Total client focus is the key to success as a fee-only financial advisor, according to Irwin Gross, a wealth coach and one of the founders of Family Wealth Partners, a firm in Weston, Fla.

Too many sales people are self-oriented, focusing on products instead of on client needs, he said.

“The biggest issue that I see in our industry is that everybody says the same thing,” he said. Whether it’s an insurance agent or a stockbroker, they all say they are financial planners, he contends, meaning “the majority of our industry is a sales process, not a planning process.” That is a disservice to clients, he believes. Unfortunately, true financial planning more time and expertise than many firms can provide.

“If you’re not charging me a fee there’s a hidden agenda,” he said, which is something that clients need to understand. 
While there are many people out there offering financial plans for free, only at a fee-based planner are they “going to get objective advice and not product.”

Gross said his firm has been fee-only since its founding sixteen years ago. He says that what makes his firm stand out is a commitment to personalized service and planning. At large companies, he said, “they have a group of funds that are utilized pretty much for everybody within certain categories.” But he believes “you have to go deeper than that.”

He expects that everyone in his office will know the name of every client who walks in the door. They take notes on what a client likes to drink, make personal phone calls on birthdays, and have meetings several times a year. Gross said this “wow approach” is one of the things that differentiates his firm from all the others out there saying they offer financial advice.

In the first meeting, he talks about goals, visions, missions and values, not about products. ‘The plan creates the solutions, not the reverse.” He also discusses the priorities of each client, because “you can’t work on everything at the same time.”

Too often, he said, people who give financial advice only focus on one piece of the picture. A life insurance agent pushes insurance. A stockbroker offers stock.  But to a true financial advisor “the view needs to be on a coordinated basis,” with everything -- taxes, employee benefits, insurance, investments, estate planning, charitable contributions and more – as part of the puzzle.

For example, he said, one strategy is how to manage tax liability with a qualified retirement plan like a 401(k).

Such plans are “a wonderful tool,” Gross said. Many employers match contributions to the plans, and the money accumulates on a tax-deferred basis. Which is why, he said, of the pool of investments that a person makes, the most tax inefficient on a current basis should be in the qualified plan and other, more tax efficient investments should be held outside of it. He said he will counsel clients how to use their qualified retirement plan as one piece of a larger investment picture to minimize taxes and maximize their eventual retirement income.