As the CFP Board’s proposed Standards of Conduct (which would expand the fiduciary duty for all CFP professionals) finishes their second public comment period next week, the major lobbying organizations for broker-dealers are pushing the CFP Board to step back from its fiduciary push. While both SIFMA (which represents the brokerage industry broadly) and FSI (Financial Services Institute, which represents independent broker-dealers) both claim to support the idea that advisors should act in the best interests of their clients, they are claiming that it would be better for the CFP Board to wait for the SEC to issue a fiduciary rule instead (which is rumored to be coming soon, although notably it was the CFP Board that originally lobbied for the SEC to adopt a strict fiduciary rule over 6 years ago, which the brokerage industry opposed at the time!). Arguably, there is a legitimate concern that the overlapping patchwork of regulations that apply to financial advisors already may be even more complicated by the CFP Board inserting its own set of rules… yet at the same time, after organizations like SIFMA and FSI were successful in stalling the SEC from rulemaking for years, it was only the movement of the Department of Labor, states like Nevada, and now organizations like the CFP Board, that seems to finally be stirring the SEC to action in the first place, for which the CFP Board can obviously adjust their rules in the future (if necessary or desirable) to conform to whatever fiduciary rule the SEC ultimately issues. In fact, the CFP Board publicly responded that it does still intend to forge ahead with its own fiduciary rule, and has been engaging in several public efforts to build momentum for its rule, including a full-page ad in the Wall Street Journal last month, and another that will run in Investment News next week highlighting an open letter from 21 academicians leading programs at universities around the country that they support the higher standards of CFP certification. To say the least, though, for all those CFP Board critics who claim that the CFP Board bends its will to the demands of large (broker-dealer) firms, this should be definitive proof that while the organization does appropriately recognize them as stakeholders (and did make some concessions in its revised proposal of the standards), it is clearly not beholden to them.
For financial advisors who pride ourselves on the quality of the advice we provide to clients, it can sometimes be easy to lose sight of the importance of the more physical elements of our business that seem qualitatively irrelevant to the value of the guidance and recommendations we give to clients. However, as a tremendous amount of psychological research suggests, we should be careful not to overlook the more “theatrical” elements of a financial planning meeting – from the clothes we wear and the way we present information to clients, to the design and set up of our office – as the “theater” of financial planning actually does influence our clients, and their ability to implement our advice in a meaningful manner.
In this post, we will examine why it is important to both acknowledge and manage the theater of financial planning, particularly given the ways in which clients and prospective clients utilize the signals we as advisors send (both consciously and unconsciously) to decide everything from whom to hire, to what financial recommendations they should implement (or not!).
It is widely acknowledged that effective communication is an important aspect of what financial advisors do. However, something that is less commonly appreciated is the role that our environment plays in facilitating that communication. In his book, Suggestible You, Erik Vance examines the ways in which our suggestible minds are influenced by the stories we hear and the environments we hear those stories in. In particular, Vance examines the “theater of medicine”, and its surprisingly powerful role in shaping the perceptions and beliefs of patients, which can, in turn, influence their physical health and well-being as well!
Additionally, the physical spaces we occupy (such as our office) can actually say a lot about us. Though laboratory research in financial planning is still very young, and scholars are only beginning to delve into how the offices of financial advisors can optimally be designed, some research from other fields has found that our physical environments can actually say even more about our personalities than some commonly used tools and assessments. At the heart of this are ways in which our personality manifests in certain behaviors which leave physical evidence within our environments that is really hard to fake – from mementos we collect and things intentionally place out for others to see, to more subtle clues such as the way we dress and organize things on our desk.
Ultimately, financial advisors have many options for trying to better manage the theater of financial planning… from sending signals of our conscientiousness through our clothing (e.g., formal dress) and communication style (e.g., controlled posture and calm speech), to signals of our competence through education and professional designations (e.g., CFP certification), and even signaling our knowledge of and solidarity with niche communities that we service… there are many ways in which we can seek to manage the “theater” of our financial planning to help our clients adopt and implement wise financial planning practices!
(Michael’s Note: This post was written by Dr. Derek Tharp, our Research Associate at Kitces.com. In addition to his work on this site, Derek assists clients through his RIA Conscious Capital. Derek is a Certified Financial Planner and earned his Ph.D. in Personal Financial Planning at Kansas State University. He can be reached at email@example.com.)
Acknowledging The “Theater” Of Financial Planning
Sometimes financial advisors—and particularly those of us who may be most interested in the technically-oriented side of financial planning—can be quick to write-off the “theater” of financial planning. After all, if we can serve our clients well and give them really good advice (far better than that slick salesman down the street, no doubt!), then why worry about the suit we wear, the car we drive, or the aesthetic of our office? These factors are all superficial and do not influence the actual quality of the advice we deliver to clients – which is what our clients are paying us for, isn’t it?
However, psychological research gives us good reason to question just how superficial the actual “theater” of financial planning is. From the costumes we wear, to the props we use, and even the way we arrange our financial planning “stage”… the performances we put on can and do influence our clients – including the emotions they feel, the perceptions they form, and the eventual decisions they make.
As a result, those of us who truly do want to help our clients make the best possible decisions should not ignore both the conscious and unconscious influences of financial planning theater.
Our Highly Suggestible Minds
In his 2016 book, Suggestible You, Erik Vance examines the science behind our highly suggestible minds, and finds that at all sorts of human behaviors that seem to have no scientific basis—from voodoo and shamanism, to magic healing crystals and miracle vitamin pills—surprisingly seem to actually have some real-world effects.
What’s most interesting about Vance’s approach, is that rather than just write these things off as mere pseudoscience, Vance examines whether there could be other mechanisms that might help explain why such behaviors could have effects, even though the actual treatments themselves are not scientifically supported. And in his investigation, Vance identifies a potential explanation: the power of our highly suggestible minds.
Vance explores a wide range of case studies and scientific literature which suggests that not only do our experiences influence our perceptions and beliefs, but that our experiences alone can actually improve our health and well-being. In other words, it’s not just that our minds are capable of making us think we are better when we are not, but that our brains can actually enhance (or worsen) our physical and mental well-being.
At the heart of this powerful phenomena is storytelling—which has a long history of being deeply integrated into healing and medicine. In particular, storytelling is powerful in influencing our beliefs and expectations, which researchers have been discovering are far more powerful than we realized.
For instance, most people are familiar with the concept of a placebo effect: A participant in a study receives a sham treatment (e.g., a sugar pill) and yet experiences positive medical effects which cannot be attributed to the sugar pill itself. But only recently have medical researchers begun to really gain a better understanding of how these complex effects work.
At first, researchers were naturally skeptical of what placebos actually were. Many felt placebos were likely just a form of response bias (e.g., participants were trying to provide responses researchers wanted to hear),confirmation bias (e.g., researchers were seeing the effects they wanted to see), or publication bias (e.g., studies with interesting findings get published even though the results were just the result of chance). But the research so far suggests that, at least for some placebos, the science behind them is actually much more interesting.
For instance, Vance notes a 2004 fMRI study that provided some of the first evidence of how our brains can actually self-medicate against pain by engaging our “internal pharmacy”—i.e., neurotransmitters and hormones such as opioids, dopamine, and endocannabinoids, which our brains can release to self-medicate ourselves. In summarizing the findings of the 2004 fMRI study in which participants were conditioned to believe a non-pain relieving cream could actually relieve the pain of an electric shock, Vance writes (emphasis mine):
The most interesting part was what the brain scans showed. Normal pain sensations begin at an injury and travel in a split second up through the spine to a network of brain areas that recognize the sensation as pain. A placebo response travels in the opposite direction, beginning in the brain. An expectation of healing in the prefrontal cortex sends signals to parts of the brain stem, which creates opioids and releases them down to the spinal cord.We don’t imagine we’re not in pain. We self-medicate, literally, by expecting the relief we’ve been conditioned to receive.
In other words, it’s not just that placebos can make us think we are feeling better, but that the right experiences and expectations can actually cause our minds to induce a genuine healing process, independent of any actual medical treatment provided. And the placebo effect works at least in part because our expectation that it will work literally triggers our own internal neurochemistry to help make it so.
STAGING THE THEATER OF MEDICINE (AND FINANCIAL PLANNING)
In addition to actually being a good storyteller in the first place (financial advisors may want to note Scott West and Mitch Anthony’s book,Storyselling for Financial Advisors), another key element of storytelling is the broader “theater” in which that storytelling takes place, which can ultimately have the effect of diminishing or enhancing the power and believability of a story being told. Which is important, as ultimately it is our genuine beliefs and expectations which influence the surprisingly good (or bad!) outcomes which Vance examines.
Given Vance’s book’s focus on the physical healing process, he places a particular emphasis on the ways in which the “theater of medicine” has been found to influence our health. Simply put, the theater of medicine refers to the many factors of the environment around us which all tell our brains that it is time to get better when we enter a medical facility. From the uniforms that people wear (e.g., the authority invoked by an EMT’s uniform, the sterility invoked by crisp and clean nurse’s scrubs, and the expertise invoked by a doctor’s white lab coat), to the props that are used (e.g., stethoscope, thermometers, and other medical equipment), and even the general arrangement of a medical “stage” around us (e.g., anatomical charts, the scent of disinfectant, and degrees and other credentials prominently displayed), we are constantly reminded that it is time to get better.
Of course, these elements all serve a genuine purpose as well, but the reality is that at a well-staged medical environment can actually make a physician more effective. In most modern medical facilities, we both consciously and unconsciously receive the message that we are in a safe environment and being taken care of by qualified professionals. Certainly doctors could stage their “performance” much differently—perhaps ditching the formality of the white lab coat, storing equipment in a manner that is much less conspicuous, or eliminating the anatomical charts (which I assume are almost never actually referenced)—but this would likely be counterproductive, as it may impair the way that patients experience the medical environment.
In a medical context, theater and storytelling can be really powerful tools (though, admittedly, for both good and bad). In a famous 1955 paper in The Journal of the American Medical Association, Henry Beecher noted:
Placebos have doubtless been used for centuries by wise physicians as well as by quacks, but it is only recently that recognition of an enquiring kind has been given the clinical circumstance where the use of this tool is essential.
Beecher goes on to suggest that as many as 30% of patients will have placebo responses to a particular drug. However, Vance notes that subsequent estimates have been even higher (as high as 80% – 100%), particularly for ailments that are highly susceptible to placebo responses, such as pain and depression.
Placebos themselves may be more or less prevalent based on how they are presented. For instance, place responses are more common when the pills used are larger, made of certain colors, or are more expensive. Fascinatingly, placebos effects—supported by the broader theater in which makes such effects are possible—can even occur when people have beentold they are taking a placebo! Of course, as financial advisors, we don’t prescribe drugs to our clients or address their physical health, but the key point is that is that if our minds (both consciously and unconsciously) are so heavily influenced by belief and perception that we can literally self-medicate ourselves, it would be unlikely that storytelling (and theater in which those stories are told) wasn’t highly important in a financial context as well.
The Surprising Details Our Office Can Reveal About Us
Though laboratory research in financial planning is still very young and scholars are only beginning to delve into how the offices of financial advisors can optimally be designed, we can look to other fields for insights to consider when designing a financial advisor’s office to invoke similar “theater” effects that may help clients put themselves into the frame of mind that they’re about to change their financial behaviors for the better.
One such line of research comes from Sam Gosling, a professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin. In his book, Snoop, Gosling examines what our physical spaces—including our offices—can reveal about us.
Gosling’s field research, which involved “snooping” in the actual bedrooms and offices of research participants to see what he and his colleagues could determine about the individuals who occupy those spaces, found that our physical environments actually reveal a lot about our personality. In fact, Gosling and his colleagues found that sometimes our physical environments say even more about us than tools such as self-assessments. The reason for this is that while we might bias a self-assessment in a direction that we aspire towards or think others will be more approving of, our physical environment includes many unconscious manifestations of our personality in our everyday life.
