I've learned some important lessons this year about what it takes to be an elite financial advisor - one who achieves substantial success while also enjoying a high quality of life.
Some of these lessons are new to me, based on research my firm has conducted recently and actions taken by the advisors with whom we work. Others are lessons I've been reminded of by the recent volatility in the markets.
All of them, however, serve as excellent guidelines as we head into 2014.
As the year winds down, give yourself the time and space to really think about your business: where you are today, where you want to go and the gap between the two. Then make the commitment to plot a course of deliberate action that includes at least some of these five best practices.
1. BE CLIENT-CENTRIC
Sure, you know that you must deliver a great client experience. But are you making the right moves? Consider shifting your business model from a focus on investments and financial markets to a client-centric approach that emphasizes building great relationships.
One of our recent surveys of advisors found that the most successful ones - those earning at least $500,000 a year - consistently take some of the following steps to ensure a highly client-centric approach.
*They position themselves as wealth managers, which we see as a valuable step to capturing affluent individuals' attention and getting them to connect with advisors emotionally, right from the start.
*They set minimum asset size requirements for clients, and as a result are likely to serve more millionaire clients. Nearly three-quarters (73%) of those earning more than $500,000 a year serve 30 or more clients each with at least $1 million in assets under management. And nearly nine in 10 (89.2%) have 15 or more of these wealthy clients.
*They specialize in serving specific types of clients. This allows them to develop the deep expertise needed to address the specific and unique financial challenges of a select group of clients.
2. FACE MARKET VOLATILITY
As market volatility and uncertainty rose over the course of the year, were you ready to field calls from nervous clients? Better yet, were you in a position to proactively reach out to keep clients calm?
To fulfill your duty as a trusted advisor to your clients, you need what I call a crash communication strategy ready to execute before a crash occurs. The next time the markets dive, pick up the phone. Start by calling the top 20% of your clients as well as those clients who you think will need the most hand-holding, then work your way down the list to smaller clients and those who are less sensitive to market fluctuations.
Be ready to discuss the particulars of the markets and the recent events, adding in your perspective as well as insights from any trusted sources you rely on. But don't get caught up in focusing entirely on the markets. Be sure to ask about something personal - their family, their business and so on.
Remind clients that they're more than just numbers to you, that you care about them as people. That deeper level of interest can help promote better client satisfaction and loyalty in any environment - and especially when times are uncertain and the headlines may be scary.
3. GET HELP
While I suggest you focus deeply on your clients, your business, market volatility and the like, you may be asking how you can do all that while also keeping up with your day-to-day tasks.
Many advisors turn to a coach for help implementing what they have learned and achieving the desired results. It's not so different from the way a personal trainer might help you actually turn up at the gym to work out as you've planned. A good coach can also enhance advisors' productivity, helping with the core activities that make the biggest difference in an advisor's practice and reducing the workload.
The bottom line result is accelerated success. Advisors in coaching programs often accomplish in two to three years what would have taken five years on their own in key areas such as growing AUM, attracting affluent clients and creating a higher-quality service model that boosts referrals and retention.
Of course, there are other ways to get help, as well. You might also consider outsourcing noncore functions of your practice in order to spend more time focused on serving clients and improving your business. The list of third-party providers who offer outsourced solutions to advisory practices - from software to social media to investment management - is expanding every year.
Indeed, effective advisors often find that they are able to delegate just about every function that's outside of their primary duty: helping clients solve their most pressing financial challenges.
4. BE VISIONARY
It's crucial to be deliberate about your business and create opportunities for yourself. Too many advisors hope to stumble onto success, thinking that opportunities will simply present themselves. In contrast, top advisors constantly look for a better way to do what they already do, or a different way to do what they do to produce a better result.
Being inventive in this way requires you to develop a vision of your firm and its future - a compelling picture of what your business will look like, say, five years from now, when you have successfully built a world-class consultative wealth management firm.
Having a vision is irresistible - it pulls you into it. You want to be closer, and you get more exhilarated the closer you get. That said, great as your vision may be, it won't do much good if you don't enlist others to buy into it.
Work to inspire people toward the desired end results; communicate your vision in a clear and lively manner. Express your ideas in a simple and direct way that moves and motivates people.
5. BE FASCINATING
One of the best presentations we gave to our coaching clients recently was with author and branding expert Sally Hogshead discussing the concept of being fascinating - taking the hardwired strengths you already possess and applying them strategically to build meaningful relationships and create a better business.
Being fascinating means tapping into specific "triggers" you have - such as power, passion, mystery, prestige, innovation or even alarm - that get people to take your advice or work with you.
The best way to fascinate someone is to focus on the trigger that is most appropriate to the situation. To be perceived as a leader, for example, you might call up your power trigger by stating what I refer to as your opinions of authority - those things you believe that you can stand behind and would be valuable to clients.
Or say you're talking with a prospective client who is nervous about committing to working with you. Instead of citing the usual performance data, you might tap the passion trigger by telling stories about why you work as a financial advisor and why it means so much to you.
Passion is all about emotional connections, and too much information can kill passion fast. So start with a story to give the conversation an emotional basis. By presenting yourself the right way in a variety of situations, you can become fascinating to prospective clients, partners or other professionals in your orbit.
In the coming year, I recommend that you focus on identifying the biggest opportunities and challenges in front of you, and then implementing the steps that will help you expand the success of your practice. Your clients and your teams are counting on you to make it a great year.
John J. Bowen Jr., a Financial Planning columnist, is founder and CEO of CEG Worldwide in San Martin, Calif., a global training, research and consulting firm for advisors.
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