Bridget Sullivan Mermel CFP®, CPA
A pricing model that puts me in the driver's seat
It was tax season, so naturally I was miserable. But, driven by the right amount of adrenaline and caffeine, I was upbeat for a new client meeting with a woman I'll call Marge. Marge had said her tax prep was easy and that last year she paid $200. Unfortunately, her accountant had disappeared. After asking Marge some questions on the phone, I had explained that I billed hourly, based on $160 an hour, and that I estimated her tax return would end up costing her between $350 and $550.
She made about $150,000 a year and liked to talk. At our meeting she told me about her personal shopper at Saks and how she scoured the city for the freshest pecans when she had people over for dinner. She could spend over $1,000 on a dinner party for eight. The meeting ended up taking 90 minutes and she didn't give me complete information.
When I woke up the next day, my meeting with Marge was bothering me. My experience taught me that I'd have to argue with her to get the $550 I had quoted; much less the $800 that I now thought it would actually take to work with a gabby client who provides scant information.
Plus, her manner turned me off. She had an air of entitlement that bugged me. She made plenty of money, more than I did in fact, yet I just knew she'd argue with me about my fee. She had no interest in where I was coming from, except for how much I'd charge, she hadn't asked me a single question about myself. I was trying to keep things short and efficient to save her money, and she was blabbing away about how much money she spent rehabbing her basement.
I'd already invested too much time in Marge, and now mulling it over, I was investing more energy. During the tax season, I had to make sure that I billed for every hour of my work. I couldn't spend hours and not get paid; there were plenty of people more than happy to pay me during those months. I had hundreds of other people to take care of. Usually, I'd just cut my losses: finish the job, put off the conversation about the bill until later and at least recoup something for my time.
But this time, I didn't want to. That's why in retrospect I see this moment as a turning point.
I called her and told her that because of our long meeting, her bill would be $550 but it might be more. She acted like she couldn't grasp what I was saying. After twenty minutes (more time!) of repeating myself, I finally stopped talking. I wouldn't back down. And because she "couldn't afford" my services I gave her documents back and sent her on her way.
The problem wasn't Marge. The problem was that I was sick of it. I was sick of hourly billing. I hated it when I presented a bill to clients after the work was done, then the clients complained about the total. I felt as if I had to justify my time after they had already gotten the benefit of my services. It made me feel small. I was sick of clients not seeing value in my work. Arguing over $500 was idiotic. Even thought this dynamic only happened a few times a year out of hundreds of clients, I was still utterly sick of it. If this happened at all, it was now too much.
I was sick of the grind of tax season. I worked as many hours as I could stand and ignored my health and my personal relationships. The only way to make more was to work more, and frankly I wanted to work less. I had too many clients. People shared intimate details of their life with me, and I couldn't recognize them at the grocery store two months later. I had no support. Sure, I knew other accountants, but I didn't have a lot of people around who thought like me or who had similar goals and aspirations.
The moment taking the time to tell Marge I wasn't going to back down on my pricing was a small, quiet moment. It wasn't like she was the worst or most outrageous client I had encountered. In fact, she wasn't that bad. But it was the turning point, nonetheless. In that moment, I knew I was going to change.
However, I didn't know what I wanted to do next. I could sell my tax practice, but then what? It wasn't that I hated tax; I just hated the grind of the industry. I also saw a great need among my clients for decent, comprehensive financial advice. The financial industry was not serving them well. If they had less than $1 million to invest the only financial advisors who seemed interested in working with them had a serious case of commission breath.
These sales people were interested in talking to my clients when they could make commissions, but weren't interested in my clients' overall well-being. While I enjoyed financial planning and knew that I'd be good at it, I felt like many in the financial planning industry were commissioned sales people using financial planning as a gimmick to sell insurance or something else. I wanted to figure out a way to work as a financial advisor and feel good about myself.
I first looked into HD Vest and First Global. While they would help me get up and running, most of their products were commission-based. I didn't want to work off commissions. The conflict of interest is staggering. It would be me ripping clients off rather than other people ripping clients off. Plus, in exchange for the low cost to get up-and-running, these outfits extracted a hefty cut of future commissions. I didn't want to limit my future practice that way.
I looked into the Garrett Planning Network, but becoming an hourly financial planner held no appeal. Part of my problem was hourly billing. But with tax work, at least clients are compelled to show up every year. With hourly financial planning there's no such motivator for clients and I could foresee an endless marketing and sales cycle.
Luckily, I discovered ACP. ACP offers a sane business model that really fit my values as well as my strengths. The business model includes:
The model is based on client complexity, assets, and income. Clients agree to it before they sign a contract, so fee issues are handled up-front rather than after I've invested my time and energy in the work. It's time-tested by ACP members so I know it's fair, yet I'm not undercharging. It's not based on hours so I don't have to work more hours to make more money. I just need to attract more clients and handle them more efficiently.
A clear value proposition for clients
Included in the pricing model is a cost/benefit analysis which I also go through with clients. I have solid numbers to back up the value that I will add to the client. I never have to justify my value after a bill is presented. Clients are clear on the value they can expect.
A more even workflow throughout the year
I'm not the victim of my workload anymore, and my clients get better service. I'm looking for a balanced lifestyle. While tax season is still busier than the rest of the year, I believe I should be able to maintain my health and personal relationships through tax season too. I have time to call back clients and to talk to them.
No more tracking billable hours
Because the billing is not dependent on hours, this eliminates a task that I was particularly weak at. (Some ACP members track their hours for their own productivity, but I don't.)
More rewarding relationships and work Many clients see tax work as a necessary evil; they have to pay someone to tell them how much to pay the IRS. The ACP work is based on helping clients with their overall financial well-being. I'm helping clients in a deeper way and it feels good.
Fewer clients mean less anxiety for both me and my clients
I've heard about research that shows that there is a limit to the number of close relationships a person can maintain. The number is somewhere around 150. I'm not trying to maintain too many close relationships.
Network of support
ACP attracts top advisors who want to share information and be part of a larger community. Time and time again other advisors have bent over backwards to help me out. That feels fantastic.
Shared ethics and values
In tune with my entrepreneurial spirit
I wanted to feel good about what I'm offering clients. ACP advisors are fiduciaries to their clients and agree to the most stringent ethics in the industry.
While I agree to the ACP code of ethics and use most of the ACP intellectual property, I have my own practice with my policies. Unlike broker/dealer arrangements with CPAs no one takes a cut of my revenue.
Well thought through intellectual property
I made the switch easily by updating skills I already had. I didn't have to reinvent the proverbial wheel. I sat for the CFP® exam, which was mostly a review of topics I learned as an undergrad. I also participated in the ACP training program. With those refreshers and the ACP System™, I had the resources I needed to help clients right away. While I do customize some of the resources to make them fit my personality and business, that is optional. The system works off the shelf.
Tax prep and planning
Tax prep and planning is included in the financial planning package, so I can build on my strengths to help clients. Most folks in the financial planning industry don't know much about taxes, and I felt frustrated with the tax results many of my clients were getting from other investment advisors. The ACP System™ integrates tax, investment, insurance, estate, and other financial advice for clients. ACP clients like the fact that all of their financial advice is integrated under one roof.
I made an arrangement with another CPA to buy the clients who weren't interested in signing up for more services with me. In the first year of the business change, my new business brought in 97% of the revenue that my tax practice had earned. That didn't include the revenue from selling the clients who didn't want more service. While I had had additional expenses associated with the business in the first year, my expenses went down in the second year. By year two I was making significantly more money than I did with my tax practice.
Changing my business was a big decision. However, once I decided to change my practice, joining ACP was an easy decision to make.