As advisory firms look for ways to grow -- be it through acquisition or opening new offices -- they’re bound to run into any number of challenges. Among them: ensuring that clients receive consistently good service, maintaining a single corporate culture and keeping far-flung employees connected.

At the Schwab Impact financial industry conference held this week in Washington, four growth experts discussed how advisors can overcome these obstacles -- offering a mix of high-tech and high-touch solutions.

The panel featured Michael Kossman, principal, chief operating officer and chief compliance officer at wealth management group Aspiriant; Donald King, a principal and chief information officer at advisory firm JMG Financial Group; Dwight Mikulis, CFO and senior partner with wealth management and investment company Pinnacle Advisory Group; and  Matthew Sonnen, vice president in charge of strategic operations at Focus Financial Partners, which has aggregated 27 wealth advisory firms under its umbrella.

Sonnen started by talking about a key to any growth plan -- the ability of an expanding firm to take stock of itself.  There are times when a company might be eyeing another firm, he said, yet still running on Excel spreadsheets and struggling to produce performance reports. Any firm open to a merger, however, is probably looking to rid itself of a similar outdated setup. “Look at your own house first,” he said.

'CONCIERGE' FOR CLIENTS

In addition to the operational issues, it’s important for a growing firm to deliver consistent client services.

Mikulis said Pinnacle has a “concierge” to onboard new clients that are brought in by the firm’s advisors. The staffer helps with vaulting and other standard tasks that are usually handled by the wealth manager who brought in the client. The service, while freeing up advisors to attract new clients or help existing ones, also ensures that each new customer has the same initial personal experience with the firm.

Aspiriant also works hard to deliver consistency, Kossman said. The firm’s goal is to give all clients the same high level of service -- whether they walk into one of the firm’s offices or receive one of the company’s mailings.

Aspiriant’s investment strategy team drafts a single quarterly report that goes to all the firm’s clients, he said. And whether it’s about the economy, financial planning or other issues, the firm maintains a consistent voice. From a client-service perspective, he said, “it’s a very efficient way to do it.”

But a successful expansion doesn’t just depend on external communications, good internal communications are also important.

TECHNOLOGY SOLUTIONS

When JMG Financial Group, which is based in Oakbrook, Ill., opened up a second office in Chicago, chief information officer King deployed a unified communications strategy. The two offices use an advanced voice and data network connecting the offices, but when clients in the western suburb call the company they dial an Oakbrook number, while clients in Chicago see a city phone number.

King is also a big proponent of putting everything in the cloud. He said it’s easier for employees to be trained in a set of applications and to be able to access them from any location.  “A cloud-based environment is going to be the most efficient,” he said.

Kossman said Aspiriant is also moving onto the cloud. But he cautions others to obtain the bandwidth necessary to handle it.  Slow, unreliable networks can kill productivity, especially when core systems are hosted online.

And a robust network has added advantages. With its communications network, Aspiriant set up a videoconferencing system that lets employees stay in touch with one another. “It’s an incredible tool that brings all our offices together,” Kossman said.

But be wary of becoming too tech-dependent, the advisors all cautioned, as they reminding peers of the need to retain the human element.

“Nothing beats face to face,” said Sonnen.

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