management, Ltd., and was named One of the 50 Distinguished Women in Wealth Management by Wealth Manager Magazine in 2008. She is a member of AICPA and NAPFA.


Well done Helen. And to her point: CPAs think and behave in processes, while most financial professional have been trained to think in "product" solutions and language. This causes a huge disconnect, and often causes a CPA to view a financial advisor as a product pusher. Focus on communicating the unique process you bring to the client, and why it is unique to the CPA. Daryl Logullo http://www.maximumreferrals.com/blog
It's time to stop using 'salesperson' as a negative. I aleways tell people that i am proud to be in sales and that I sell only after carefully getting to understand what a client needs and, after all, they ultimately have to invest in ( buy ) something or they won't reahc their goals. I also tell clients that i won't sell them anything that I would not buy for my own portfolio. Thanks. Ellen P.
Amen Ellen! Nothing happens until there's a sale. If you believe in your product/service, why in the world would you want to rob anyone out experiencing who you are and what you have to offer? Jim "Da Coach" Rohrbach http://www.SuccessSkills.com

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