Back when I was starting out as an advisor, my goal was to be an expert in all areas of finance: investments, accounting, estate planning - you name it. I wanted to be the one person my clients would need.
Around that time, I met a hugely respected CPA. I'll never forget walking into his office and seeing a giant stack of accounting books and journals on his desk. "That's the reading material that I need to catch up on to stay current," he sighed. That sentence quickly changed my plans: Instead of trying to be the expert in all things, I decided to work with a team of expert professionals who could help me bring the right expertise to my clients.
That was many years ago, when laws governing taxes, wealth transfer and wealth protection were simpler. Now, the need to work with a team of experts has become paramount. Affluent clients increasingly expect their primary advisors to help them address the full range of their financial concerns.
Given the complexities in today's marketplace, trying to do it all yourself is a recipe for insufficient advice and dissatisfied clients.
The key to addressing the complex needs of affluent clients is to have a network of highly specialized experts - whether in-house or available for referral - who can identify and provide optimal solutions. Such a team will help you guarantee the satisfaction of your most valued clients and help you maximize your chance of getting new business.
3 KEY RESOURCES
Elite advisors typically build expert teams with three core members:
1. Private client lawyer. This professional will address your clients' estate planning, wealth protection and legal needs, three critical areas of concern for most wealth clients. This lawyer might also work on succession and business planning issues, as well as issues around probate and guardianships. Seek out this professional first, because he or she will probably know the other professionals you'll want to add later. These lawyers also tend to be skilled and willing collaborators when working with advisors. High-end boutique firms are great places to start your hunt. In every case, your client hires the lawyer directly and you receive no portion of his or her fees.
2. Life insurance specialist. These professionals tend to work closely with the lawyers on insurance solutions. Look for a true independent here - meaning someone who doesn't get incentives from a single company. For insurance products, expect to get a 50/50 split on commissions, which are typically 90% to 120% of the first year's premium, for a referral.
3. Accountant. While a lawyer may well provide a big-picture perspective on tax planning, an accountant typically has much more detailed, day-to-day knowledge of income taxes and mitigation strategies. If you don't have an accountant on your staff, you might consider setting up a revenue-sharing referral deal.
As the wealth manager, you serve as the fourth member of the team, and its general manager. You are responsible for building and managing the team, providing team members with a clear and thorough understanding of each client you work with together, and facilitating the expert team meetings that result in recommendations and action steps.
With a solid team in place, you avoid having to be a technical expert in non-investment areas. You will grow over time to better understand the technical issues and the range of potential recommendations; you'll also learn enough to be able to recognize when clients need additional help.
DEEPER BENCH TALENT
There is a wide range of other professionals that you may need only occasionally - perhaps even just once or twice. These specialists probably don't need to be a permanent part of your network, but you can often consult with your core experts to locate the right one when needed.
For instance, many wealth managers find that they occasionally need a personal lines insurance specialist - a property-casualty agent who works at the very high end of the market - or a credit expert to evaluate clients' current loan situation. Often you can find the appropriate experts at the community level, perhaps via a community- oriented bank or mortgage lender.
You may also need a corporate tax lawyer from time to time to serve ultrahigh-net-worth clients.
Other specialists that you may need on a one-off basis, depending on your client base: a derivatives specialist to deal with concentrated stock positions; a securities lawyer to support the work of the derivatives specialist; an actuary to address certain complex life insurance issues; and a valuation specialist to appraise business interests, real estate or collectibles.
You won't necessarily need to spend a lot of time finding many of these experts and establishing close relationships with them. Indeed, the smart move is to look to your core team members to help you find other specialists on an as-needed basis. Chances are, they work with many of these ancillary experts already, and can bring them on board when the time comes.
WHOM TO TRUST
Finding highly qualified potential members for your expert network is not as difficult as it might seem. Start by considering the resources available from the financial firms where you already obtain services or products. (Some life insurance companies, for example, offer wealth transfer and charitable-giving services.)
Referrals from other advisors who work with the affluent are another highly effective route, as are referrals from your top clients.
As part of your discovery process, you should already know who your clients' other professional advisors are. Consider asking wealthier clients with whom you have close relationships for introductions to their other professional service providers.
Also, don't overlook industry seminars and conferences, where you can look for individuals who demonstrate the level of expertise you need.
Size up your candidates on four key criteria:
- Level of expertise. You must have absolutely the best and most appropriate expertise available for your specific client base. Don't bring on board a second-rate attorney who can't generate the best recommendations for your clients' financial challenges. But also, if your typical affluent client has $3 million in net worth, avoid choosing an attorney who specializes in clients with $50 million or more.
- Ability to collaborate. Your team members must be able to interact cohesively and support each other. A lawyer and a life insurance specialist must be able to work together closely, for example, because insurance products very often will support the lawyer's estate planning strategies.
- Client relationship management skills. You need to feel comfortable - even proud of - putting members of your team in front of your valued clients. This means you need people who, even after doing a great deal of work, will graciously accept the decision of a client who chooses not to pursue a recommendation.
- A noncompetitive outlook. Members of your network cannot compete with you, period. Your life insurance specialist, for example, cannot manage money in any way, shape or form. Competition negates the benefits of working as a unified team.
Don't make the mistake of trying to do it all yourself. That approach simply doesn't work anymore, if it ever did. Building a great team of outside experts will only make you a better advisor to your clients - who will quickly see the tremendous value you and your team bring to their financial lives.
You'll also differentiate yourself from the competition in the eyes of ideal prospective clients. The end result: a stronger practice that's capable of competing successfully with any other wealth management firm.
John J. Bowen Jr., a Financial Planning columnist, is founder and CEO of CEG Worldwide, a global training, research and consulting firm for advisors in San Martin, Calif.