Baby boomers are growing increasingly worried about planning for a secure retirement, but new research finds that advisors can play a critical role in alleviating some of that anxiety -- even if they underestimate how long it takes to build client trust.

According to a new survey from the Insured Retirement Institute -- kicking off National Retirement Planning Week, an initiative of the National Retirement Planning Coalition -- just 27% of boomers say they are "highly confident" that their savings will last through retirement, the lowest mark yet in the five years the group has been conducting the poll.

At the same time, IRI's findings underscore the value that investment advisors offer for Americans planning for retirement: 86% of the respondents who say they work with an advisor are better positioned for retirement than they would be had they opted to go it alone.

"We know confidence is down -- consumers are struggling when it comes to planning. But resources and help are truly available," IRI President and CEO Cathy Weatherford told reporters on a conference call. "This is an area where I think professional financial help can add tremendous value around preparedness, good planning, excellent confidence and preparation in the event of any kind of cognitive deficiencies in retirement."

ADVISOR-CLIENT DISCONNECT

And yet, according to recent research from Prudential, there is a disconnect between advisors and their clients in how long each expect it to take for the relationship to achieve a high level of trust, perhaps the most critical factor in determining whether consumers are likely to refer their advisor to others.

"Surprisingly, it takes close to five years before a client will refer his or her advisor," says Bruce Ferris, president of Prudential Annuities Distributors. "That's more than twice as long as the two years on average that advisors themselves thought. Building trust takes time."

Then, too, Ferris reminds advisors -- particularly those working with investors who are preparing for retirement -- of the importance of developing a plan in service of clearly defined long-term goals, and then having the discipline to help clients remain on that path.

"Perhaps the most valuable role an advisor plays is as a counselor, guiding individuals to stay the course and avoid bad financial behavior. In other words, resisting their own emotional responses and actions," Ferris says. "Their objectivity helps reinforce the importance of sticking with a plan and focusing on those long-term objectives."

CAUTIOUSLY OPTIMISTIC

Despite the overarching concerns that survey respondents express about their readiness for retirement, the findings also reveal a cautious optimism about the days ahead, with 44% of those polled saying they feel that their financial picture will improve in the next five years, up from 32% in the 2012 survey.

At first glance, that might seem at odds with the general gloom that respondents express about their retirement prospects, but Weatherford suggests that the recent uptick in the markets could account for some of that near-term optimism.

Perhaps, too, boomers are getting more realistic about their retirement prospects, accepting that they will have to work longer in order to avoid running out of money in their golden years.

"Also, I think it is probably the continuation of being in the workforce by many people who would have probably retired at what we would have called a traditional retirement age, so they're shoring up their retirement savings here on the back end," Weatherford says.

GETTING CLIENTS ON TRACK

But IRI's survey reveals some troubling facts about how boomers are approaching retirement, including the finding that 40% say they have no retirement savings, and just 19% say they have saved at least $250,000.

Twenty-four percent of boomers say that they postponed plans to retire in the past year, and now 28% say they plan to retire at the age of 70 or later.

A confluence of familiar macro trends has helped stoke concerns about Americans' retirement preparedness, including the substantial number of boomers who will be exiting the workforce in the coming years, longer life expectancies and the fact that workers increasingly have to manage their own retirement planning.

"At a time when individuals are increasingly responsible for their own long-term financial security, where the financial responsibility and liability management have been transferred from their company's balance sheet to their personal balance sheet, many are beginning to understand the value of peace of mind that retirement can bring," says Ferris.

"Research demonstrates that those who partner with a financial professional feel more prepared to make wise decisions about their finances and their retirement," Ferris adds. "Our own research has shown that those who use an advisor are more than twice as likely as those who do not to consider themselves on track or ahead of schedule in planning for retirement. That same research, however, has shown that many Americans don't know where to start or how to begin."

Ferris stresses the importance of advisors offering full and clear disclosures about fees and presenting clients with realistic expectations about the rate of returns they can expect. "In other words, transparency," he says.

Kenneth Corbin is a Financial Planning contributing writer in Washington.

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