Gosling refers to these manifestations as “behavioral residue”, as it is quite literally the evidence that accumulates based on our personality-driven tendencies to engage (or not) in certain behaviors. This type of evidence can be particularly revealing, as it is often the hardest to fake.
In a 2002 paper in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Gosling and his coauthors identify four specific mechanisms through which such behavioral residue can emerge: self-directed identity claims (things we display for ourselves), other-directed identity claims (things we display for others), interior behavioral residue (residue which accumulates based on behavior inside or homes and offices), and exterior behavioral residue (residue which accumulates as the result of behavior that we engage in outside of our homes and offices).
In each case, an individual possesses some underlying personality-driven disposition, which leads to a particular behavior, which then leaves some evidence of that behavior. For instance, a financial advisor may be sentimental (personality-driven disposition), which leads them to collect memorabilia (behavior), and that results in an old baseball that sits amongst some other items on their bookshelf (behavioral residue). Or a financial advisor may be sensation-seeking (personality-driven disposition), which leads them to drive a motorcycle (behavior), which results in them needing to carry a motorcycle helmet around with them (behavioral residue).
Of course, the reality is that behavior (and its resulting residue) can be highly nuanced, which can lead to a lack of clarity regarding what some behavioral residue actually says about an individual. For instance, an advisor may have a baseball in their office as a way to signal that the advisor likes to watch baseball (an other-directed identity claim which could encourage a prospect or client to start a conversation on a topic of mutual interest), as a piece of memorabilia solely with personal significance (a self-directed identity claim which may help regulate an advisor’s emotions or motivation), or simply because a colleague dropped the ball on their way out of the office and the advisor is holding onto it until it can be returned to its owner (a form of residue which, at best, just tells us a bit about the advisor’s personality). But as an outsider looking in, it isn’t immediately clear why the baseball is in the environment.
However, we may sometimes be able to gain some clues
from how things in an environment are positioned. Gosling notes that there are some interesting differences between self-directed and other-directed identity claims. Because the intended audience of self-directed and other-directed identity claims are different, individuals will tend to position such claims differently within their office. For instance, other-directed identity claims would be more visible from places where clients would sit (since clients are the intended audience), whereas self-directed identity claims may be more (or even exclusively) visible from an advisor’s perspective.
As a result, when trying to learn about an individual by viewing their office, it is helpful to view the office from multiple perspectives. While an office may look neat and tidy from the client’s chair (an example of behavioral residue which would indicate high conscientiousness), the pile of papers and an overflowing waste bin hurriedly stashed out of the client’s sight may tell a different story.
But the reality simply is that what we display in our physical spaces (both intentionally and unintentionally) can say a lot about us. Which means it’s important to carefully consider what our environment is saying about us, and whether that aligns with the message we intend (or desire) to convey!
How We Can Better Manage The Theater Of Financial Planning
When it comes to better managing the “theater” of financial planning, the first thing to do is acknowledge that it exists.
Again, particularly for those of us who are most strongly drawn to the technical side of financial planning, this can be a challenge. While the quality of our services does matter, our ability to communicate our findings to clients (storytelling) and the broader environment in which we do that storytelling (theater) may matter just as much, if not more, than our technical skills. And this may be particularly true when it comes to influencing whether our clients actually follow-through and implement the strategies we recommend.
SENDING SIGNALS THAT ARE GENUINE
Depending on a particular advisor’s office arrangements, they may have more or less control over how an office is set up, but there are always ways in which we can craft our environment to send better or worse signals to others.
At the most obvious level, are the signals that we intend to send to clients. While many of these signals will be common to many advisory firm offices—signaling characteristics such as competence, professionalism, trustworthiness, etc.—they are still important boxes to check. Though the doctor who wears a lab coat isn’t “unique”, the doctor who doesn’t may not put his or her clients in the best frame of mind to increase the client’s odds of healing. In the context of advisory firms, awards or degrees displayed around an office, the magazines available to customers in the reception area, and the way we dress, are all signals to consumers who have relatively little information use when assessing our intangible services.
Ideally, we are signaling information that aligns with our true goals, skills, interests, values, and personality to others. For instance, if an advisor takes pride in their professional accomplishment and proudly displays a credential worthy of admiration, Gosling notes that their inner and outer selves would be in alignment.
However, our inner and outer selves are not always aligned. In particular, our environment also contains “deceptions” that we may sometimes use to try and mask our actual traits. For instance, most people would generally like to be thought of as organized, as it’s a trait that is generally respected and rewarded in our society. As a result, regardless of how truly organized we are, most people will try and tidy up to at least give the impression they are organized. But, unfortunately for those of us who may not be naturally inclined to alphabetize bookshelves, deceptions are often fairly easy to spot. Of course, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t still try our best to be organized, but we should be careful how we portray ourselves to others, because claiming to be organized when we are not is likely to perceived worse than being just being genuine selves.
Unfortunately, when it comes to areas where consumers lack the information needed to provide a meaningful assessment (e.g., assessing the quality of investment recommendations), deception can be harder to detect. Consider the famous CFP Board commercial in which a DJ was transformed into a financial advisor who appeared to come off as reputable to consumers based on how he was dressed and the professionalism of his (staged) office setting. The “experiment” was set up in a manner which took advantage of the “theater” of financial planning. Illustrating that since most consumers aren’t financial advisors themselves, they struggle to assess the true quality of a financial advisor. As a result, by simply being confident, looking the part, and using some industry buzzwords (e.g., asset allocation, 401k, etc.) the DJ was able to come off as knowledgeable and trustworthy.
Had the CFP Board put the same DJ in a rundown office, dressed casually, and had him perform without confidence, it’s doubtful consumers would have had the same response. In fact, you could likely put a highly qualified advisor delivering excellent advice in the same rundown/casual setting and consumers would still doubt whether the advisor was knowledgeable, because they can’t actually assess competence in the first place, though the wide range of contextual clues they can assess would be indicating something was not right. (This is also why credentials like the CFP marks help, as it provides a meaningful signal of competence in an area where consumers would struggle to make that assessment themselves. Because, as the DJ commercial notes, anyone can put on a suit and tie, but not everyone can get the CFP marks!)
Of course, financial advisors should never fake credentials or expertise that they do not have for both ethical and legal reasons, but the point remains that the “theater” of financial planning is so powerful, that it can even mask otherwise unqualified individuals. Which means it is crucial for those whoare competent and ethical to leverage all the tools at their disposal!
WHAT FINANCIAL ADVISORS SIGNAL WITH THEIR CLOTHING
Gosling uses the terms “seepage” or “leakage” to refer to behavioral cues about our personality (positive or negative) that are revealed without our being aware of them. One particularly powerful way in which this can happen is through our clothing.
For instance, conscientiousness is one of the personality traits that is often found to be the most desirable in a professional context. Based on the findings of some prior studies, Gosling put together a “Snooping Field Guide” which includes both the items that snoopers most often used to assess a particular personality trait, as well as the items that were found to actually predict those traits best. In both cases, formal dress was found to be the strongest indicator of conscientiousness.
As a result, this is one more reason advisors may want to be very careful before dressing down. Particularly when we don’t like to dress up, we’re likely to engage in all sorts of motivated reasoning to convince ourselves it is okay to dress down. However, the formality of our clothing is perhaps the single greatest visual signal of high conscientiousness that we can send.
In terms of other clothing-related traits that have been found in prior research, observers have previously relied on:
- Fashionable dress as an indicator of openness
- Make-up as an indicator of openness and extraversion
- Showy dress as an indicator of extraversion
- Non-showy dress as an indicator of conscientiousness
Notably, past research indicated these weren’t actually reliable indicators, but the key point here is that those evaluating the personalities of othersthought they were. Interestingly, dark clothing was an indicator of neuroticism, though it was not picked up on by those doing the evaluations (it was identified by researchers evaluating data after the fact).
WHAT FINANCIAL ADVISORS SIGNAL WITH THEIR COMMUNICATION STYLE
Not only does the way we communicate affect the quality of our storytelling, but it is also a way in which people tend to try and pick up clues about the personalities of others.
Again noting that conscientiousness is among the most desirable traits when making hiring decisions in a professional context, advisors may want to be aware that the following were used by reviewers to assess one’s level of conscientiousness:
- Controlled sitting posture
- Touches one’s own body infrequently
- Fluent speech
- Calm speech
- Easy to understand
Notably, again, these weren’t actually found to be meaningful predictors of conscientiousness, but they were cues that people relied on when making assessments. In other words, right or wrong, those who exhibit these queues may be more likely to be perceived as conscientious, which can make a difference when prospects are interviewing prospective financial advisors.
While we don’t know enough about what clients look for in an advisor to have much confidence in how one might signal other traits (and preferences likely vary based on a client’s own personality), some other notable indicators included (*indicates cues that were actually found to be predictive of the underlying personality traits):
- Openness: friendly expression, self-assured expression, extensive smiling, pleasant voice, fluent speech, easy to understand, and calm speaking
- Extraversion: Friendly expression*, self-assured expression*, extensive smiling*, relaxed walking*, swings arms when walking*, loud and powerful voice*
- Agreeableness: Friendly expression*, extensive smiling, pleasant voice
- Neuroticism: Grumpy expression, timid expression, little smiling, lack of arm swinging when walking, stiffness when walking, weak voice, unpleasant voice, halting speech, difficult to understand, hectic speech
FINANCIAL ADVISOR SIGNALS OF COMPETENCE
As discussed above, signaling competence is particularly tricky since the prospect or client is presumably less knowledgeable than the financial advisor. Which means, ironically, most consumers don’t even know how to determine whether a financial advisor is competent or not, and aren’t even able to judge the quality of their answers to demonstrate competency. Which means it becomes all the more important to properly “signal” competence by any means possible (especially for those who really arecompetent!).
The first is through professional designations. When consumers believe that a designation is credible (and unfortunately, it’s the belief here that actually matters), the credibility of the designation conveys credibility to the advisor who has it. Which means the CFP may be meaningless to a consumer who is unaware of the CFP or under the impression it is not a meaningful designation, whereas a meaningless designation can sway a consumer if they believe it sounds important. Fortunately, the CFP marks have become a more credible signal as consumer awareness continues to rise with the CFP Board’s public awareness campaign.
A more general way in which we signal competence/intelligence is often through college degrees. While economists continue to debate over whether college actually makes us any smarter, it is at least generally accepted that, all else equal, more intelligence makes it easier to get into more prestigious schools, and that college itself serves as a means for individuals to signal some combination of intelligence and work ethic. Given that most people know it is very hard to get into Harvard and earn a Ph.D., there is a major competency signal conveyed by having a Ph.D. from Harvard. Of course, it’s entirely possible to have a Ph.D. from Harvard and still be clueless about financial planning. But for a consumer trying to findsome meaningful signal of competence, “he/she was smart enough to get a Ph.D. from Harvard” is better than nothing.
As a result, advisors may want to think carefully about how they display professional credentials and degrees in their office. This doesn’t mean such signals need to be in front of clients at all times (nor does it mean advisors need to go out and acquire advanced degrees, as there is certainly considerable diminishing marginal returns in highly personal business like financial planning), but much like the theater of medicine is often elevated by having a doctor’s credentials visible, financial advisors may want to do the same.
SIGNALING LIKE EVERYONE ELSE
As boring as it may sound, there’s a certain degree of “fitting in” that is likely helpful in managing the theater of financial planning.
While it would be nice to have some actual research to back it up, there are likely some items clients just generally associate with “finance” that would be helpful for setting the stage of financial planning. Items like tickers, charts, spreadsheets, and maybe even CNBC running in the background could be items which fall into this category.
