In dealing with prospective clients, financial planners should look to the assembly line for inspiration. This unexpected advice comes from Katherine Vessenes, president of Vestment Advisors in Chanhassen, Minn., and is based on her observation of highly successful planners around the nation.

"In a manufacturing process, things get done the same way every time," Vessenes says. When top planners meet prospects, she says, they, too, usually have a highly organized approach.

"One of the things that I noticed over the years when talking with other financial planners was that the big guys - the ones making $1 million a year or more - generally had what I call a defined sales process," Vessenes says. "The smaller guys had no defined sales process in place. Every meeting with clients was different."

Vessenes, a CFP and RFC who's also a lawyer, created her own defined sales process around 2000 and began using it at Vestment Advisors, which is both a financial planning firm and a professional consulting firm that helps advisors build and improve their practices. Her approach involves four to five major meetings with new clients and prescribes in detail what should happen in each meeting.

Before putting the defined process into effect, her closing ratio had been about one in three, Vessenes says. "Once I began testing the defined sales process," she says, "there was only one prospect who I didn't end up closing."

The defined sales process is not "one size fits all," she notes. Each planner should create a process based on his or her own practice and its typical client profile. But, Vessenes emphasizes, once you've created a process that works and tweaked it, you should stick to that path in almost all situations.

Besides increasing closing ratios, a defined sales process is also likely to improve a practice's efficiency. "My team knows the process that I use, and they know what I plan to do in each and every client meeting," Vessenes states. "As a result, they know what documents and support they need to provide to me before each meeting."

In Vessenes' practice, prospects are usually identified at dinner parties for 10 to 20 people. "We serve them a nice dinner, and it is an educational event," she says. "What the event covers depends entirely on who the target market is." Once a prospect has expressed an interest in getting advice, the sales process kicks into action.



For Vessenes, the first one-on-one meeting is a "get to know you" session. "I ask questions and get to know as much as I can about the prospect," she says.

One thing she wants to learn during this meeting is the prospect's "pain points" - worrisome or uncertain areas in his or her financial situation. For a couple mainly interested in preparing for retirement, for instance, issues of concern might be whether they will run out of money before they die, what will likely happen with taxes and inflation, and how they can maximize their tax-free income during retirement.

She has found that if a prospect has only one or two pain points, it is unlikely that she will be able to be of much help. She looks for clients who have at least four or five pain points.

In a second meeting, Vessenes delivers a proposed financial plan to the client. "In addition, if it looks as if the client is a candidate for disability insurance, life insurance or long-term care insurance, we may take applications at this meeting," she adds.

In a third meeting, Vessenes talks about how she would manage the client's money. "We go through our investment philosophy and how it works," she says. "If they are on board, they can move their money over to us at this stage to manage it. However, some of them may want to get more information first or think about it."

At a fourth meeting, the prospects have become clients, and it is time to talk in detail about putting the strategy into effect. "We describe the portfolios, including what percent would go into equities, what percent would go into bonds and so on, so they know where it is going," she says. "I also provide them with information on how they can log in to their accounts."

In most cases, this slate of meetings would be enough. If clients have further questions or issues along the way, however, Vessenes might decide to schedule a "Meeting 2.5" or "Meeting 4.5."

"After each meeting, we set a specific date for the next meeting so that these don't fall through the cracks," she says.

Does Vessenes ever vary this process? "Every once in a great while, I will short-circuit the process if I have someone who just needs a certain type of help, such as a disability insurance policy," she replies. "I don't want to put myself or my staff through the work of planning for and holding four formal meetings if they are not necessary."

She notes that for every hour spent with a client in a meeting, she spends about four hours in preparation; her employees also spend about that same amount of time. So, if a client has a limited need, the complete defined sales process doesn't make sense.

Her process has evolved over time, Vessenes says. Years ago, she was usually able to get everything done in two or three meetings. These days, people have less time for each meeting and products are more complicated, requiring more time to explain.

While he might not use the analogy of an assembly line, Walter Pardo, founder and managing partner of Wealth Financial Partners in Basking Ridge, N.J., agrees about the value of creating a standardized approach. "In terms of the process itself, it is detailed to the point where there are certain things that I do in the first meeting, certain things I do in the second meeting and so on," he says. "I developed my process over time. I was always looking for the Rosetta Stone, and I used a lot of different systems that people had. I finally ended up combining a lot of these ideas and creating a system that worked for me."

In addition to using a defined process for meetings with prospects and clients, Pardo has expanded the concept to other aspects of his business. "When you are self-employed, all of the systems and practices that you develop revolve around you," he explains. "At a certain point, though, you hit a ceiling and you want to grow your business, so you have to bring some people on." Pardo currently has four employees.



If you are a sole practitioner seeking to expand, he adds, you must learn how to delegate: You need to train someone to carry out your practices. This is also an opportunity to create a division of duties and to focus on the tasks you love to do and delegate those you dislike. "In fact, when you staff up," Pardo says, "you need to specifically look for people who like to do the things that you don't like to do. For example, some people hate dealing with people, but love doing paperwork."

It is also important to identify which processes and systems have some flexibility. In his meetings with prospects, Pardo sometimes adjusts his approach based on the needs of the individual. But other practices are cookie-cutter. For example, someone in Pardo's office makes sure each prospect or client gets a call confirming an appointment 48 hours in advance; prospects also receive a welcome kit. "These experiences are defined, and they are the same every time and are repeatable," Pardo says.

Even the "universal and automatic" processes and systems are open to change over time, based on feedback. Pardo has a board of directors composed of some of his clients, many of whom have been with him for more than 20 years. "We meet not so they can talk great about me," he explains, "but to tell me what things could be improved."



William Atkinson is a financial writer in Carterville, Ill.

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