In my column last month, I mentioned the importance of working with a team of outside experts as part of your efforts to deliver world-class service to your clients. Many advisors have asked me for more specifics about expert teams-what they should look like and how best to build them.
For starters, it's important to acknowledge the growing need for a team of experts to consult with. Clients today-especially affluent ones-want to work with advisors who can coordinate their financial lives and help them make decisions that take into account their entire financial pictures. It's no surprise, then, that advisors who can provide and coordinate a high level of expertise in many areas are enjoying a great deal of success. The tricky part, of course, is that few advisors possess all the knowledge and experience needed-whether in taxes, estate planning, asset protection or other fields.
Enter the expert team. Rather than try to do everything yourself and risk getting bogged down and distracted from what you do best as an advisor, it's much smarter to work with professionals who already have the expertise your clients require. Fortunately you won't need to hire an entire team of specialists and provide them with office space, equipment, support services and regular paychecks. Instead, you can put together a virtual team of free agents available to work on a strictly as-needed basis.
What should this modern-day expert team look like? First, your role: You are the general manager-the person in charge of defining the client's goals and key challenges. Over time, you will grow to understand the technical issues better and identify the range of potential solutions. You will know enough to recognize when there might be an opportunity, but you will rely on your professional network to affirm those opportunities. In short, your expertise must be in client profiling. Technical expertise will never be your primary focus.
The precise qualifications of the other, outside team members will in part depend on your target niche, since different types of affluent clients have different needs. At a minimum, though, you'll want to include a private-client lawyer who can address tax, estate planning and legal concerns-three areas of critical importance to all wealthy clients. Good private-client lawyers are adept at offering wealth-protection strategies, succession planning, and tax and estate strategies, as well as services such as probate, guardianship and conservatorship.
You should also work with an insurance specialist who can identify and structure solutions that leverage the entire range of insurance products. You want a true independent here-not someone who receives any kind of incentive from a company and may not have your clients' best interests at heart.
Why these two types of experts in particular? Because their areas of expertise cover the majority of needs that affluent investors and families have. That's certainly the case at CFG Wealth Management in Portland, Ore. The firm, which focuses on serving successful business owners and professionals, has built an expert team consisting of two attorneys, an independent insurance specialist and a CPA.
Partner Dave Pullin says that building an expert team was instrumental in helping the firm define its wealth management offering and enhance its credibility. "Everyone brings their knowledge to the table, which allows us as wealth managers to address all of our clients' needs," Pullin says. "Our expert team has even identified issues and opportunities for clients who have their own teams of various advisors. So we've been able to complement their experts and add even more value to clients' lives."
Your team will also include some professionals whom you need to tap less frequently. Such specialists might include a credit expert to advise on loans; a corporate tax lawyer, especially for clients with fast-growing businesses; a derivatives specialist, who deals with concentrated tax positions; a securities lawyer, who supports the work of the derivatives specialist; and a valuation specialist for appraising business interests, real estate or collectibles. Again, the general needs of the members of your target niche and the specific needs of your clients will structure your team.
There are a number of ways you can find potential members of your professional network. Financial firms that work with advisors are increasingly offering assistance in this area. Referrals from other advisors and from top clients are another excellent way to identify prospective expert team members. Also consider the speakers you hear at conferences or authors you read in the industry press.
CFG Wealth Management identified candidates from among the top local professionals with whom they had worked over the years. "We had some existing relationships with great people, so putting together a great team didn't take long," Pullin says.
As you begin to build your expert team, keep a lookout for four qualities that every member must bring to the table:
*High-end expertise. Clearly you need to work with professionals whose expertise is at a level that both maximizes your chance of getting business and ensures the solutions crafted are truly effective. So don't choose to work with a particular lawyer simply because you think you might get clients in exchange down the road. You don't need a second-rate attorney who will send you plenty of referrals because you won't be getting what you really need-the ability to generate the best solutions for your clients' financial challenges.
* Ability to work well together. Any team member must respect the team model. Each must recognize and accept that you are the wealth manager who has the primary relationship with the client. This is difficult for some professionals who may view a person more as a source of revenue than as one of your clients. In a successful professional network, experts never undercut the wealth manager-or one another. You should be present at all meetings (except any that may deal with issues of attorney-client privilege), and no member of the network should be allowed to contact the client without your permission.
Expert team members must also be able to support one another's efforts. For example, a lawyer and an insurance specialist must be able to work closely together because insurance products will often play a role in an attorney's planning strategies. Working well together also means that all team members are willing to walk away from a sale when it becomes clear that it is not in the client's best interest. The insurance specialist, for instance, must accept it-and not argue-when the lawyer says a particular product is not good for the client.
* Ability to work well with clients. Pullin at CFG Wealth Management regularly asks his experts to join him in client meetings to discuss key issues, ideas and solutions. "Our clients have said that working together with our experts has really made us stand out from other advisors they've worked with," he notes.
Of course, you must be able to bring your team members and clients together and not worry about the possibility of being embarrassed by the team members. This means you need experts who will graciously accept a client's decision to reject a particular solution-even if they've done a lot of work to prepare it.
*Noncompetitive outlook. Members of your network cannot compete with you-period. So your insurance specialist, for example, cannot manage money in any way, shape or form. To do so would be damaging to the collaborative effort.
In the end, an expert team can give you the resources to deliver the excellent service that distinguishes your practice from the pack. Says Pullin, "The knowledge we learn from our team on client cases is something we can pass on to other clients and benefit even more people in more ways that really make a difference in their lives."
John J. Bowen Jr. is founder and CEO of CEG Worldwide, a global training, research and consulting firm dedicated to helping advisors and the institutions that serve them become more successful.