The irony, of course, is that many advisors like to steer their clients awayfrom CNBC and a lot of these financially-related items. Nonetheless, to the extent that clients might subconsciously associate them with the theater of financial planning, hiding them from clients could actually make the advisor seem less credible. Which means that while advisors may not want to place such TVs in a waiting room where clients would actually watch it, a strategically positioned TV a client might see walking back to an advisor’s office could still help set the stage (without encouraging the potentially harmful client behavior). If anything, it may help to convey “we keep an eye on CNBC, so you don’t have to!”
Beyond those types of props, there is the general professional nature of an office. The idea here is to (accurately) create the sense that the client is here to talk about something important with a qualified professional. What that means likely varies a lot from one market and target clientele to another, but, to the extent possible, advisors should probably strive to ensure they at least match the general quality of offices that clients may be meeting with competitors in. Because while having a professional-looking office like everyone else may not ensure you get the prospective client, not having an office on par with competitors could genuinely lose the prospect.
SIGNALING A NICHE
Perhaps the most effective way to “customize” an advisor’s office is to signal to a niche. Whereas the hope for much of the setting is that it invokes the theater of financial planning without actually drawing overt attention, when signaling to a niche, advisors should be looking for key “other-directed” identity claims they can send.
Of course, these specific signals will vary based on an advisor’s target niche, but the key is to be able to send some type of signal that displays a commonality that the client is unlikely to find with other advisors (at least in their immediate market).
Additionally, as a general principle, the more “costly” a signal is to send, the more meaningful it will be to those who receive it. This could mean something like cost in terms of time (e.g., a photo/award/etc. associated with donating considerable time to a nonprofit of shared interest versus a mug with the nonprofit’s logo on it). Or, while riskier, it could also be a cost in terms of signaling a shared identity that would actually be harmful for an advisor to send to someone outside of that niche. For instance, an advisor who works with many members of a particular union could display something that signals solidarity with that union. Not only is the signal of solidarity useful on its own, but the fact that it may mean fewer business prospects for an advisor (e.g., management or business owners who may not appreciate the signal of solidarity with employee unions) makes the signal more impactful than one that is “cheap” and would be universally or nearly universally agreeable anyway.
The bottom line, though, is simply to recognize that consumers are influenced by factors which have no rational basis for evaluating a financial advisor (e.g., wearing a suit, quality of the office, etc.). But advisors should be careful assuming they can convince clients that this behavior is “irrational”. For many, the story they hear, and the broader aspects of the “theater” that it takes place in, will be influential. Further, the inherent conflict of interest between any financial planner and a potential client they are prospecting makes consumers reasonably suspicious of any attempts rationalize less desirable aspects of a particular advisor’s theater, so advisors trying to persuade clients to ignore these factors may struggle more than those who simply acquiesce to reality and leverage them instead.
Of course, the power of storytelling and staging the theater of financial planning can be used to both further and harm client interests—so advisors have to be careful to use it for good—but ultimately the theater of financial planning should not be overlooked. Whether it’s in the process of trying to get new prospects or convincing existing clients to implement an advisor’s recommendations, managing the theater of financial planning plays an important role.
So what do you think? Do you have any strategies for managing the theater of financial planning? Can it be easy to overlook this aspect of the financial planning process? What do you feel are the most important traits to signal to clients? Please share your thoughts in the comments below!
After taking in feedback from more than 1,300 public comments, plus 8 public forums with CFP certificants, the CFP Board has announced that it will be releasing a second draft version of its proposed changes with a second comment period. The decision to issue a second draft proposal isn’t entirely surprising, as both advocacy organizations like the FPA, as well as the comment letter submitted by yours truly, suggested that there were enough substantive changes needed in the first draft to merit a revised proposal with a second comment period. The second draft itself is anticipated to be released before December 25th, with the second comment period to open for 30 days running from January 2nd to February 2nd; the CFP Board has indicated that it aims to complete the process and publish the final conduct rules by the end of the 1st quarter of 2018, with the new standards to take effect at the beginning of 2019. Thus far, the CFP Board has not indicated which areas in particular will be modified, beyond noting that “the board really looked hard at the practicalities of how the proposed standards would apply to different business models”, an apparent nod to the challenges of how the CFP Board’s fiduciary requirements – including new notification and disclosure documents – might apply in the broker-dealer community in particular. Though in public comments at this week’s Schwab IMPACT conference, CFP Board CEO Blaine Aikin maintained that the second draft will have “meaningful” changes but won’t dilute the principles-based fiduciary focus of the rules.
From October 1st through October 3rd, the Academy of Financial Services’ annual meeting was in Nashville, TN – partially overlapping with the FPA’s BE Annual Conference. The event brought together many academics and practitioners to share and discuss research, with the intention of increasing academic-practitioner engagement by holding two of the largest conferences for both researchers and practitioners in conjunction.
In this guest post, Derek Tharp – our Research Associate at Kitces.com, and a Ph.D. candidate in the financial planning program at Kansas State University – provides a recap of the 2017 Academy of Financial Services Annual Meeting, and highlights a few particularly studies with practical takeaways for financial planners.
The 2017 Academy of Financial Services (AFS) Annual Meeting showcased research from scholars at a wide range of institutions – with first author affiliation on paper and poster sessions representing roughly 40 institutions. As expected, the core financial planning programs had a strong presence, with scholars from just seven of those institutions serving as lead authors for more than 50% of all research presentations and poster sessions.
The AFS annual meeting featured research on a number of different topics. Some notable sessions for practitioners ranged from topics such as whether having resources from friends and family reduces a household’s willingness to establish an emergency fund (not as much as you might expect!), how bull and bear markets impact the subjective assessments of portfolio risk, the links between certain types of personality traits and likelihood of financial stress, and quantifying the financial advisor’s value when it comes to making efficient investment decisions (and how that value varies depending on the investor’s existing capabilities in the first place).
Overall, holding the AFS Annual Conference and FPA BE Conference in conjunction appeared to be successful in creating greater engagement between practitioners and researchers (with some research presentations filling large rooms at standing room only capacity!). As both the AFS Annual Conference and CFP Board’s Academic Research Colloquium strive to create more robust platforms for sharing and engaging in academic research, the future appears bright for financial planning researchers (and research that can really be used by financial planning practitioners)!
2017 Academy of Financial Services Annual Meeting
Though perhaps lesser known among many financial planning practitioners, the Academy of Financial Services has a long history of promoting academic research within the area of financial services. Dating back to 1985, the AFS has aimed to promote interaction between practitioners and academics. One way the AFS pursues this objective is by publishing an academic journal, the Financial Services Review (FSR). In recent years, AFS began to publish FSR in collaboration with the Financial Planning Association, and as a result, FPA members receive digital access to the current volume/issue of the journal.
Another way the AFS encourages interaction between practitioners and academics is through holding their annual meeting. This objective was given even greater focus in 2017 as the AFS held its Annual Meeting in conjunction with the FPA BE Annual Conference, conducted as a “pre-conference” event of its own but with one day of overlap to the main FPA conference agenda (which allows practitioners to come early and participate in the AFS event, and for academic researchers to stay beyond the AFS meeting and participate in the FPA annual conference as well).
Academic Representation At The 2017 AFS Annual Meeting
The 2017 AFS Annual Meeting drew researchers from a number of academic and professional institutions. In total, roughly 40 institutions were represented as first authors on research presented in either poster or oral sessions.
For those who haven’t attended an academic conference before, academics generally present their research at conferences in one of two ways. The first is the poster session, which is a more informal presentation where a researcher stands in front of a large poster summarizing their findings. The second are oral sessions, where researchers deliver a more formal research presentation to an audience. Researchers must submit their sessions in advance for consideration to be selected for presentation.
Several of the well-known financial planning programs had a strong showing at the 2017 AFS Annual Meeting. Texas Tech led the way with scholars serving as first author on 9 oral session and 2 poster sessions. Kansas State ranked second with scholars serving as first author on 5 oral sessions and 2 poster sessions. Other schools with a strong presence included The American College, University of New Orleans, University of Georgia, Ohio State University, and the University of Alabama. In total, these 7 schools accounted for 54% of the first authors of research selected for oral or poster sessions.
As is indicated in the chart above, Blanchett and Kaplan conclude that different levels of financial advisor value are experienced by different types of investors. And of course, different levels of value are delivered by different types of advisors, as not all financial advisors are going to fully deliver gamma in each category.
Specifically, their results suggest that when consumers receive average or high levels of benefit from working with a financial advisor (and when the advisor can actually deliver the value), the gamma that can be added from efficient investment strategy selection is significant enough to justify a typical AUM fee. However, when consumers receive low levels of benefit from working with an advisor (e.g., because they are already capable of self-implementing a long-term diversified portfolio), it may be hard to justify a typical AUM fee based on investment gamma alone.
And while this insight may seem somewhat self-evident, Blanchett and Kaplan provide some concrete estimates of the value that may actually be received by various types of consumers. Further, evaluating the different categories can help advisors see where they can generally add the most relative value. For instance, while asset class selection is important, helping clients to decide to save and invest in the first place is relatively more important for each type of consumer.
Blanchett and Kaplan’s study is a big step forward in terms of addressing the “compared to what” problem and many of the limitations of prior studies attempting to quantify the value of advice. By providing a framework that spans multiple dimensions of potential value-add, their quantification of value becomes much more meaningful. If a particular investor is “low” on questions 1-3, “average” on 4-6, and “low” on 7, a customized value-add unique to their circumstances can be calculated. While it may not be perfect, the benchmark in this study is beginning to look much more like a real person.
Example 1. John is a consumer who has a very good understanding of the importance of investing, appropriate risk levels, asset allocation considerations, and how the risk of his retirement goal affects a portfolio allocation, but he only has an average knowledge of what types of accounts to use, what investments to implement with, and when he should revisit his portfolio. Therefore, assuming John’s prospective financial advisor is of high competence in all areas, John’s benefit of working with an advisor (or developing the skills and knowledge on his own) could be estimated as 1.4% per year.
Of course, this study doesn’t even attempt to quantify the value of financial planning gamma(meaning the true potential value-add would be even higher), but Blanchett and Kaplan have provided a solid foundation for beginning to more precisely quantify the value-add of an efficient portfolio.
FRAGILE FAMILIES’ CHALLENGES FOR EMERGENCY FUND PREPAREDNESS
While the importance of maintaining an emergency fund is no secret amongst financial planners, understanding the relationships between household characteristics and emergency fund preparedness can help financial planners identify situations in which extra precaution should be taken to ensure client households are prepared to face financial adversity.
Unmarried parents with children—i.e., “fragile families”—are one group that is particularly at risk of needing to rely on an emergency fund. Because non-married households are more prone to breaking apart than married households—a process which can create a shock to income while simultaneously increasing expenses (e.g., needing to make two rent/mortgage payments instead of one)—an emergency fund is even more important for fragile families.
As Elizabeth Warren and Amelia Warren Tyagi have noted in their book, The Two-Income Trap, these dynamics are not unique to low-income households. In fact, in some respects, fragility can be even higher for young, affluent, dual-income households, as an unexpected drop in income may result in larger month-to-month deficits with fewer options to offset that decline (e.g., public support or a non-working spouse entering the labor force).
In an effort to examine emergency fund preparedness among fragile families, Abed Rabbani, an Assistant Professor at the University of Missouri, and Zheying Yao, a Ph.D. student at the University of Missouri, analyzed data from the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study.
In an SSRN article, Rabbani and Yao report their findings. While not all of their findings are particularly surprising—e.g., higher income, saving behavior, and homeownership were all found to increase the likelihood of having an emergency fund (defined as two months’ income in savings)—the authors also examined whether the likelihood of having an emergency fund was impacted by the gender of the individual who controls household spending, or whether the family could obtain financial support from other friends or family members.
