We recently asked an acquaintance to describe what he thought we did for our clients. We hadn't pitched our process in any way, and he knew only that we operated as a financial planning firm.
With little hesitation, he said, "You guys put my money in your portfolio."
Since most financial advisors provide many services beyond allocations, we wondered if he could expound his thinking. So we pressed him. "But what would you say advisors actually do for clients?" we asked, expecting he'd go on to describe the details of our process. Instead, he described what has seemingly—and unnervingly—become the prototypical advisor in the minds of many investors: Someone who puts money into a predefined portfolio, sits back, and earns management fees or commissions from now until eternity.
Sadly, such a mindset has remained prevalent in the marketplace as advisors fail to express how they provide real, long-term value. Meanwhile, some dishonest advisors continue to tarnish the reputation of the industry. Amid this identity crisis, true financial advisors that define themselves and articulate their role will prove their worth above others.
Ignorance or confusion about how advisors actually support a client's financial life is nothing new. In fact, consumers have struggled to define the advisory role since the inception of this relatively young industry.
As planners emphasize different types of planning, create different practice structures, and choose from an endless list of available designations (CIMA, ChFC, CFA, CFP, CFS, CIC, CMT, etc.), it's no wonder consumers can't quite pinpoint a unified industry identity. To proliferate the problem, dishonest players in the industry have forever taken advantage of the complexity and confusing jargon as a marketing ploy.
Back in 1988, the Lawrence Journal-World published an article titled, "Financial planners face professional identity crisis." In the article, Doug Mays, the Kansas securities commissioner at the time, explained, "Financial planner is a rather broad and nebulous term that has over the last few years been abused to a large degree." Unfortunately, not a whole lot has changed since.
To combat the crisis, advisors must first learn to characterize themselves. Mounting pressure for greater industry clarity and transparency will destroy advisors who can't succinctly define their function, and clients will increasingly flock to the most trustworthy advisors with the clearest processes.
We know that we offer more than just money management, but we only survive by internally identifying each additional aspect of our business. In other words, clients can't know you if you don't know yourself. In addition, the increasing importance of providing comprehensive services should not deter advisors from forming a clear focus in their business. Without specifying a target client, industry niche, and approach, advisors will always fall short of emerging as industry leaders.
Advisors with scattershot and ambiguous approaches—trying to be everything and anything to all people—just become part of the noise.
Once advisors finally understand themselves, they need to effectively communicate that role to clients. When our acquaintance clearly didn't understand our function, we were sure to methodically discuss our business model.
WHAT WE DID
We slowly walked through a diagram that simply illustrates the steps we take to align the life and wealth of the families for which we work. Afterword, he nodded with approval, admitting he initially misunderstood not only our model, but the value of the industry as a whole.
But beyond such one-on-one discussions, every other interaction between an advisor and the marketplace—through speaking engagements, articles, social media branding, websites, etc.—should prove unified and concise. Such consistency provides consumers the sense of transparency needed to build trust—the keystone to a successful client/advisor relationship.
Beyond defining each specific process and service, advisors must communicate the immeasurable value of true counseling. For us, the constant coaching—the art beyond the science—fully ensures we properly serve the financial needs of each client. The ability to build strong relationships, serve as a behavior coach, and deter clients from poor decisions represents the most significant differentiator among advisors. That hands-on guidance in all aspects of a client's financial and personal life proves the worth of personalized advisory well beyond a particular portfolio, insurance carrier, or trust document.
Unfortunately, complexity and other industry blemishes have disrupted the value of this art form. Now, faced with endless options, ambiguity, and scandalous headlines, consumers no longer expect true, individualized advice, and instead expect to endure a cookie-cutter system built for the sake of profits and repeatability. Only advisors willing to prove otherwise will survive.
Advisors that properly define themselves and communicate their role will not only prove their worth, but will ultimately help to reinforce the identity and reputation of financial planning. Maybe one day soon, prospective clients will confidently and consistently describe the importance we play in the most emotional aspect of their lives. After all, improving the perception of the industry in the minds of consumers will benefit every advisor, a virtuous cycle we should all help turn.