As financial advisors, we like to think we always put our best foot forward with prospects and clients. We also like to believe that our conversations, recommendations and delivery methods have been tweaked to perfection.
However, my wife, Sarah, and I recently hired a financial planner to review our situation. Though fruitful, it caused me to reflect on the way I run my own business.
PERSONALITY TRUMPS ALL
Our industry has many different models. This makes it beautiful in its flexibility but confusing for consumers.
As a client, I started to realize that, while fee structure is important, it doesn’t matter that much. I found myself gravitating to planners who aren’t fee-only, even though I am a huge advocate of this model. I came to realize that an advisor’s personality — and how they engage us in conversation — is far more important than any credentials or fee model.
Of course, I know the ins-and-outs of the financial advice industry and the conflicts that can arise. What was important to me, once I had determined that the planner was a CFP, was that we found someone with whom we could share our concerns, regrets and dreams.
I think the same is true for most consumers: They don’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care.
We chose to work with an advisor who is an excellent and active listener, engages Sarah as much as she does me and focuses on the people side of planning.
In the end, we were surprised by our choice. This planner is younger than we are, is based in another state, is female (unfortunately, a small segment of the advisor market) and uses a fee-based model.
Once we had gone through the formalities of starting our relationship, we had to provide our planner with relevant data. She uses eMoney’s portal and data aggregation service, something that I will now implement in my practice.
Although eMoney made it painless to link accounts into the plan, finding every insurance policy we held or converting estate planning documents from paper to a PDF was a horrible experience. I realized what a burden it is for clients to provide data.
I don’t fault the advisor, as she has a streamlined process. But as I scanned for hours, I began to think that, if she had an office nearby, we could drop our paperwork off and she could organize and scan documents for us.
It made me think that I have to do a better job explaining to clients that the initial parts of our relationship would be time-intensive for them, but it is a one-time thing. Managing expectations of clients as they go through the process is important.
But it was gratifying at the end to see all our documents organized into relevant folders and stored electronically. This helped me decide that a client-facing vault is now an essential tool in my practice.
Although we have a great rapport with our advisor, we knew that our discussions would take place via phone and video chat. I have major reservations about a 100% virtual advisor-client relationship, but I wanted to test these reservations to be sure that they were accurate.
We had two meetings via phone and two via video chat, but it wasn’t the same as meeting face-to-face. Not being in the room and seeing our advisor made it feel like something was missing. We also had Internet issues when communicating personal stories and important data. Although no one was to blame, interacting in person would have avoided this.
There were some advantages in not having to travel for a meeting and being able to edit documents together without being in each other’s physical presence. Upon reflection, for a topic so personal, however, I am not sure shaving off this time was worth it.
Sarah and I discussed this issue after our initial meeting, and we decided we need to find an advisor who is closer, or we will need to fly to meet our advisor in person.
ENGAGEMENT AND TAKING ACTION
Although my ad-hoc attempts at putting many plans in place before this engagement were successful, we still had some insurance, investment and estate planning issues to resolve. But the hardest part for us, and I imagine many clients, is taking action after the initial meetings.
Up until that point, the advisor did the heavy lifting. After data collection was completed, Sarah and I sat back and waited for everything to be delivered to us. Like many people, once our meetings finished, our busy lives enveloped us, leaving tasks to sit longer than we would have liked. Having incorporated a software package called MyPlanMap in my own practice, I would have liked this in our situation to provide email reminders about tasks and to keep us going after the initial meetings.
THE PROCESS IS KEY
Most financial plans are fairly formulaic, and we can assemble them without too much effort. The valuable part of our job is having someone to walk through the process of planning over a number of years.
Although Sarah and I are grateful to have our financial plan audited and made better by someone not in the weeds with us, we know the value lies down the road.
Feeling comfortable with someone to share life’s ups and downs and getting an outside view on financial matters is what many clients want and need. We know we don’t want someone hung up on the analytical details, but a planner who will take a more therapeutic approach.
By going through this situation personally, I have come to accept that not all my client relationships will be deep. And I have to determine what type of relationships I want and not be afraid to turn business away. For a small RIA, turning down income isn’t easy, but building a potentially unrewarding relationship may be worse.
I had heard of the benefits of a planner hiring a planner, but only now do I understand the magnitude of these benefits. My financial house is in order, and we also discussed what is important to us.
I learned things about my wife that made me see her in a new light, and a numbers-focused planner wouldn’t have been able to facilitate that. Seeing another planner’s process caused me to reflect on how I run my practice and make improvements.
And now, when I explain the importance of retaining a planner, I am no longer speaking in hypotheticals but from my own experience.
Dave Grant, a Financial Planning columnist, is founder of Finance for Teachers, a planning firm, and the Finance for Teachers Network, in Cary, Ill. He is also the founder of NAPFA Genesis, a networking group for young, fee-only planners. Follow him on Twitter at @davegrant82.
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