The authors expected that financial reliance would be negatively associated with having an emergency fund (as having an emergency fund may be less crucial when households can access resources elsewhere) and that households where a female has financial control would be more likely to have emergency funds. However, the authors found that neither exhibited a statistically significant relationship with the likelihood of having an emergency fund after controlling for factors such as debt, saving, income, employment, and homeownership.
In a practical context, this study can provide a few different insights—particularly for advisors who may specialize in working with younger, non-traditional families. First, some objective factors that we would expect to be correlated with the likelihood of having an emergency fund were found to be. While this finding isn’t groundbreaking, it is good to check that professional intuitions align with empirical findings. Second, the findings suggest that neither gender of the financial decision maker, nor the availability of family/friend financial support, were significant predictors of the likelihood of having an emergency fund.
In the case of the latter, this may suggest that merely having access to funds through friends and family does not sufficiently disincentivize creating an emergency fund for one’s own household. This is actually an encouraging finding, as it may suggest that households are looking to be self-sufficient even when other friends-and-family resources may be available as a last resort. This may be particularly relevant for financial planners given that our clientele—even in the case of non-traditional clientele served through retainers and other business models—does tend to be more affluent, and likely has more affluent social networks as well. Additionally, this finding may lessen the concern of parents that serving as a financial backstop could undermine their children’s willingness to develop their own emergency funds and fiscal responsibility.
DO INVESTORS’ SUBJECTIVE RISK PERCEPTIONS INFLUENCE THEIR PORTFOLIO CHOICE? A HOUSEHOLD BARGAINING PERSPECTIVE
Misalignment between perceived and actual risk is a genuine threat to sticking with a financial plan, as it means that even if a client does have the “right” portfolio consistent with their risk tolerance, if they misperceive the risk of their own portfolio, they may try to make inappropriate portfolio changes anyway.
Xianwu Zhang, a Ph.D. student at Texas Tech University, explores whether subjective risk perceptions influence portfolio choices, in his paper, Do Investors’ Subjective Risk Perceptions Influence Their Portfolio Choices? A Household Bargaining Perspective.
In general, Zhang finds that investors perceive the stock market to be riskier than objective measures suggest it is. However, what is particularly interesting about Zhang’s research is his examination of the role that household bargaining plays in portfolio selection.
Traditional models of households assumed that all members of a household act as a team—altruistically putting the interests of the family ahead of their own. However, household bargaining models acknowledge various individuals within a group have different preferences, and, as a result, conflicts of interest arise within the household. Thus, households can act either cooperatively or competitively as individual members seek to maximize their own satisfaction.
When analyzing the different ways in which families can act cooperatively or competitively, bargaining power is an important concept to acknowledge. In the context of household portfolio selection, disproportionate bargaining power can mean that one spouse dominates decision making.
Zhang utilizes several proxies of bargaining power—such as gender, education, income, and hours worked—to see how risk perceptions (measured as perceived likelihood that a mutual fund invested in blue-chip stocks would experience a 20% decline over the next 12-months) of a spouse with more bargaining power may influence the percentage of risky assets in a household’s portfolio. Utilizing data from the HRS, Zhang finds that, all else equal, the subjective risk assessments of females, spouses with more education, and spouses with lower income have a greater influence on risky asset investment.
One interesting aspect of Zhang’s findings is that it is not always the household member who is assumed to have more bargaining power whose subjective risk assessment seems to influence portfolio holdings. For instance, spouses with more income are assumed to have greater bargaining power, though Zhang finds it is those with less income whose subjective risk perceptions have a greater influence on portfolio allocation. Zhang notes that this may be because the higher earning spouses may have higher opportunity costs, and thus delegate this decision making to a lower earning spouse.
Zhang does note some important limitations to this study (e.g., it is only based on one point in time rather than evaluating behavior over time), but it is certainly a fascinating and important topic.
From a practical perspective, these findings reiterate the importance of engaging both spouses in the financial planning process. And this is particularly true in light of our industry’s historical neglect of the female members of households, as even if it is the case that a higher-earning male possesses more bargaining power within a particular household, it may actually be the lower-income female’s risk assessment which is driving portfolio risky asset investment decisions of the household!
Further, this type of analysis raises all sorts of important questions. How do couples delegate portfolio decision making between themselves? How do they delegate portfolio decision making when an advisor is involved? If an advisor is struggling to get buy-in from a couple, who should they try and influence and how should they do so? It’s unlikely that any of these questions have simple answers, but they are the types of research questions that fiduciary advisors who want to help their clients fulfill their goals must consider.
THE EFFECT OF ADVANCED AGE AND EQUITY VALUES ON RISK PREFERENCES
In another paper examining risk preferences, David Blanchett of Morningstar, Michael Finke of The American College, and Michael Guillemette of Texas Tech University examine the effect of advanced age and equity values on risk preferences.
Utilizing a unique data set of risk tolerance questionnaire (RTQ) responses from participants in a defined contribution managed account solution offered by Morningstar Associates, the researchers are able to analyze how RTQ responses from January 2006 to October 2012 were associated with age and equity values after controlling for other factors such as account balance, annual salary, and savings rate.
The researchers find that as the S&P 500 increases, workers become less risk averse, and vice-versa. Additionally, participants who were older, had lower income, and had lower account balances were found to have higher levels of risk aversion.
Blanchett et al. note that the higher levels of risk aversion among older participants provides justification beyond time-horizon considerations for reducing equity allocations with age. Further, these findings suggest that annuitization should be more common than it is, though the authors note that several factors may decrease the attractiveness of annuitization, including mortality salience and framing effects.
The authors also note that an interaction found between age and S&P 500 levels suggests that risk preference assessment of older individuals may be influenced by stock market valuations. Specifically, if risk preferences were assessed when market values are high, respondents exhibited more desire to take on risk. But, of course, investing more in stocks because they’re up only makes investors more at risk of losing money in the next bear market! Fortunately, target date funds and other strategies can take the rebalancing responsibility out of the investors hands, which may help shield the investor form losses due to changes in shifting risk preferences.
From a practical perspective, financial planners should consider that risk tolerance assessment should not just be a one-time occurrence. A growing body of research suggests that investors exhibit time-varying risk aversion. Of course, this too raises questions.
If risk aversion is not stable, then how should it be used in practice? Does behavior change as stated risk preferences change, or are people were changing the way they answer questions related to risk preference (perhaps driven by risk perception instead)? Does a one-dimensional measure of risk aversion even tell us much in the first place? And to what extent should retirement strategies be designed differently if there’s an anticipation up front that retiree risk tolerance will decline in their later years?
MULTIDIMENSIONAL FINANCIAL STRESS: SCALE DEVELOPMENT AND RELATIONSHIP WITH PERSONALITY TRAITS
As financial planners shift from simply thinking about the quantitative aspects of financial planning to helping clients achieve more holistic financial health, understanding measures of financial stress and well-being will be increasingly important.
In their presentation, Multidimensional Financial Stress: Scale Development and Relationship with Personality Traits, Wookjae Heo of South Dakota State University, Soo Hyun Cho of California State University Long Beach, and Phil Seok Lee of South Dakota State University, presented their work in developing a multidimensional measure of financial stress.
In an SSRN paper covering a similar topic, the researchers provide a glimpse into some of the topics which are important in developing a more comprehensive measure of financial stress. The authors note that there are affective (i.e., how people feel), psychological (i.e., cognitive and behavioral), and physiological (i.e., bodily responses) dimensions to stress. As a result, they aim to bring these different dimensions together into a single scale that can be used to assess financial stress.
Further, the researchers used this measure in a survey of 1,162 respondents to examine its potential use and possible relationships between Big Five personality traits and financial stress. Those who exhibited the highest level of financial stress were moderately extraverted, were low in agreeableness, low in conscientiousness, high in neuroticism, and high in openness. Conversely, those who exhibited the lowest levels of financial stress were highly extraverted, highly agreeable, highly conscientious, low in neuroticism, and highly open to experience.
From a practical perspective, gaining a better understanding of what types of clients are more or less likely to experience higher levels of stress can help advisors manage client comfort and look out for various behavioral tendencies. Research in this area still has a long way to go before advisors can use such findings with confidence, but this is one area where the importance of basic research is highlighted—even if the immediate applications are limited. If we don’t even truly understand what financial stress is, we will struggle to effectively help our clients alleviate it (or identify the clients most prone to financial stress in the first place)!
Overall, the 2017 AFS Annual Meeting was successful in bringing together a wide range of scholars to share their research in personal financial planning. And hosting the conference in conjunction with FPA BE provided an excellent opportunity to increase the interaction between practitioners and academics as well.
The AFS Annual Meeting will be held in conjunction with the FPA Annual Conference in 2018—again providing an opportunity for greater engagement between financial planners and researchers. So, if you would like to stay on top of some of the latest ideas in academic research, would like to consider possibly getting involved in research yourself, or simply just want to experience an academic conference first hand, attending the AFS Annual Meeting and FPA Annual Conference in 2018 may be a convenient opportunity to do so!
So what do you think? Did you attend the 2017 AFS Annual Meeting? Do you have plans to attend in the future? What else can be done to help further engagement between practitioners and academics? Please share your thoughts in the comments below!
The Investment Management Consultants Association (IMCA) announced this month that it is rebranding to the “Investments & Wealth Institute” (IWI), recognizing that as financial advisor business models in the investment world have expanded far beyond just (institutional) investment consulting, so too has the IMCA membership base, which now includes a wider range of financial planners, private wealth advisors, and bank trust officers, in addition to investment consultants. Notably, IMCA-now-IWI emphasizes that its rebranding is occurring because it is growing beyond its original focus (not shrinking from it), as the organization’s membership and certificants are up a whopping 44% since 2012 (to 11,877), but believes the “Investments & Wealth” label better reflects its focus on advanced investment and wealth management education, as the organization grants both the Certified Investment Management Analyst (CIMA) and the Certified Private Wealth Advisor (CPWA) certifications (both credible post-CFP advanced designations that have expanded into both in-person and online offerings). In addition, IMCA-now-IWI also announced that it has acquired the Retirement Management Analyst (RMA, now being rebranded as Retirement Management Advisor) designation from the Retirement Income Industry Association (RIIA), and going forward will begin to offer an online advanced certificate program in retirement planning as well as the RMA certification itself (which requires additional education and passing a comprehensive exam).
Michael Gerber’s famous business book “The E-Myth” points out that most small business entrepreneurs struggle because they spend all of their time working in their business, and too little time working on the business itself. Any small business owner who has a unique and valuable personal skillset – from a pie-maker to a doctor to a financial advisor – is particularly prone to this challenge, as almost by definition what gets them paid is the work they do in the business. And accordingly, to the extent they take time off to go to a conference once or twice a year, they tend to go to events that help them improve their skills in the business (i.e., continuing education), particularly since most regulated professions have CE requirements anyway.
To break the cycle for financial advisors, I’m declaring 2018 as “the year of the practice management (or career development) conference” instead. Because the reality is that there is an ever-growing number of choices on how to fulfill your annual CE requirements online, from conferences that are live-streamed or recorded for subsequent purchase, to an abundance of webinars on demand, and even the Members Section of this blog (and CFP professionals only need to complete CE requirements every other year anyway!). But the opportunities for good practice management content that actually helps you work on the business more effectively, or career development content that helps you grow to the next level, are few and far between. And when it comes to working on the business, it’s especially important to actually physically leave the business and go to a conference, as you have to get beyond your own four office walls to get a fresh perspective on your business or career.
Unfortunately, though, going to a conference is a major investment – with conference registration fees that can run $1,000 or more, plus the cost of airfare and hotel accommodations – which means it’s especially important to pick the right conference to get value. In fact, given that in recent years I’ve been speaking annually at nearly 70 conferences myself, and have presented at virtually every major conference in our industry, from the various membership association events to custodian and broker-dealer and even media publication conferences, I’m often asked for recommendations of what I think are the “best” conferences for financial advisors based on what I’ve seen.
