Some cost-efficient ways to improve productivity-and avoid headaches.

If you have been in the financial services business for any length of time, you know that paperwork can become an overwhelming task. Apart from the piles of mail that must be sorted through every day, there is the unending task of filing, forms to keep track of and compliance paperwork that, in recent years, has increased tremendously. I have visited financial advisors' offices where paperwork stretching back months is unceremoniously stacked in piles on the floor of the office. One advisor told me that when the piles get so high that it is difficult to walk to and from the desk, then all other tasks are dropped so that the piles can be dealt with.

Consider how much it costs to maintain inefficient paperwork and filing systems. If, as a direct result of not having efficient systems, it costs you and/or your staff one hour each day (this is probably conservative), and you used a $50-per-hour cost factor over the course of an entire year-the cost of inefficiency could top $12,000 in lost time ($50 x five days per week x 48 weeks).

There is an old saying in business that goes, "As much as is possible, handle a piece of paper only once." Those of us who scan paper mail and set it aside in an inbox, promising to deal with it later, may find that same piece of mail a couple of months later buried in a pile. Deadlines can be missed, important mail can be commingled with unimportant (or junk) mail, and a drastic solution such as described earlier becomes the only way to deal with it.

So, what is the answer?

Set up procedures and time schedules to handle the paperwork. If you handle your own mail, consider setting aside a period of time each work day to go through the mail. In this way, you can focus on the task and handle each piece of mail once, when you open it. If you have staff that handles mail, you may want to set up priorities for types of mail. Correspondence from clients, vendor-related mail, broker-dealer related mail and checks received in the mail all could be categorized by priority.

Setting up separate baskets for each priority streamlines the handling process and focuses your efforts when you do sit down to go through the mail. Make sure you and/or your staff understand what constitutes junk mail. If a piece of mail is junk, throw it out. Throwing something into a pile because you think you might like to read it someday generally means that it never gets read and is simply taking up space.

Piles of mail and paperwork lying around the office can be frustrating and lead to an inefficient atmosphere in the office. Set an example for your staff by clearing your desk each day by day's end. Consider setting aside ten to 15 minutes at the end of each day to clear your desk of miscellaneous paperwork, files, mail, etc. You will be amazed at what a relief it is to enter your office in the morning to be greeted by a clean desk. This should be the same for each and every desk in the office.

But, a clean desk is only part of the solution. If, to achieve the clean desk, all you are doing is shoveling the paperwork into a file box or drawer, nothing has really been accomplished. The procedure to clean off the desk(s) must be accompanied by efficient filing systems. There are many ways to set up and operate your files. No one way is best. Ultimately, it could require using several methods to match the needs of your practice.

Do you use divided files for your client's information? For instance, some financial advisors use a six-section file to divide a client file by categories such as correspondence, application copies, investment and/or insurance statements, client suitability info, trade slips or records, and/or miscellaneous info such as copies of a will or a power of attorney. This makes the task of finding a particular piece of information faster and easier. Each section could be stacked in reverse date order (latest dated stuff on top) so that even within each section of the file, finding a particular dated item is a snap.

The Paper Tiger ( offers a unique filing solution for business. It sets up a numbered filing system that can be tracked by your computer. The system provides for automatic cross-referencing, which can be a real time-saver. (The company boasts an average, per-employee savings of up to 150 hours per year in productivity.) This type of system is great for long-term storage of files and paperwork. It is also effective in keeping track of current forms, prospectuses, and sales and other material. However, using a computerized numbering system for client files could be a mistake, as the time it would take to locate a client file by number could actually take longer than simply locating it in the file cabinet alphabetically. If your files are set up with current client info and older stuff placed in a separate file, using the system on the older stuff might make sense. Another package, Ancom Products ( offers software to color-code and print file labels or to print directly on the file cover itself, depending on your printer capabilities. If you code clients based on their asset size (for example), then a color coding system could make a search much easier. Matching the color code system on your files with a coding system in your client relationship management (CRM) software can save hours of work in sorting clients by need.