Most financial advisors probably believe they are creating a healthy, satisfying experience for their clients. Some of them are right, especially if the client, or customer, for the purpose of this post is actively involved in the financial planning and wealth management process.
Any advisor who manages his or her clients’ money, yet rarely see them aside from the annual check-up, nor gets consistent, healthy input from them, might want to get a copy of the white paper, “The Consumer Revolution: Surviving and Thriving In a Time of Tectonic Shifts.”
Because the typical retail client knows and understands so little about investing, it says, the advisors have been allowed to selectively and gradually introduce new investment ideas and products at a profitable pace. That is changing, and in sudden and disruptive ways.
The advisory profession, it seems, judging from the paper and a conversation with its author, needs to create a repeatable and transparent experience that is client-centric, similar to what iTunes did for music lovers and Starbucks did for coffee aficionados. (Or anyone else who needs a jolt before facing a long day.)
Joseph J. Duran, chief executive officer of United Capital Financial Advisers, a national network of wealth counseling firms, spearheaded the paper. He co-authored it with Joseph A. Michelli and Robert W. Doede, chairman of United Capital Financial Partners. Michelli is the best-selling author of “The Starbucks Experience,” and “The New Gold Standard,” books that discussed how major consumer brands captivated the public.
Financial advisors have a different set of responsibilities from a barista or musician, surely, but their audiences are the same. Yes, we have to allow for demographic variations between the two customer bases, but overall, consumers are used to having the products that they buy delivered in a seamless way, and they want to know what to expect every time they step up to a coffee counter or turn on their computers.
“The consumer is more knowledgeable now than ever, and advisors must include them in the decision-making process,” Duran said in a telephone interview. Using the mutual fund industry as an example, “Most advisors do not come in with completely transparent pricing.”
Suppose consumers dig a little and find out that asset custody firms could collect as much as 45 basis points from mutual funds in administrative service fees, while offering free trading on ETFs with wisp-thin pricing, as the paper puts it? Advisors shouldn’t be surprised to find that billions in assets would continue shifting to ETFs.
That does not mean spell the end of the mutual fund industry. It just means that the top layers of talented asset managers will stay behind, while everyone else in the industry will have to take their prices down and think about getting the consumer in on the conversation.
Duran is a smart man, typical of the professionals in this business. How then, do people like him bridge the gap between the plain English that customers speak, and the fundamentally complex ideas that drive the products in their financial plans?
United Capital Financial offers its advisors a proprietary method of drawing clients into a conversation that is focused on their needs. It is called an Honest Conversation Toolkit, and comes with a deck of 15 cards. Each card represents various areas of a client’s financial life. During an honest conversation, the client thinks about his or her priorities and arranges the cards accordingly. The whole process takes 20 minutes. It can, and should, be repeated every time a client has a big life change.
Any serious student of behavioral finance or life planning can guess what happens next. The client finds the experience to be illuminating. Some break down in tears, right in front of the advisor. If a couple happens to do the exercise together, each could see an aspect of their partner that had been unnoticed or underappreciated before.
That is all normal and fine, according to Duran.
“The number one thing we do is give a safe place to talk about these things,” Duran said. “The conversation actually maps out the steps clients need to take to give themselves peace of mind to take care of important things.”
According to Duran’s observations, families with $1 million to $3 million in assets often have simpler needs, but they can still benefit from the conversation.
Independent advisors can benefit from the system, too. They need to, especially in an industry where pricing models are changing drastically.
“We want the independent advisor to thrive. We don’t want them to get choked out,” Duran said. “We are champions of independence, and we have nothing to gain other than to help people to compete.”