Accordingly, in 2012 I started to craft my own annual list of “best-in-class” top conferences for financial advisors, based on my own travels and experience, and divvied up into categories that would make it easier for advisors to select what matches their own needs at their current business or career stage.
And now, I’m excited to present my newest list of “Top Financial Advisor Conferences” for 2018, all with a focus on practice management and career development. Of course, given that we’re all at different stages of our businesses, some events are much better suited to certain types of advisors, and accordingly I’ve tried to delineate which are the best depending on your size of business, industry channel, and/or career stage.
So I hope you find this year’s 2018 financial conferences list to be helpful as a guide in planning your own conference budget and schedule for next year. And I hope you make the investment – because the truth is that you just need one major takeaway to materially change the trajectory of your business or career in the coming years!
It has long been lamented by advisor conference organizers that Practice Management sessions tend to have far lower turnout than “technical” topics eligible for CFP CE credit. The presumed reason was simply that as financial advisors, we want/demand CE credit, and therefore won’t attend practice management sessions that (rightfully) aren’t eligible. The reality, though, is that practice management content for advisors doesn’t tend to get a low turnout because it’s not eligible for CFP CE credit. Instead, practice management sessions tend to get a low turnout because they simply often aren’t relevant in the first place.
After all, if there’s a major tax law change, or the rules of Social Security change, or a new retirement strategy emerges, almost every financial advisor will need to know about it. Because whether you’re a paraplanner or a lead advisor, under a broker-dealer or an RIA, an employee advisor or an owner, you need to understand the (latest) rules when it comes to tax law, Social Security, retirement, and other core knowledge areas (unless you have an incredibly specialized niche where it truly isn’t necessary to know).
On the other hand, when it comes to practice management, advisor circumstances are far more varied. If you’re a paraplanner employee, you need help with career development, but not necessarily business development (yet). If you’re an employee lead advisor, you may need to learn about business development as well, but not necessarily about business management. On the other hand, if you actually do own the advisory firm, you need to understand a wide range of business management issues, from HR and recruiting to operations and bookkeeping. Yet even those issues vary depending on whether you’re building your advisory business under a broker-dealer or on an RIA platform.
As a result, what’s “relevant” for financial advisors in the realm of practice management tends to be much narrower than it is for technical topics. Which means the practice management topics themselves are almost by definition more “niche” and targeted, as are practice management conferences themselves.
Of course, the reality is that all the advisors on a common platform share a lot of common experiences, from the tools and technology made available to them to use, to the fact that other advisors on the platform tend to have a similar business model and therefore often similar challenges. Which helps to explain why major custodian and broker-dealer conferences, from LPL Focus 2018 to the Commonwealth National Conference, Cambridge Ignite, and the Raymond James Elevate 2018 event, to TDA LINC, Pershing INSITE, and the Schwab IMPACT 2018 conference, tend to be some of the largest in the industry.
Yet while I highly recommend that all financial advisors attend their platform’s national conference at least once every 2-3 years, even advisor custodian and broker-dealer platform conferences tend to be overly broad, and don’t necessarily provide sufficient coverage and depth regarding the key issues that are really relevant for advisors at the various stages of their career and business growth.
Accordingly, this year’s list of “Top Conferences for Financial Advisors” is specifically organized by the type or career stage of advisor – from newer versus experienced advisors, to those running practices versus those trying to build advisory businesses, those looking for technology versus those who need help with business development and client acquisition, and those who are Next Generation (G2) advisors versus those who are trying to attract and grow with Next Generation (Gen X and Gen Y) clientele.
Hopefully at least one category is relevant for you! (And if not, you can always go to your platform’s national conference, and come back to revisit this list for 2019!)
Best Conference For/In: New Financial Planners | Next Generation (G2) Advisors & Successors | Serving Next Generation (Gen X/Y) Clients | Blogging & Digital Marketing | Regaining Control Of Your Advisory Business (& Time) | Transitioning From Practice To Business | Refining A Lifestyle Practice | Looking To Acquire (Or Sell) An Advisory Firm | Practice Management For Larger Independent Advisory Firms | Advisor Technology | Rapidly Growing Advisory Businesses | Business Development & Client Acquisition | Experienced Advisors Looking To Re-Energize And Find “What’s Next?” | Plugging The Hole For CFP CE Credits
For Conference Organizers: For the embed code to post a “Top Advisor Conference in 2018” badge to your own conference website, click here or scroll to the bottom of this page.
For Vendors/Exhibitors Considering Sponsorships: Hopefully this list will be helpful to you in deciding what conferences to potentially attend and exhibit at. For further ideas, please see our prior-year 2017 “Best Conferences For Financial Advisors”, which includes a number of other more ‘traditional’ advisor conferences. I also have limited availability to consult directly with companies seeking further guidance on distribution and go-to-market strategies to reach financial advisors.
Best Conference For New Financial Planners: FPA NexGen Gathering 2018
The emerging shortage of young talent makes financial planning an especially appealing career opportunity in the coming decade. The caveat, however, is that it’s still an incredibly challenging profession to get started in, as it’s difficult to even find the “right” financial advisory firms to work for that have good training and career track opportunities, most new “financial advisor” job openings are really just sales jobs, and even when you do find a good firm, the role of a paraplanner or employee advisor can be a relatively isolating experience. Which isn’t necessarily aided by going to a financial advisor conference where most of the other advisors are in their 50s and 60s.
To fill this void, NexGen was born. Now part of the Financial Planning Association, the FPA NexGen community includes more than 2,500 financial planners who are age 36 or under (an actual requirement for membership), who share their experiences and provide support for each other through a combination of a private message forum and an annual conference called the FPA NexGen Gathering.
In recent years, the NexGen Gathering has used an “open agenda” format, where the participants themselves spend the first general session in a large-group discussion voting on the most pressing and/or appealing topics for young advisors, which then become the breakout sessions to be covered throughout the remainder of the conference.
In 2018, though, the NexGen Gathering is shifting back towards its “roots” from a decade ago, with a somewhat more structured format that will combine career development presentations and group discussion in a more formal agenda established in advance (including some sessions available for CFP CE credit). Which may be a bit more appealing for those who really want to know and understand what they’re getting in to with the conference for the dollars they’re going to spend (and to be able to provide a clearer explanation to the boss/owner who may need to sign off for them to attend!).
The FPA NexGen Gathering is a “must attend” for all those new financial planners who are trying to survive and thrive in their early years, and want to find a community of like-minded peers all looking to build long-term successful financial planning careers. In fact, the bonds formed in NexGen are so tight that many members stay connected to their NexGen peers years later by forming study/mastermind groups (once they “graduate” of the community after age 36).
Who Should Attend: While the NexGen community itself has an age required of being 36-or-under, the NexGen Gathering historically has not had any age limit. However, from a practical perspective, the conference is best suited for younger financial advisors, as that’s the focus of the community – ideally, those who are still in the first 10 years of their career (or as little as 0 years of experience!).
Details: June 24th to 26th at the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB) campus.
Cost: Not yet announced, but last year was an intended-to-be-affordable $229 for FPA members ($255 for non-FPA-members), with a $30 early bird registration discount, plus a separate discounted onsite lodging option (cheaper than local hotel costs for the multi-day event).
Conference Website: FPA NexGen Gathering 2018
Best Conference For Next Generation (G2) Succession Planning: AICPA PFP Summit
With the average age of a financial advisor in their early-to-mid-50s, an estimated 40% of all of today’s financial advisors are expected to retire in the next 10 years, succession planning has become an increasingly hot topic at conferences. The challenge, however, is that most events just offer a session or two on the topic… which simply isn’t even to really delve into the real issues and complications that arise in trying to transition the ownership, management, and client servicing of an advisory firm.
Which is why the AICPA PFP Summit has scheduled its entire 2018 conference agenda around the theme of G2 (2nd/Next Generation) succession planning, including sessions on practice management and industry benchmarking gurus Mark Tibergien and Philip Palaveev (who recently published “The Enduring Advisory Firm” and “G2 – Building The Next Generation” respectively), industry commentator Bob Veres, practice management coach Tracy Beckes, and advisor business management and succession planning success stories like Cheryl Holland of Abacus Planning Group.
Notably, the format of the AICPA PFP Summit is unique as well. The event is being hosted at the posh Terranea Resort in southern California, with an agenda that is designed from the start to facilitate in-depth networking time with colleagues, including multi-hour afternoon breaks to allow time for activities like hiking, biking, and kayaking (for those less outdoors-inclined, last year’s event also included a group session on making your own guacamole!). Though again, the point is not just to have a conference that mixes in some fun activities as well, but specifically a structure that allows time for colleagues to have casual conversations to discuss the weighty practice management topics of the day.
For those who may have attended the AICPA’s PFP Conference every January in the past – a 2.5-day technical content extravanganza that has long been recognized as one of the best Technical conferences for financial advisors – in 2017 the AICPA moved the PFP conference from January to June to become part of the larger AICPA Engage event. Accordingly, the PFP Summit was created to replace the former conference in the January time slot. Although while the AICPA PFP technical conference has historically attracted a large 1,000+ audience, the PFP Summit is intended to be much smaller and more intimate (apropos for the succession planning topic!), with a likely attendance of just 150 – 200 advisors or so.
Who Should Attend: Experienced advisor founders and next generation G2 advisor successors who want to really focus on succession planning issues and the long-term future of their advisory firm. In fact, the PFP Summit may be an especially good fit for both a founder and successor to attend together to begin tackling their succession plan, although either attending alone will likely have substantial takeaways to bring home to the succession planning discussion.
Details: January 8th to 10th (with a pre-event reception on Sunday January 7th) at the Terranea Resort in Rancho Palos Verdes, CA (a suburb of Los Angeles)
Cost: $2,095 for non-members of the AICPA, $1,795 for members. Registrations by November 24th are eligible for a $75 Early Bird discount, and non-members may receive the $1,795 base rate by the Early Bird deadline. AICPA Tax or PFP Section members (or PFS credential holders) save an additional $100. Nerd’s Eye View readers can receive an addition $125 off with the KITCESPFP discount code!
Conference Website: AICPA PFP Summit 2018
Best Conference For Serving Next Generation Clients (And The FinTech To Help): XYPN LIVE 2018 & FinTech Competition
The XY Planning Network is a turnkey financial planning platform created to support financial advisors who want to deliver financial planning to Gen X and Gen Y clients for an affordable monthly fee (i.e., a “monthly retainer” business model). And to support its mission, the XY Planning Network conference brings together financial advisors who are currently executing the model successfully (along with those who want to learn) to share ideas and best practices with each other.
Accordingly, the XYPN LIVE 2018 conference is especially well suited to financial advisors who are trying to expand their services (or go independent and launch a new firm from scratch) to serve Gen X and Millennial clients. Tracks are focused on how to Start (launch), Run (operations), and Grow (marketing) a next-generation-client-focused financial planning offering, covering everything from how to structure and communicate your ongoing financial planning services, ways to structure a combination of monthly retainer fees along with upfront, hourly, or AUM fees to meet revenue goals, how to launch a Next Generation client offering as an “intrapreneurship” initiative within an existing advisory firm, and even ideas for how to bridge the income gap when starting out (via “side hustles”).
Also notable at the XYPN LIVE 2018 conference is its (now 3rd annual) FinTech Competition, which provides a platform for emerging financial advisor technology solutions focused specifically on helping advisors to serve younger clientele more efficiently (as technology efficiencies are crucial to being profitable when serving a younger clientele with a lower average revenue per client). Prior XYPN FinTech Competition winners include Snappy Kraken (which recently raised $1M of venture capital after its success at the FinTech Competition), and Vestwell (which also just raised venture capital a month after its FinTech Competition victory). In addition, the XYPN LIVE exhibit hall features a wide host of financial advisor technology solutions and practice management consultants, with fewer than 20% of exhibitors directly related to insurance or investment products.
