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Session summaries, speaker superlatives from the 63rd Annual MNCPA Tax Conference

| February/March 2018 Footnote

More than 1,400 professionals from around the Greater Midwest attended the 63rd Annual Tax Conference Nov. 30-Dec. 1 in Minneapolis. Considered one of the best conferences of its kind in the country, the MNCPA's Tax Conference draws speakers and attendees from near and far.

Tax and business professionals sat in on a variety of sessions aimed at helping them thrive in the changing and challenging tax environment. Topics covered included federal individual and business tax highlights, a look at the estate planning challenges within families, and protecting your data in the ever-changing digital world, among others.

Attendees also visited with dozens of exhibitors, connected with friends new and old, won prizes and enjoyed the evening happy hour.

Most likely to share a great story

Stuart Bear, "Managing Interpersonal Relationships in Connection With an Estate Plan"

"Estate planning is not a commodity like picking up the dry cleaning or a head of lettuce," Stuart Bear said to a room filled with hundreds of Tax Conference attendees. "It's understanding the interpersonal relationships behind crafting a well-designed plan."

Bear, a popular Tax Conference speaker and recent MNCPA Friend of the Profession award winner, outlined for session attendees the components of successful estate planning. What sets a well-executed plan apart, and how CPAs can increase their value to clients, is evaluating the multiple relationship intersections.

For example, selecting an executor for an estate, on paper, seems like a role that just takes people from point A to point B. However, executors also need to be good communicators. Are you considering whether the executor is keeping beneficiaries abreast of what's happening with the estate plan process? Does it make sense to just appoint the oldest sibling as executor, or will a younger sibling bristle at that because they're tired of being "bossed around?"

"There's no right answer," said Bear. "It's about asking the right questions and exploring the 'what ifs.'"

Key takeaways from the session included:

  • Communicate, communicate, communicate. Don't be afraid of over-communicating, even if you don't have news to share with your client. Communication is especially important in blended-family estate planning and the distribution of assets. And, most importantly, don't assume the kids know where the important documents are located.
  • Hold a family meeting. It's recommended to hold a family meeting at the conclusion of the estate planning process. This is where the children learn what the plans are and have questions answered. It's also a great opportunity for CPAs to build a relationship with the next generation of clients.
  • Revisit the estate plan every five years. Think about how much your life has changed in the past five years. Now consider your clients' lives and how much their lives have changed. Does the estate plan reflect those changes? It's good to revisit the estate plan every five years, and not assume that it's one-and-done.

Most likely to brighten your day

Art Kuesel, "Boosting Growth: Developing a Culture of Marketing and Business Development at Your Firm"

CPA firms today are seeing profits being squeezed and fierce competition. It's tougher to make money. To reverse this, Art Kuesel, founder of Kuesel Consulting, Inc., said it helps to offer specialized services like consulting, advisory or business valuation to name a few.

"Noncore services are the ones that are opening doors to new business," Kuesel shared with session attendees.

The best part: You'll retain more clients if they buy more services from you. CPAs offering four to five services to clients build deeper relationships and trust with them. And, the more clients entrust you with so much of their business, the less likely they'll want to leave and bring their business elsewhere.

Kuesel offered attendees four strategies to grow a niche practice area:

  • Organic: Find a passionate employee within the firm who wants to learn and master a new skill, and have them be your leader in this new niche area.
  • Lateral: Bring someone in from another firm to partner on a new specialty.
  • M&A: Identify a successful business in a service area you'd like to offer, and acquire them.
  • Co-source: Nurture strategic relationships where you can refer business to them and they can refer you.

This type of business development requires a marketing culture within the firm. To achieve this culture, Kuesel said it's important to outline marketing roles and expectations, set specific goals, meet regularly to share successes and areas for improvement, and host the proper trainings. But most importantly, everyone at the firm needs to be on board.

"Everyone plays a role in business development and growth for the firm," said Kuesel.

Most likely to be named protector of the year

Thomas G. Stephens Jr., "Cybersecurity, Data Protection and Password Management"

Oftentimes, it's the simplest step that saves your hide.

"Only click on something in an email if you know the person and you expected to receive it," Stephens told his audience in his usual candor.

But, of course, you need protection beyond simple avoidance. After all, the criminals of the world, especially when it comes to the internet, are getting smarter. Smart enough, in fact, that they rely on machines to do much of their work.

Take your second-line of defense, for example: The all-important password. For as long as there have been passwords for personal computers, there have been people using "password" or "123456" as their passwords. And, just as long, the bad guys have been compromising your computer and information by guessing those passwords.

If your password is only six characters, on average, it would take one day for your computer to be hacked. And, to think, that's with a possible 735 billion potential passwords. Increasing your password to just eight characters increases the average time to hack your password to 7,678 days! Quick math tells us that's 21 years. With each additional character, you've made it increasingly difficult to be compromised, given that you haven't gone for a simple password that can be guessed manually by someone.

With that in mind, here are some password tips from Stephens:

  • Use at least 12 characters.
  • Use both upper- and lower-case letters, one number and one special character.
  • Don't write it down, change it often and never recycle passwords.

Most likely to cause hand cramps from furious notetaking

Chris Wills, "8 Late-Stage College Planning Strategies You Don't Know About But Should"

You probably know loads about 529 accounts and FAFSA forms. But do you know about negotiating a financial aid award? How about scholarship award displacement? These are just some of the secrets that could save you or your clients some serious cash.

"There is no purchase as significant as college that people know so little about," said Chris Wills, financial-aid expert and president of College Inside Track, LLC. "People know more about the television they buy than they do about college."

During Wills' session, he provided attendees with eight money-saving strategies that can be applied no matter where you are in the college planning process. Having seen firsthand the effect poor planning can have on a family's financial situation, Wills pulled back the curtain and shared tips for college financial aid appeals, when to distribute funds from Grandparent 529 plans, and the steps all families, regardless of income level, should take when making that all-important investment in higher education.  

Attendees at Wills' session were reported to be doing some furious writing during this session. "I can't take notes fast enough," tweeted Elizabeth Bystrom, CPA, MNCPA member and Tax Conference attendee. 

Did you miss the session? Were you unable to capture every idea? Check out Wills' recent Footnote article  on the topic.

Most likely to help you succeed

Samantha Mansfield, Professionalization of Client Accounting Services

It's always worked this way, so why change? Because you may be missing opportunity.

Client relationships can be difficult, and expanding what you offer to clients can get messy. But Samantha Mansfield says you're missing out on opportunities for the taking.

When it comes to client accounting services, many believe it starts and ends with bookkeeping, writeups and after-the-fact reporing.

But, in reality, it also includes these services:

  • Financial statement preparation
  • General ledger/trial balance
  • Cash-flow management
  • Payroll preparation and reporting
  • Accounts payable and receivable
  • Transaction processing (BPO)
  • Virtual CFO services
  • Controllership
  • Business advisory

That sounds like a lot of opportunity. 

Mansfield said instead of always seeking to add clients, perhaps adding services can lead to a more fruitful, yet less stressful, venture.

"You have to target a niche," she told session attendees.

Here are four takeaways to deepen your practice and capitalize on the opportunity:

  • Migrate the focus of your client dialogs from compliance to business improvement.
  • Develop dashboards of key performance indicators that enlighten your clients as to the status and trends in their business.
  • Proactively educate yourself and your team about the issues driving business changes in your target market.
  • Participate in the industry forums of your target market, establishing yourself and your colleagues as trusted advisers.