The advice financial planners give should, of course, always benefit their clients — and it typically does. Sometimes, however, advisors’ guidance falls short.

Why does this happen? It’s often the result of an advisor’s false sense of ability (some might call it overconfidence or even a know-it-all complex), coupled with a lack of training, knowledge or experience.

This human fallibility has doomed some advisors and their firms to occasionally fall woefully short in client service.
However, there are actions every advisor can take to avoid this kind of situation.

I’m a longtime pilot, and I think that, in a sense, financial planning is like flying: The goal is to move a client financially from point  A to point  B, safely and securely. You want to minimize errors so there are no financial “crashes.”

For this to happen 100% of the time, you need formal standards and training in decision-making.

As our firm has grown, we have had to hand some decision-making off to less experienced professionals. There was no question that we needed to do this. The question, however, was how we could do it without having the younger decision-makers “crash.”

In order to successfully transition some duties to less-seasoned professionals, we needed to:

  • Develop formal standards and training in decision-making.
  • Let them know what to do and who to consult when faced with unusual, unfamiliar or difficult issues or situations.
  • Use technology wherever possible to minimize errors and maximize effectiveness.


Here’s how our firm, Savant Capital Management, came to develop a process that encompassed all these things.

Our firm has over 3,500 clients, and of course many of them pass away each year. While the pain of losing our clients and friends is always intense, we encountered one situation several years ago that was particularly painful, when we found one surviving spouse did not have all the necessary estate documents.

We spent considerable effort tracking down microfilm at a law firm the surviving client had not dealt with for 25 years, in a state where she no longer lived, while dealing with a trustee she had never met.

In the end, we realized we were essentially flying blind.

We had not been involved in the creation or maintenance of this trust, but we were nonetheless tasked to complete the journey for the client’s widow. We were ultimately successful, but it was quite an eye-opener.

I then gathered the planning teams together to look at our estate planning methods. We found gaps in several areas.

After discussing the issues, we decided to develop a system to review each client using a standardized, comprehensive process. This became something we named FEPA — a Formal Estate Planning Analysis.

From concept to implementation, the process was developed by the entire advisory and planning team, which has been critical to its continued success. We use the wisdom of crowds to gain perspective from everyone involved in the process.

While there are some similar components in each estate plan — such as a will or retirement account beneficiaries — clients have a wide range of individual circumstances.

Thus, the process needed to be comprehensive yet flexible enough to cover every conceivable situation our clients might face.

When we started developing the analysis, we fully expected to make incremental improvements; and, indeed, modifications are ongoing.


The FEPA process uses analytical procedures and meetings to deliver a product in the form of a comprehensive notebook. The tabbed volume helps organize the trove of information and makes the whole thing more palatable to clients. Equally important, it’s much easier on us. It includes several key components.

  • Checklist and findings: We start with a comprehensive review of documents, accounts and products, such as insurance policies. Then we mail an eight-page checklist to the client as homework. It contains a minimum of 89 items to consider. Some are tax-related, so as the estate-tax code changes, so do some of the questions. It is unlikely a client has to handle all the issues addressed, but we check each one anyhow. We developed a template to ask questions of each document, and the results become formal findings in the notebook, highlighted behind a blue-tabbed divider. Copies of related documents follow in 12 yellow-tabbed sections. 
  • Recommendations: While in business school, I learned that in most cases, once a problem is clearly defined, the solution is apparent. The same is true in estate planning. Once the client’s situation is analyzed and understood, and issues and goals delineated, recommendations are readily developed by our planning team. The recommendations — who, what, when, where and how — are presented in a green-tabbed section. Answers are not always so clear when clients face very unusual situations or cloudy issues. For these cases, we now have an estate planning expert: a senior attorney/former law firm partner who works full-time at our firm. 
  • Survivor’s guide: At the end of the notebook is a distinctive red-tabbed section titled “Survivor’s Guide.” It’s designed to be used in the case of incapacity or death of a spouse, partner, family member or other individual who is involved in the estate plan. The directions clearly spell out the steps an individual should take in this unfortunate situation. This serves as a letter of instruction that few clients ever take the time to draft. We give this as additional post-meeting homework for the client to modify as necessary. 
  • Digital copy: Finding information within a complex estate plan that includes dozens of documents can be daunting. We simplified this process by providing a digital copy — in this case, a CD, although we’re considering swapping that out for a flash drive — with a PDF copy of each reviewed document in the front pocket of every client’s notebook. The client can simply load the CD anywhere to review the documents. We are also considering placing the entire data file into the client’s virtual vault.


If you’re considering putting something similar in place, let me offer a few last thoughts.

Use technology to minimize errors and maximize effectiveness. What is state-of-the-art today won’t be state-of-the-art tomorrow. (For instance, CDs once seemed like an advanced technological offering.) So this process might be the best thing for us now, but as laws and technology evolve, we know we’ll have to make our own changes.

Develop formal standards in training and decision-making. Savant’s FEPA is just one of a growing set of complex processes we’ve developed. Even so, it doesn’t solve every client problem by itself. Another key ingredient — good decision-making skills — comes with time and experience.

Finally, know what to do when you are faced with an unusual or difficult situation. Blundering your way through something you’ve never dealt with may lead to a planning crash. An advisor has to know when to call a lifeline and involve an inside attorney or even an outside expert. Develop a network of experts to help you — just as pilots use air-traffic control.

If you feel like part of your advisory practice is in the clouds, perhaps it’s time to take a lesson from flying professionals. Develop and use checklists, procedures and techniques to make sure each engagement with a client leads to a successful outcome, at the fastest speed and highest efficiency possible. FP

Glenn G. Kautt, CFP, EA, AIFA, is a Financial Planning columnist and vice chairman of
Savant Capital Management, based in Rockford, Ill.

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