Who Should Attend: Financial advisors who wish to either start their own practice serving Gen X and Gen Y clients, or who wish to launch a “firm within a firm” offering to serve Gen X and Gen Y clients within an existing larger advisory firm. The conference is open to advisors of any age, as long as they’re focused on serving a younger clientele.
Details: September 23rd – 26th at the Union Station Hotel in St Louis, MO.
Cost: $299 for XYPN members and $499 for non-members. An early bird discount of $100 for members and $200 for non-members is currently available through December 31st. Nerd’s Eye View readers can get a further $25 off at any time using KITCES discount code!
Conference Website: XYPN LIVE 2018
Best Conferences For Advisor Blogging And Digital Marketing: FinCon and the Traffic & Conversion Summit
The emerging rise of national RIA firms, from large institutions like Vanguard Personal Advisor Services and Schwab Intelligent Advisory, to independent firms including Creative Planning, Edelman Financial Services, United Capital, Aspiriant, Wealth Enhancement Group, and more, is creating a form of “marketing inequality” between large and small advisory firms. The national firms have the financial means and dedicated marketing talent to establish recognized brands and engage in outbound marketing. Which means smaller independent firms, and the mass of solo advisors, face an ongoing crisis of differentiation to distinguish themselves from their larger peers, necessitating a shift to niches and specialization and the rise of “inbound” digital marketing techniques to attract a more targeted clientele.
Unfortunately, though, the financial services industry is so new to the world of digital marketing, that there aren’t really any existing conferences providing real depth on the topic. However, beyond our industry, the reality is that digital and inbound marketing has been established for years, and as a result, there are several good conferences to consider… albeit not necessarily specific to financial advisors.
Accordingly, those newer to digital marketing, blogging, and social media, should consider the Advisor Track at FinCon, while advisors more established with digital marketing should look to the more advanced Traffic & Conversion Summit.
FinCon (Advisor Track) 2018
While financial advisors can get a taste of digital and inbound marketing at broad-based marketing conferences like Hubspot’s INBOUND 2018 or Social Media Marketing World (SMMW), the appeal of the FinCon conference is that it was designed for the start for financial bloggers (albeit primarily the types who write on personal finance topics directly to consumers, not financial advisors in particular).
To get even more relevant for financial advisors, in 2015 the FinCon conference offered an “Advisor Symposium on Social Media and Blogging”, and in the years since the “Advisor Track” at FinCon has gained substantial momentum as the go-to event for financial advisors trying to get up to speed on the best practices in social media marketing and blogging, and learn from fellow advisors who are actually doing it successfully about what really works (and what doesn’t).
Who Should Attend: Financial advisors who are looking to get started with advisor blogging and social media, or those who are a few years down the digital marketing path and want to find colleagues to learn from and share best practices.
Details: September 26th to 29th in Orlando, FL
Cost: TBD, but last year was $469, with a deep early bird discount of $270 for those who registered shortly after the prior event ended. Nerd’s Eye View readers get an additional $25 off with the KITCES18 discount code!
Conference Website: FinCon 2018
Traffic & Conversion Summit 2018
The world of digital marketing is full of self-professed “marketing gurus” who unfortunately are a lot better at promoting themselves than actually teaching effective marketing techniques for those who follow them. A notable exception is Ryan Deiss of Digital Marketer, whose platform has a strong reputation for “Digital Marketing Strategies that actually work”, anchored by their legendary long-form guide on maximizing customer value through digital marketing upsells of multiple tiers of products/services (which works in any business/industry).
Building on their success in digital marketing, the Digital Marketer team launched “Traffic & Conversion Summit” in 2012 to build an entire conference event around the theme, and it is now recognized by industry experts as one of the leading events for more advanced techniques in digital marketing and traffic acquisition strategies (more so than Hubspot’s INBOUND, which is viewed as a more basic digital marketing event).
The caveat, though, is that Traffic & Conversion Summit (TCS) is not targeted in any way to financial advisors in particular. Which means it’s really only suitable for those who are already very experienced in social media, blogging, and digital marketing, who are looking for deeper expertise to take their success to the next level. Those who are newer to digital marketing may find the depth overwhelming, though, and the strategies too complex to apply (and thus would be better served to start out at the FinCon Advisor Track instead), especially since it will be up to the advisor to figure out how to apply non-industry solutions to the financial advisory business world in particular.
Nonetheless, for those who have already had some traction, and want to figure out how to take their digital marketing game to the next level, TCS is worth checking out, especially if you’ve never attended a non-advisory-industry digital marketing conference in the past.
Who Should Attend: Advisors who are already engaged in financial advisor blogging and social media, and having some success and traction, but want to figure out how to amplify their results with more advanced techniques and are ready to reinvest the time and effort it takes to refine their digital marketing process.
Details: February 26th to 28th at the Marriott Marquis Marina Hotel in San Diego, CA
Cost: $1,495, with an Early Bird discount of $500.
Conference Website: Traffic & Conversion Summit 2018
Best Conference For Regaining Control Of Your Business: Strategic Coach
One of the biggest success points for most advisory firms is our incredibly high client retention rates – which means if we can just get the clients in the first place, and survive long enough, most financial advisors will be financially successful in the long run. Even if it’s just slowly accumulating a few clients a year until the advisor reaches a critical mass.
Yet the challenge of having an advisory business with such high retention rates is that, if the advisors sticks to it long enough, it’s a virtual certainty that the advisor will eventually reach capacity, and then hit “overload” – where there are suddenly “too many” clients, not enough time in the day to manage the business, and growth hits a wall.
And while technology tools and some hiring can help once advisors hit the wall, the reality is that the biggest change that’s necessary to get past the wall is a mental one – it’s a mindset change, which ultimately leads the advisor to change his/her own role in the business, figure out what to delegate, and where to focus time and attention. Except unfortunately, this doesn’t come naturally to most of us; in fact, it’s almost impossible to get the perspective necessary to change your mindset, without literally having someone else to provide that outside perspective!
Enter Dan Sullivan of the Strategic Coach. The Strategic Coach program is designed for any/all entrepreneurs, and is not specific to financial advisors, but remains relevant because the core challenge of financial advisors is really the same as most entrepreneurs: changing your role to work less in the business, and more on the business, and figuring out what, exactly, is your “unique ability” that contributes to the growth of the business. So that you can re-shape both the business itself, and your team and role, to fit your highest and best-use skills.
Technically, the Strategic Coach is not a conference – it’s a coaching program, that’s built around quarterly in-person workshop meetings with your Strategic Coach and a small group of fellow entrepreneurs. Advisors must generate $100,000 of personal income to qualify for the program, and entrepreneurs are divided into cohorts for those earning up to $500,000/year, and those generating $500k+ of personal income, given that the needs and challenges of the entrepreneur do vary a bit by size and complexity of the business.
The cost of the strategic coach program is not trivial, though the Strategic Coach has a long history of transforming advisory firm (and other) businesses with a significant rise in income that more than pays for the program, along with increases in free time and quality of life as an entrepreneur by regaining control of your business!
Who Should Attend: Advisory firm business owners who feel like they have hit a personal wall in their growth and productivity, and feel like they are no longer in control of their time and business. Of course, the biggest challenge of fixing the problem is that you may not feel like you have the time to take off to make the changes. Do it anyway.
Details: Various Strategic Coach programs are regularly launched, each with their own coach and planned schedule of quarterly workshop meetings. See here for the upcoming workshop availability.
Cost: $10,000 as an annual fee to participate in the 4 annual workshops, plus receive access to the rest of the Strategic Coach online and supporting materials.
Conference Website: Strategic Coach
Best Conference For Transitioning From Advisory Practice To Business: Carson Excell 2018
While most financial advisors proudly celebrate the fact that they are small business owners, the reality is that most advisory firms aren’t really “businesses” in the truest sense – because they wouldn’t be capable of surviving beyond the owner’s lifetime, and in most cases aren’t capable of even growing or sustaining revenue beyond the owner’s personal capacity. In other words, most advisory firms are more of a “personal practice” than a standalone business.
Of course, “just” being an advisory practice isn’t necessarily a bad thing at all. Solo advisory firms can be phenomenally lucrative, and standout advisory practices are netting more than $500,000/year in advisor income (and even partners at $1B+ AUM ensemble firms struggle to generate higher take-home pay than that!). As a result, many financial advisors are quite happy to simply refine their “lifestyle practice” to support a healthy income, while maximizing their work/life balance and ability to take time off.
However, a subset of financial advisors really want to transition from a practice to a bona fide advisory business, which entails hiring both operations and advisory staff, and transitioning the role of the founder themselves to be less of an advisor and more of an advisory business owner. Which for most advisors, is a very difficult transition – but one that legendary financial advisor Ron Carson’s “Peak Advisor” coaching program (recently rebranded to the Carson Group Coaching platform) has been training for nearly 20 years, with a semi-annual conference for its coaching clients called Excell.
In 2018, though, the Carson Group has announced that it is opening up the Excell conference to any/all advisors who want to attend, with a stated focus of trying to make Excell one of the industry’s all-around leading practice management conferences for those trying to make the transition from practice to business (typically advisors generating between $250k to $750k of revenue, who have “hit the wall” on personal growth, and need to transition the business to reach the next level). In fact, recognizing that a successful transition to a business involved both a change for the advisor, and a change and deepening of the staff that supports the advisor, Excell is unique in offering dual tracks for both advisors and their support staff.
Notably, because Excell is still part of the Carson Group Coaching platform, expect that the conference itself will likely still be at least a soft pitch for their Executive Coaching service as well (the original Peak Advisor program) and the Carson Institutional TAMP platform. Nonetheless, the reality is that many advisors going through the practice-to-business transition actually need coaching support to make the transition, and outsourcing investment management is increasingly common, so getting to understand Carson’s related services may be helpful for many! And the Carson Group maintains that it is focused on keeping the conference itself pure with practical takeaways.
Who Should Attend: Advisors (regardless of RIA or B/D) generating between $250k to $750k of revenue who want to make the transition from being an advisor to being an advisory firm business owner, either out of a desire to grow or the struggle of having “hit the wall” on personal capacity. Given the dual-track nature of Excell, advisors should consider bringing their support staff/executive assistant/operations manager as well.
Details: May 30th to June 1st at the ARIA Resort in Las Vegas, NV
Cost: $999. Nerd’s Eye View readers can receive a $100 discount with the code KITCES if you are not already a Carson Coaching Group member!
Conference Website: Carson Group Excell 2018
Best Conference For Refining A Lifestyle Practice: Limitless Adviser Coaching Program
While some advisors who run an advisory practice are trying to transition to a business – with all the hiring and growth and the opportunities and sacrifices that come with it – others really prefer to “just” stay a practice, and try to optimize it to maximize net income and personal freedom and flexibility. Which is quite feasible, given that the top solo advisory firms are netting more than $500,000/year in advisor income serving mass affluent clients.
However, unfortunately most solo advisors do not experience such financial success. Instead, they hit a capacity wall, where all of their time is consumed by serving a wide range of accumulated clients with a wide range of needs, such that there’s no longer any time to even find more new clients (much less do the intensive upfront financial planning work for a new client), and sometimes there’s barely enough time to ever serve existing clients well. Suddenly, you no longer control the advisory firm you “own” at all; instead, the advisory firm controls you, and your time.
To help advisors stuck in this “trap”, Stephanie Bogan (a practice management guru who sold her first practice management consulting business and is now building a new firm) has paired with Matthew Jarvis (who built a highly successful $1M+ revenue practice with >50% profit margins while taking nearly 100 days of vacation per year by the age of 35!) to create a new coaching program they have dubbed “Limitless Adviser”. The idea of the Limitless Adviser program is to pursue what Stephanie calls the “5 Freedoms” of Limitless Advisers, to regain control of your advisory business if you find yourself in the challenging situation where it feels the business controls you… but you want to get back to a world of growing revenue while regaining that feeling of freedom and flexibility that the practice once had (and perhaps even a little fun!?).
