Following the semiannual Tiburon CEO Summit in New York on April 10, 2013, Marie Swift of Impact Communications sat down with five of the attendees for a round table discussion. These executives included Maree Moscati, the CEO of Copytalk; Daniel Kern, a CFA and the president and chief investment officer for Advisor Partners; John Brackett, a partner with BAR Financial; John Blamphin, the chief operating officer at Retirement Management Systems; and Deena Katz, who, in addition to being an associate professor in the Department of Personal Financial Planning at Texas Tech University, is also chairwoman of the Florida-based wealth management firm Evensky & Katz.
Five individual video interviews (one with each of the round table participants) are available by clicking on the name of each participant. The entire transcript is available as a PDF download on www.fa-mag.com. The excerpt below focuses on observations related to the much-anticipated consumer panel, which is normally “off the record.” Swift began the discussion by asking: “What were you thinking as the three anonymous consumers talked about their experiences working with advisors?”
Dan Kern: In many ways, the panel communicated a disappointing message to us. All of them, in one way or another, have had a difficult experience with one or more financial advisors. I’ve seen several studies that indicate that the average investor underperforms relative to the market. Listening to the panelists really brought home to me how poor a job we’re doing to understand what clients need and how we can help them. We’re collectively too busy selling them products when we should be helping design and implement a plan to achieve their goals.
Deena Katz: During that session, I asked the consumers, “Are your advisors asking you what your expectations are?” Sadly, none of them seemed to understand that question. The problem, I think, is that we as an industry don’t spend enough time understanding what our clients’ expectations are, so we can either disabuse them of their wild expectations or meet their expectations. And that leads to the trust issue they all communicated today. If you listen to what happened to all of them, it was this disconnect: what they expected versus what they got. Then add the economy to all of that. How do they trust anybody?
Maree Moscati: I wanted to ask the panel—but we ran out of time: “Do you feel that your advisors are listening to what your needs and goals are? Do your advisors periodically check in to see if those needs and goals have changed due to life uncertainties and circumstances; where are you in the process?” I found it extremely disheartening to hear their comments. I was sad to hear their experience because there are so many fabulous advisors who really do care. This small sampling of investors tells us we still have a long way to go in the industry. We must inspect what we expect from the advisors in the field.
John Blamphin: There were a lot of issues that came out of the panel, and expectations were a huge part of it. One of the things we should keep in mind is that advisors are people. It would be great if we could train them to operate the same way each and every time, but that’s not going to be the case. The industry is still very focused on product sales; therefore, you’re going to have some of these tainted, if you will, conversations with clients because the advisor has an end goal that may, in fact, be different than the expectations of the client.
John Brackett: I was embarrassed for the industry by what the panel told us. However, their comments left me confident that the way BAR Financial operates ensures that clients get a superior experience by requiring a certain number of client touches and other communication protocols. The panel perfectly depicted the stigma and fear that exists today regarding the termination of a relationship with a financial advisor. What people don’t realize is that they have the power and the right to navigate these situations, which will result in the best outcome for them. The resources are there; people need to use them. At BAR Financial alone, I have 350 advisors who are more than willing to discuss this sort of situation. For the unhappy consumer, it’s a matter of taking a small leap for a big return.
Katz: John, this brings up professionalism. One of the executives in the room said, “Well, you know, we’re really not a profession.” And, in many ways, he’s right. We really don’t have to run through any hoops, although we would like people to have credentials. This brings me to the academic world, and the fact that we are educating people to be financial planners. When I started in financial planning, nobody even knew what it was, including me, and today you can get a degree in it. In fact, you can even get a master’s and a Ph.D. in it. We need to raise that bar, which does give some standardization on the approach to people. In the financial planning programs today, students learn how to be consultative. Instead of saying, “Here’s my product,” they learn to say, “Here’s my advice.”
Blamphin: The CFP Board has done a great job composing the six-step process and making sure that if you have earned the CFP mark that, in fact, you are following along with those requirements. So you’re right; education, the academic world, does put that standardization of practice in place, which is important.
Kern: It was interesting to hear one of the consumer panelists praise her current advisor, mentioning how the advisor respects her intelligence, works in a partnership with her and cares about her. But in reality, we spend so much of our time educating ourselves and educating the people in our firms about the technical aspects of the job versus the people aspects of the job. Many people understand the technical aspects of the investment profession, but I think that empathy is perhaps the most important attribute of a successful relationship between client and advisor. The feedback from this panel makes me think that one of the things we need to do is spend more time on the softer skills with people that we’re bringing into our practices.
Katz: Right. We tend to forget that people don’t need to know how to build a watch; they just need to know how to tell time. We use so much more technical language than we need to. The consumer you are referring to wasn’t relating to all that technical explanation. The advisor gave her a whole bunch of material, but all she wanted was a one-page overview saying how she did compared to last year.
Moscati: What made a difference for this investor was that her advisor took time to be with her. He did not insult her intelligence, even though she was obviously not financially savvy and understanding of the investment world; she made that quite clear. She said that several times throughout the course of the year, her advisor does reach out to her. He just checks in—which I think a lot of us forget in this industry. Success does not just hinge on the annual review. It’s not just saying, “Put your statement away, don’t look at it when the market’s down.” We need to get back to the integrity of relationships that we build with the people we serve.
Brackett: Yes, and we need to go back to how advisors got into this particular business, and what it takes to be in the business. Right now, there are conflicting forces: the independent RIA and the broker/dealer RIA and a big debate about which one is preferable. Of course, we would all like to be our own boss and answer only to ourselves, but then in reality we would have the fox in the henhouse. At BAR Financial, we don’t allow independent RIAs for that very reason. We have advisors that have flourished in the broker/dealer RIA environment but, to be honest, it’s not the traditional restrictive broker/dealer environment. That being said, back to your point, Dan, even though the one consumer panelist had that one flourishing relationship, she hung on to a second bad relationship at the same time. I wanted to stand up and say, “Fire him. Throw him out.” Sadly, it takes way too long for most clients to fire a bad or even just a lazy advisor; it’s tough to give the old heave-ho to someone who’s been a part of your life, kissing babies and even attending funerals. But while the bad/lazy advisor may have thought all was well, the new and more attentive advisor got this woman’s serious money.
Katz: I think it’s important that we recognize that we’re not in the investment business. We’re not in the financial planning business. We are in the business of managing the expectations of people. And once we understand behaviorally, financially and spiritually what they need in their lives, we can guide them there. But if we don’t know what they expect, we can’t guide them anywhere.
Marie Swift is a longtime industry observer and communications consultant. A full transcript of this round table conversation is available at www.fa-mag.com.