A respected member of the profession told me recently about some colleagues who didn't make it through the 2008 market debacle because their value proposition was too closely tied to investment returns. "Don't you think,'' he said to me, "a lot of people are returning to what financial planning was supposed to be all along?"
Our profession's history is a story of mass migration away from, and then back to, what we might call real planning. In the 1970s, giving away plans was the hot new way to sell life insurance. In the 1980s, planning experienced a brief resurgence before people discovered that the real money could be found selling tax shelters. After another resurgence in the 1990s, the profession drifted into the assets-under-management business model. There was a brief revival when the tech bubble burst, and we're in another one now.
It's encouraging to see how the core planning service has become better, stronger and more consumer friendly with each revival. These days, we're customizing technical advice and services directly to a client's goals, an improvement over the retirement and estate planning focus that came before, or the textbook-size plans of the 1980s.
PLANNERS WHO STRAY
If history is any guide, the profession is once again about to stray off into an altogether different business model. This pattern is too well established for us not to take it seriously.
Why does this keep happening? If we really want to fix the pattern then we have to face some hard facts about the profession and recognize what drives people away from its core service.
Hard Fact 1: Financial planning, done right, is difficult work.
How difficult? You try to get people to open up about the most private, intimate subject in the world (more so than sex), and educate them in all the necessary complexities of investing, taxes, estate planning, saving, budgeting and daring to dream about the things that are close to their hearts. Then you do something even tougher: help people change their behavior in positive ways. The technical work is getting easier all the time, due to new software innovations. But it will never be easy to provide good financial planning service. Something else - anything else - always will be easier.
Hard Fact 2: Financial planning has never been an especially lucrative profession.
Let's face it: Most of you, in normal times, could be making a lot more money selling insurance or simply managing assets than by charging a fee for comprehensive planning services.
THE HAZARDS OF UNDERCHARGING
I think this is partly our fault. Many planners have a social work mentality. That is, they prefer to undercharge for their services, and don't manage their own business as carefully as they tend their clients' financial circumstances. As a result, the profession doesn't have enough prosperous role models. Making the problem worse are the organizations that give planning away so they can sell something.
The combination is clearly dysfunctional. When planners look at the best service providers, they see a chronic lack of prosperity. Then, when they try to charge appropriately, they face competition that gives away some version of their services. Is it any wonder planning professionals are easily lured into other businesses?
Hard Fact 3: Financial planning, done right, is always confrontational to the established institutions in the financial world.
If you sit on the same side of the table as your clients, then you are protecting them from high expense ratios, high trading costs, excessive trading, soft-dollar arrangements and, of course, the rampant sleaze that is cheerfully incorporated into large corporate business models whenever nobody is looking.
You are an enemy to everybody else's profit margin and every marketing gimmick. As I see it, companies that spend the most on advertising and marketing hate you (there's no way to put this gently), and the planning services you provide.
Is there anything planners can do about this? First and foremost, I think you should take great pride in the difficulty of your work. Planning done right creates its own barriers to entry. Not everybody can do it, and those who can are scarce and precious and ultimately important to the world around you.
It's also time for planning professionals to charge appropriately for their work - and, in the bigger picture, to give themselves the same level of care that they bring their clients. That means you should find an excellent financial planner and go through all the life planning exercises of identifying your own personal goals and dreams and ambitions, and visualize your ideal practice.
This, too, is hard work; I think you will discover that it is almost as hard to be a financial planning client as it is to be a financial planner. But it is harder still to accomplish these things on your own, without outside help.
Some will ask, can't they do this themselves? After all, they are trained financial professionals. The clear answer is: No, you can't. You are simply not selfish enough to keep your eyes on your own agenda when you have so many clients and business work to attend to. Somebody else has to do for you what you do for others: Be that outside voice that forces you to stay on the course that you have set.
WHO ARE THE PRETEND PLANNERS?
I think we have to be willing to draw distinctions between who is a real financial planner and who is just pretending. Whenever I bring this up, there is a chorus of voices saying that the profession shouldn't be speaking negatively about others.
Yet whenever somebody gives away financial planning just to get the attention of a potential customer, whenever a consumer seeks planning help and gets sold an expensive, unnecessary annuity or a canned wrap account, real financial planning suffers a big setback that has real consequences. Those moments take real dollars out of the pockets of real planners, either in lost business or in general consumer cynicism about the profession.
PUNISH THE WANDERERS
If people wander away in the direction of the next easy business model, they should be exiled from the planning profession, and should know that this will be a consequence. Yes, this will require a lot of courage.
Membership organizations will have to turn away paying members. There will be ugly, public arguments between "real" planners and the people who desperately want to be perceived as planners so that they can get their foot in the door.
Any sensitive person hates this kind of confrontation, but we need to recognize that thousands of planner pretenders are deliberately taking advantage of this. They know how much we hate to get into messy fights, and so they squeal as loudly as they can as soon as somebody tries to distinguish between actual planning and sales of investment products or services.
PLANNERS MUST DEFEND PLANNING
I wish I could say that this column will prevent thousands of financial professionals from straying from the hard, not always lucrative, financial planning work that their clients desperately need. I wish I could be confident that you and your colleagues will be strong enough to follow through on such hard tasks as working with coaches or financial planners and building your lives as boldly and tenderly as you nurture those of your clients. There is no way to know what the next alternative-to-planning part of your life will be.
Perhaps if we say these things out loud, the people in the profession can start to have a healthy debate. The planning work at the core of this profession is too important for us not to try to defend it.
Bob Veres, a Financial Planning columnist, publishes the Inside Information website and newsletter for advisors at bobveres.com. Post your comments on Financial Planning's discussion boards at financial-planning.com/forums. Readers can also send feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org