Notably, though, the Limitless Adviser program isn’t simply a “conference” – it’s actually a full-year coaching program, that includes two retreats (in March and September), monthly “Strategic Learnings” calls for 2 hours with Stephanie and Matt (where they take deep dives into the mindsets and methods that it takes to hit $1M of revenue and maintain a healthy lifestyle balance), monthly “Practice Learnings” calls to explore the “how’s” to apply the teachings, an Advisor Forum to ask further questions (with set Office Hours to access Stephanie and Matt’s expertise), and further tools and resources. The coaching delves into everything an advisory practice needs to refine itself, including how to position the business, branding and sales, marketing, HR and people, operations and processes, and finding the right systems and platforms.
Of course, the irony is that many of the advisors who most need the help that the Limitless Adviser Coaching Program provides may feel daunted by the substantial time commitment it will take to go through it. Fortunately, though, the whole point of the exercise is to free up far more of your time in the business than “just” what the coaching program will take – and the improved trajectory of the business is something you can take with you long after the year-long program is done.
Who Should Attend: Advisors with $200,000 to $500,000 of revenue who feel “stuck” in their practice, with too much to do for too many clients to the point that it’s no longer “fun”, and want to regain control of their practice… and are ready to make the personal commitment to change.
Details: Retreats are on March 6th to 8th in Dallas and from September 12th to 14th in Las Vegas (both part of the program); remaining calls and other participation is virtual on your own time.
Cost: $12,000 for the full-year program. Nerd’s Eye View readers can get $2,000(!) off with KITCESCONF discount code! (Note that the 2018 program is expected to be ‘full’ by the end of November 2017; those reading this in 2018 who are interested in the 2019 program can view the website below.)
Conference Website: Limitless Adviser
Best Conference For Advisors Looking To Buy (Or Sell): Echelon Deals & Dealmakers Summit
Given the aging of the average financial advisor, and the ongoing shortage of young advisor talent (as there are more CFP professionals over the age of 70 than there are under the age of 30!), the reality is that many or even most financial advisors will not be able to complete an internal succession plan as they won’t be able to find a successor (or won’t have the time or inclination to train and develop them). As a result, more and more advisory firms are being sold instead, with some estimates that there are as many as 50(!) interested buyers for every advisory firm seller!
In turn, the rise of advisory firm dealmaking has led to the rise of advisory firm deal-making platforms, consultants, and investment bankers, including FP Transitions, DeVoe and Company, Succession Resource Group, Advisor Growth Strategies, and Echelon Partners. And it’s Echelon Partners that ultimately decided to go one step further, launching its own “Deals and Dealmakers” semi-annual conference, to both provide a forum for the leading acquirers (and consultants and platforms that work with them) to discuss the latest trends and best practices in advisory firm mergers and acquisitions.
The conference agenda includes the latest industry statistics on deal-making from Echelon’s own CEO Dan Seivert, along with sessions from leading advisory firm acquirers about what’s working (and what’s not) when integrating an acquired firm, to how to complete advisory firm acquisitions successfully (from deal terms to negotiating tactics).
Notably, the Deals and DealMakers (DDM) Summit is also an opportunity to actually meet potential acquirers, for those advisors who are actually looking to sell. Although in practice, the focus of the conference agenda (and the majority of attendees) are acquirers looking for insights on trends and best practices, which means firms looking to acquire should attend for the content (and not just in search of on-site deals). And may be interesting perspective for advisory firm owners who plan to sell in the future, and want to get some better insight into how buyers might be looking at the deal.
Who Should Attend: Advisory firm owners that are involved in acquiring other advisory firms, or who would like to be, and want to understand M&A trends and best practices, and network with consultants and platforms that may be available to support them. Or potential advisory firm sellers looking for buyers, or at least looking for perspective on what buyers want (if planning for a future sale).
Details: September 12th and 13th at the Island Hotel in Newport Beach, CA
Cost: $795 for financial advisors (and $995 for non-advisors), with no Early Bird discount. However, Nerd’s Eye View readers get a $80 off with the discount code KITCES up through August 1st!
Conference Website: Echelon Deals & Dealmakers Summit
Best Conference For Larger Independent Advisory Firms: Bob Veres’ Insider’s Forum 2018
Bob Veres is the former editor of Financial Planning magazine, and for the past 20+ years has been the publisher of Inside Information, the longest-standing (and highly recommended!) newsletter for financial advisors on practice management. And after years of writing about practice management and speaking at conferences, Veres decided to produce his own conference, originally dubbed the “Business and Wealth Management Conference” and now simply titled “Insider’s Forum”.
The content at Insider’s Forum best suited for mid-to-large sized independent advisory firms (e.g., “ensemble” firms that have at least $2M of revenue, 10+ staff, and multiple partners) that are running as bona fide businesses and feel they have outgrown the practice management content of other conferences… as in advisory firms of this size, that are growing beyond their founders, the business faces unique complexity challenges that emerge.
Accordingly, Insider’s Forum offers separate tracks for advisory firm Executive leaders (e.g., Founders, CEOs, etc.), and for advisory firm Operations leaders (e.g., Chief Operating Officers, Operations Managers, etc.), with content tailored for each. The latter includes sessions on designing processes, adopting technology for operational efficiencies, and managing compliance issues, while the former covers topics like finding and developing advisor talent, marketing and business development strategies, and the evolving landscape of advisory firm business and pricing models.
Also notable at Insider’s Forum is its “invitation-only” exhibit hall, where vendors are hand-picked by Veres (along with all the speakers) to ensure appropriateness and relevance for the independent advisory firm attendees.
Who Should Attend: Advisory firm owners/founders and key personnel at mid-to-large-sized growth-oriented independent firms (typically $2M+ of revenue and multiple staff and owners). Ideal attendees include founders/partners, CEOs, and COOs and Operations Managers.
Details: September 24th to 26th at Hotel Del Coronado in San Diego, CA
Cost: TBD, but last year was $975. Subscribers to Veres’ Inside Information receive a $150 discount (which itself is available at a discount for first-time subscribers to the Nerd’s Eye View Member’s Section!), and Nerd’s Eye View blog subscribers can also receive a $75 discount with KITCESBVIF discount code! (Not stackable with Inside Information subscriber discount.)
Conference Website: Bob Veres’ Insider’s Forum 2018
Best Conference For Advisor Technology: Technology Tools For Today (T3) Advisor Conference
Started more than 10 years ago by advisor tech consulting pioneers Joel Bruckenstein and Dave Drucker, the Technology Tools for Today (T3) advisor technology conference is the largest event focused solely and directly on “Advisor FinTech” and WealthTech tools.
From the advisor’s perspective, the challenge with the typical custodian or broker-dealer conference is that only a small subset of industry technology is ever showcased – in part because not all technology tools are approved for all platforms, but more commonly because all of the investment and insurance product solutions simply crowd out the technology providers from the exhibit hall (as a startup software company simply cannot afford to pay the same exhibit fee as a multi-billion or multi-trillion dollar asset manager).
By contrast, the T3 Advisor Technology conference really showcases the full landscape of what’s available in advisor tech tools in all the major categories (e.g., CRM, financial planning, portfolio accounting and reporting), along with newer categories like risk tolerance tools, client PFM portals, cybersecurity tools, and even IT outsourcing providers. Which is helpful for advisory firms looking to add new technology, or switch to another solution in the category (that might not already be on their custodial or broker-dealer platform but could be), but also for advisors looking to switch platforms and/or go independent (who need to make a whole slew of technology decisions when they switch).
For advisor tech companies, the T3 conference is also an important “place to be seen” in the broader advisor technology landscape. The event is very well covered by the industry media and pundits, and consequently most companies time major software or product releases (last year’s event included the launch of Riskalyze Premier and its Autopilot Partner Store and a major advisor software survey), and many advisor tech companies have launched/debuted at T3 over the years, including CRM provider Wealthbox, advisor PFM portal WealthAccess, and portfolio risk analytics tool RiXtrema.
Notably for tech vendors, though, the T3 conference is still not a “huge” buying audience for companies looking for new users (as almost half of the 600+ attendance is typically fellow software vendors, media, and industry consultants), and those looking for big “deal” opportunities would be better served by the T3 Enterprise conference in the fall (which specifically targets large broker-dealer and RIA enterprise decision-makers), or showcasing their solution in the XYPN LIVE FinTech Competition. Nonetheless, the T3 conference is valuable for most vendors, both for the opportunity to gain at least some advisor users, a chance to network with industry media and advisor tech pundits for visibility, and the potential to establish relationships with other tech vendors that might be future integration partners (or even strategic acquirers!).
Who Should Attend: Independent advisory firm owners (or those looking to go independent), and/or whichever staff member in the advisory firm is responsible for technology decisions. Companies looking to provide tech solutions for advisors should also aim to attend, both to showcase their solutions, and also for networking opportunities.
Details: February 6th to 9th, at the Marriott Harbor Beach Resort in Fort Lauderdale, FL
Cost: $599. Early bird discount of $100, ending October 31st. Nerd’s Eye View readers get an additional $75 off with KITCES discount code!
Conference Website: T3 Advisor Technology Conference 2018
Best Conference For Rapidly Growing Advisory Businesses: Scaling Up Summit & User Conference
For advisory firms that want to run as businesses (and not simply lifestyle practices), growth is an imperative – because without growth, the business cannot great opportunities for its people that are necessary to attract and retain the best talent. Ideally, an advisory firm should be sustainably growing its revenue by at least 15%/year – allowing the business to double in size every 5 years – to create the kind of job opportunities that attract the top young talent.
Except the caveat is that if the business really continues to grow at a 15% compounding rate, it quickly becomes a very sizable business. An advisory firm with $2M in revenue and 8-10 employees that can grow at 15%/year will become a $4M revenue firm with 15-20 employees in 5 years. And an $8M revenue firm with 35-40 employees in 10 years. Which suddenly requires a substantial amount of management infrastructure to actually oversee so many employees, and makes it far more challenging to keep everyone on the team focused (when there are far more employees than what the founder alone can manage).
And ironically, in this context, growing even faster can make the process of managing growth even harder. An advisory firm that grows at 25%/year will nearly double every 3 years. 40% annual growth doubles the firm every 2 years, potentially catapulting a business from 10 to nearly 40 employees in just 4-5 years. Which is important, because as Dave Packard (co-founder of Hewlett-Packard) famously noted, “more companies die of indigestion than starvation”. In other words, for growing companies, often the greatest risk is not that the growth stops… but that the growth continues, and the business compounds past the ability of the founders to manage it effectively (as they can’t “digest” the growth fast enough).
While this problem isn’t terribly common in the advisory industry – where high growth rates are especially hard to sustain as the firm grows – managing rapid growth is a real challenge, and one that today’s industry benchmarking studies and practice management consultants are often not well equipped to handle. Instead, it’s necessary to look beyond the industry.
Fortunately, though, the reality is that when a business is growing rapidly, the pain points are actually quite common to most businesses, regardless of the industry. As it’s no longer an “advisory” business challenge, but simply a “business” challenge of how to manage the people, the strategy, the execution, and the cash (which in a rapidly growing business, proves to be remarkably scarce, as the business must reinvest into hiring more people as quickly as it earns cash from recent new clients).
And one of the leading experts in the domain of scaling up small to mid-sized businesses is Verne Harnish, author of “Scaling Up” and the founder of Gazelles consulting, which has been recognized around the world as a leading program in helping teach rapidly growing firms how to actually manage and “scale up” in the face of rapid growth.
