The public is so confused about financial planning. People think the service is about managing assets. How do we educate them?
Years ago, if you said "financial planner," a random person on the street would word-associate: "life insurance agent." Then it was "tax shelter salesman." Now it's "asset manager." That tells me the public takes its cue directly from the profession.
If the majority of the people with "financial planner" on their business cards are doing something different, that's what the public will think the profession does. If everybody who calls himself or herself a planner actually did planning, the public would catch on pretty quickly.
But I also think advisors need to shift their communication from "Here's what I do" to "Here's the benefit to you if you work with me." The only way I know to do that is tell stories. Redact the names, of course, but tell success stories about clients who came to you with interesting challenges - and who, after working with you, are now on the path to success. Those stories are not about how you helped somebody achieve a 1% additional return on his investment portfolio; they're about real-life situations, which are inherently more compelling.
How would we enforce the distinction between real planners and people who are misapplying the term for marketing or other purposes?
I think you can arrive at the best way to enforce it by exploring the other options. Should we rely on people who are posing as planners to stop if we ask them nicely? Is there a voluntary way to make it happen? Probably not.
At the other end of the spectrum, should we have the government define financial planning and then create laws that prevent others from using the term? I don't know about you, but I distrust the process. If lawmakers propose something in Congress, the brokerage industry will be handing over large bags of cash and dictating how they want that definition to be written. Pretty soon the people I would consider to be "real" financial planners would be prohibited from using the term, unless they were selling toxic mortgage pools or gathering assets for their wirehouse.
Somewhere in the middle, I can envision a professional organization that would only allow people to become members if its credential-checking staff is satisfied that they are doing real financial planning. Doctors belong to the AMA. Lawyers register with the bar. Planners would register with this organization - and if you're not a member, then the public has the right to presume that you're not a real financial planner.
This could be a subset of an existing membership organization like NAPFA or the Financial Planning Association; in fact, the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants has a section devoted to people who offer personal financial planning, which could be expanded or serve as a model. Or the profession could form a new organization entirely.
Wouldn't that exclude a lot of great people? Yes, absolutely. But all professions are, by definition, exclusive. And hey, those who are not planners are free to form their own organizations: one for professional asset managers, another for those professional salespeople who are not fouling anybody's nest. And maybe those who don't qualify for these groups can form their own umbrella organization. I'll even throw out a catchy working title: The IAPIABWTITIPTCIF, The International Association of People in the Investment Advice Business Who Think It's a Terrible Idea to Put Their Clients' Interests First.
Bob Veres, a Financial Planningcolumnist, publishes the Inside Information newsletter and website for advisors at bobveres.com. Post your comments on Financial Planning's discussion boards at financial-planning.com/forums. Readers can also send feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.