At 37, I decided to get braces. Growing up my parents didn't have the resources to buy braces for me, and so I watched longingly as my friends achieved their picture-perfect smiles.

Every planner has a vision of a practice with a perfect smile-whether that means more revenue or more time off. To build your practice into what you dream it will be, you need to see it clearly and then think like a businessperson, streamline operations and market yourself.

Early in my career I had the good fortune of working for a rainmaker who generated $20 million a year in business. He passed on a good deal of sage advice, including, "If you want to be successful, get used to being uncomfortable."

I've also had the privilege of consulting with hundreds of advisors over my career. In every case, we start with a discussion of how things are compared to how they want them to be. In every case, there is a laundry list of things to improve or overcome, and a nearly limitless list of possibilities to capitalize on. And, in every case, we have the discipline discussion, which consists of three very simple, but very hard, questions:

* Are you willing to be uncomfortable?

* Can you approach the business with an owner's mind-set?

* Do you have the discipline to make the changes that will make a difference?

 

BEING A GBO

The first question advisors should ask themselves is, "Am I a GFA or a GBO?" Being a GFA (great financial advisor) is essential to serving clients well, but it doesn't mean that you're a GBO (great business owner). Advisors do not approach me in conference hallways lamenting that they could double their practice if only they understood asset allocation models more fully. They do not call me and inquire how to run better retirement planning projections so that they can spend more time with their family. They want advice on running their business.

The secret of the most financially successful planners is that they don't view themselves as advisors, but as owners who happen to be in the business of delivering financial advice. For example, one two-partner firm approached us with the goal of doubling revenue while improving their quality of life. They were caring, competent professionals who delivered great financial advice.

With a plan and encouragement, they raised their fees, increased their minimums, upgraded their brand, reorganized their staff, let smaller clients go and developed a systematized service model. After seven quarters, they more than doubled assets from $43 million under management to $96 million. After accounting for the 2008-09 downturn, they have doubled again, to $190 million as of this writing. This team experienced this growth because they decided to run their business with discipline.

 

STREAMLINING OPERATIONS

In Quantuvis' 2009 Best Practices: Business Performance study, we learned that the top firms ran efficient practices. Here are some of their strategies:

* Segment your client base into revenue-based categories. For example, A clients generate an average of $10,000-plus a year in revenue, B clients $5,000-$9,999.

* Define service tiers that detail what services each client segment receives. For example, A clients receive two in-person meetings per year, B clients receive one in-person meeting per year.

* Define who delivers the services to clients, by advisor and staff. Estimate the time required to deliver the services.

* Estimate the cost of delivering services to each client segment. The simplest way to do so is to divide total overhead by total number of clients, to calculate the average expense per client (e.g., $300,000 in overhead expenses/100 clients equals expense per client of $3,000). We like to run more robust cost analysis to allocate costs to client segments, but this simple calculation will serve as a starting point on your own.

* Run a profitability analysis on each client segment to determine the level of profitability. To do so, simply subtract the average expense per client from the average revenue per client. For example, A clients generate $10,000 per year and cost $7,500 per year to support, for a net profitability of $2,500 per client.

* Compare client segment performance and assess profitability across your different client segments. Some clients, typically the smaller ones, will be less profitable than others.

* Create a suite of services for each client segment that serves each segment fairly, but not necessarily equally. One of the most common mistakes we see advisors make is meeting with all of their clients on the same frequency schedule. Another is not having any regular schedule for such meetings and simply responding as clients inquire.

* Define how you and your staff will deliver the services to each client segment. We literally map out each step of the process and create all of the documentation needed. Review checklists, forms, meeting agendas and client communications.

The key is to define who gets what, when, how and from whom. When you do this, you dramatically improve the quality and consistency of client service, enhance productivity and profitability and improve satisfaction for both staff and advisors.

 

MAXIMIZING MARKETING

Good marketing is a simple, systematic and sustainable process for cultivating new business; if you want a plan that works, you have to work the plan. The secret to good marketing is contained on the back of every shampoo bottle: lather, rinse, repeat.

It doesn't have to be flashy. In one set of research we conducted on 400 top advisors, we found that the list of things that "worked" was nearly identical to the list of things that "didn't work." To put it another way, growing your practice isn't about finding the perfect idea, it's about finding the ideas that are right for you, and how well you put those ideas into practice.

For many advisors, the market downturn brought the realization that double-digit growth was not a birthright, but rather a bull market benefit of which they have been the happy recipients. Because of this realization, advisors are now developing marketing plans that will allow them to maintain the right number of mix of clients through good markets and bad.

Referrals are key. Our research shows that the average advisor receives 50% of his or her business from client referrals and 10% from professional referrals, while top advisors receive 60% from clients and 20% from professionals. Imagine that over the last decade you had received 20% more client referrals and twice as many professional referrals-what would the resulting revenue have been?

Only 50% of advisors send a thank-you card when a referral is received, and the other half appear to do nothing. Have a formal process for encouraging referrals and acknowledging them. An example is to communicate monthly with your referral or prospective sources or to set up a series of weekly lunch meetings.

 

PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER

So why after 37 years did I finally decide to get braces? Because I believe wholeheartedly in the advice I share with advisors each day. Time will pass regardless of whether you act on your dreams in ways that deliver what you want. Time will pass and you will still be wanting. Life is too short to not make the most of it, and owning a business is too hard to not take steps to reap the greatest possible rewards.

After 15 years of consulting with advisory firms on how to build and grow better businesses, I have come to a seemingly controversial conclusion. The asset advisors have in greatest abundance is potential, and the asset they lack in equal measure is the discipline to take advantage of it.

I don't make this observation lightly, or with any form of judgment. It is, however, my fairest observation on what holds advisors back from building the practices they envision. Your potential is not unlike my new smile-the possibility is there, it is simply waiting for you to take action in ways that will allow it to shine.

 

Stephanie Bogan is the CEO of Quantuvis Consulting in Redlands, Calif. Contact her at Stephanie@quantuvis.com.