In addition to its robust Coaching program, the Gazelles organization also sponsors a series of conferences, including its ScaleUp Summit, and subsequent “User Conferences” for those who have gone through the Scaling Up program and want to put its tools into action. The Summit and User Conferences are run in immediate succession to one another (although business owners can select one, the other, or both), where the Summit focuses on high-level keynotes, and the User Conference focuses on breakout sessions to put the tools into action.
For rapidly growing advisory firm businesses, that are struggling to figure out how to manage the actual business as a business – with all the complexity that come from a deepening organizational chart, hiring mid-level managers, needing to get everyone on the same page to execute the business’s strategic plan – the Gazelles program and Scaling Up are real training in how to do it right.
Interested advisors should start by reading Harnish’s “Scaling Up” book before attending, to have better context for the Gazelles tools and business management philosophy.
Who Should Attend: Advisory firm business owners with at least $2M of revenue who are struggling to manage the continuous hiring and rising complexity of 15%+/year annual growth (and especially firms growing at 25%+/year). Notably, the Gazelles program is viable and relevant all the way to $100M+ of revenue, and thus should be considered for very large independent advisory firm leadership as well.
Details: Gazelles actually runs two sets of annual Summits and User conferences. The Spring event is in New Orleans from May 22nd to 24th, and the Fall event is October 16th to 18th in Denver.
Cost: $1,995 per person for the Summit, and a separate $495 for the User Conference.
Conference Website: Gazelles Growth Summits
Best Conference For Business Development & Client Acquisition: Bachrach or SalesPro Insider
Virtually every financial advisor who has been in the industry for more than 15 years started out the same way: they sold insurance or investment products to start, and if they were successful enough, eventually they went back to get CFP certification and migrated to focusing more on financial planning (and perhaps switching firms or starting their own) after already proving they could survive the initial years and get clients. The end result is that almost every advisor with 15+ years of experience already had sales and business development skills, or learned them quickly… or they’d already have long since left the business.
By contrast, with the rise of employee advisors over the past decade, a growing number of financial planners start out with their CFP marks – either directly out of college, or in the initial years of their career – mastering technical competency skills, and then learning the relationship management skills necessary to handle clients (who may be handed to them from the firm’s marketing efforts, or as more senior advisors reach capacity and need to hand clients off). Yet after several years, a new challenge emerges: the advisory firm has a wide base of high-quality financial advisors, none of whom has any skill at business development or acquiring new clients!
This dearth of sales training and business development skills for experienced advisors becomes a significant blocking point – both for the firm that cannot sustain its growth rate on a limited number of founders doing “all” the business development, and because the advisors themselves reach a cap on their careers where their compensation cannot rise higher because they cannot assume a “Lead Advisor” role (and certainly can’t become a Partner) until/unless they learn to help grow the business.
And the challenge is made worse by the fact that financial-planning-oriented “advice” firms tend to have a very non-sales-oriented culture that repudiates the industry’s traditional sales tactics. Which means it’s especially hard to even find sales and business development training that fits the financial planning firm’s client-centric mentality.
Fortunately, though, several “sales and business development” training programs, with an advice- and advisor-oriented focus, have emerged over the past decade, and offer their own conferences and events!
Bill Bachrach’s Advisor Roadmap and Client Acquisition Mastery Workshop
Bill Bachrach is a coach and consultant for financial advisors, best known for his “(and associated training program) from the late 1990s, which was subsequently followed by “Values-Based Financial Planning” a few years later. The essence of the approach was that, rather than “just” trying to sell a financial services product, or even financial planning advice, that the starting point is to really delve into understanding a client’s core values, both as a means to build better trust and rapport, and ultimately to deliver more relevant advice.
In the years since his Values-Based Selling and Financial Planning success, Bachrach has spoken at advisor conferences across the US and around the world, and in recent years has been developing a new program specifically on client acquisition and business development. The end result is an online training program called “Advisor Roadmap”, and a 3-day Mastery conference focused on further developing your People Skills, offered in partnership with Financial Advisor Magazine.
The Client Acquisition Mastery workshop is specifically focused on teaching – and practicing – the skills necessary to build rapport with clients and prospects. As a result, advisors who go through the program will actually practice their skills in paired sessions with other advisors in the workshop, honing everything from the delivery of how you explain what you do (in a way that makes prospects interested in learning more) to how to have effective “values” conversations (without making it awkward and prying), talking through goals, and articulating your value as a financial planning and the implicit promise you make to clients.
For many financial advisors, the idea of “paired practice” of what you would say to a prospect or client may feel canned or awkward, but the reality is that the only way to get good at client conversations is to practice them. Better in a controlled environment, with a supporting colleague and coaches to facilitate, than trying to figure it out the hard way as you lose out on valuable prospects!
Details: August 8th to 10th in San Diego, CA.
Cost: $2,500, but also requires already being a member of Bachrach’s Advisor Roadmap virtual program (which itself costs $900/year if paid all at once, rising to $1,200/year in January). Workshop registration is discounted by a whopping $1,000 (to just $1,497) for those who register by Super Early Mover deadline of November 30th, and the price rises to $1,750 on January 31st, and $2,000 on April 30th.
Conference Website: Bachrach’s Advisor Roadmap And Client Acquisition Mastery Workshop 2018
Nancy Bleeke’s SalesPro Insider
Most “sales training” programs are challenging for financial advisors, because they’re predicated on traditional sales tactics that may work relatively well for traditional product sales, but are poorly suited to financial advisors who are selling themselves and their advice. Even though the reality is that being a fiduciary advisor is still ultimately about sales – because you can’t help anyone as a financial advisor until you convince them to hire you in the first place!
Nancy Bleeke’s “Genuine Sales” program is different, though. As framed in her book, “Conversations That Sell“, the focus is not really about selling, but simply to have genuine conversations that connect with prospective clients, understand their problems, and explain how our advice solutions legitimately solve their problems.
Bleeke’s program builds around a core 5-step process of WIIFT – an acronym for both focusing on “What’s In It For Them”, and also a process of Wait (do your background work and prepare in advance of a meeting), Initiative (to find connection points with clients and set the stage), Investigate (to really learn about them and help them understand the risks and rewards of working with you as a financial planner), Facilitate (to make it easy for them to find out how what you do actually helps them), and Then consolidate (bring all the key themes together to help them understand how to proceed).
Because the reality is that good sales and business development doesn’t have to be “salesy”, nor is it something that is just for extroverts. Instead, the reality is that sales is really just a process – not a script, but a process – of having a conversation that connects with prospective clients, understands their real issues, and positions your services to solve their problems. Bleeke provides the process.
Details: Genuine Sales workshops occur quarterly. There’s also a “Virtual” Genuine Sales program occurring throughout the year, for those who want to try out the training without traveling!
Cost: $2,995 for the workshop and supporting online tools. Nerd’s Eye View readers receive 10% off with the KITCES discount code!
Conference Website: SalesProInsider Genuine Sales Training
Best Conference For Experienced Advisors Who Need A Recharge: FPA Retreat
For very experienced advisors – those with 15+ years of experience – it’s not uncommon to have a “mid-career crisis”. By this point in your career as an advisor, you likely have most/all the clients you need to be financially successful, are only adding a handful of new clients a year (to replace the few that leave or pass away), and are basically in the “maintenance mode” phase with virtually all of your clients. A phase that will likely last the rest of your career.
The problem with this phase of the financial advisor’s career? It can get boring. Having few new clients means there are few new opportunities to dive in to, few new interesting scenarios to analyze, and not as much intellectual challenge. Client conversations can become remarkably mundane, as the same clients as the same questions and raise the same neurotic concerns they’ve been expressing for 5-10+ years. The same questions and concerns they’ll likely be raising for the next 10+ years of working together as well.
So how do you overcome the mid-career crisis? Take a pause to recharge and re-find your purpose and a new direction… by going to the FPA Retreat.
The FPA Retreat has long been recognized as one of the leading “advanced planning” conferences, but the truth is that it’s more about advanced plannERS than advanced plannING. With a focus on both the “art” and “science” of financial planning, the conference tends to attract very experienced practitioners who attend seeking the opportunity to share best practices and find a community of experienced colleagues. And although it’s not openly stated, many are facing their own mid-career crises.
In point of fact, the “What’s Next” nature of FPA Retreat has led the conference to have a major role in a number of “cutting edge” developments in financial planning. It’s rumored that the birth of Morningstar style boxes came in part from a panel discussion at Retreat decades ago, and it has also been the place where “life planning” was discussed long before it became popular, where the potential shift from AUM to retainer fees has been discussed for a decade already, where the NexGen young planner movement was birthed more than a decade ago, and where advisors continue to push the envelope with tools like using Mind Mapping to better engage clients in meetings.
Simply put, for experienced advisors trying to find their own “What’s Next” in their career, FPA Retreat is the best place to try to figure out the answer to that questions for yourself. (And talk to some other advisors who may be struggling with the same feeling!)
Who Should Attend: Financial planners with 15+ years of experience working with clients, who are struggling with their own mid-career crisis of comfortable business income but stagnant client meetings and flat growth, trying to re-find their purpose and figure out “What’s Next?”
Details: April 23rd to 26th at The Wigwam in Phoenix, Arizona
Cost: $1,549 for non-members of FPA, and $1,349 for FPA members. $100 discount for Advance registration by February 26th, and an additional $100 discount for Early Bird registration by January 29th. Nerd’s Eye View readers can save an additional $50 off with the KITCES discount code!
Conference Website: FPA Retreat 2018
Plugging The Hole For CFP CE Requirements
Notwithstanding that 2018 will hereby be known as the “Year of Practice Management Conferences”, some advisors need to get continuing education credits as well. And given that practice management content is (rightfully!) not eligible for CFP CE credit, those who do need CE credits may need to look to alternatives.
Notably, though, a few of the conferences listed here do at least have “CE tracks” as a part of their agenda, including Veres’ Insider’s Forum, XYPN LIVE, and FPA Retreat.
In addition, there are a wide range of other industry conferences with CE credit available. Of course, the unfortunate reality is that many of those events simply load up the CE with sponsored sessions of poor quality – in point of fact, the original reason we created these annual conference lists was to help financial advisors identify the best conferences that had bona fide educational content!
Accordingly, those looking to plug a hole of CFP CE (or related designations like IMCA’s CIMA or CPWA) should look to our prior “Best Conferences” list for 2017, which was comprised almost entirely of CE-eligible conferences. Of particular note is the FPA NorCal regional conference (a perennial “top conference” for advisors based on its high-quality advanced content), and the AICPA’s PFP (Personal Financial Planning) conference which is now part of the broader AICPA Engage event (although given conference execution challenges at last year’s inaugural event, advisors would likely be better served attending FPA NorCal in 2018 and planning for AICPA Engage in 2019). In addition, many FPA chapters offer local 1- or 2-day chapter symposia that can help fill the void for advisors who are a little short on CFP CE credits.
Alternatively, for those advisors who need CFP CE credits, but still want to attend one of the listed practice management conferences, consider purchasing a “virtual pass” for one of the other more technical events. Video of last year’s AICPA PFP Engage sessions are available online for $459, while NAPFA National sells recordings for its great lineup of technical sessions for just $279, the Financial Planning Association sells its FPA Retreat session recordings for $369 (or its full Annual Conference lineup for $965, with substantial discounts for FPA members), the IMCA Annual Conference is available for $595 (discounted lower for IMCA members), and the CFA Institute actually makes the recordings of its annual conference content available for free! And of course, the Nerd’s Eye View offers IMCA and CFP CE credits for many of these blog posts, along with additional white papers and webinars, in its Members Section, too!
: By all means, get the CFP CE credits you need to maintain your designations. But don’t let the need for CE credits take away from the time you need to invest in yourself to work on your business, too!
So what do you plan to attend? Do you have any conference favorites that I didn’t include in the list? Please share in the comments section below!
Growing a client base and acquiring more ideal clients is a challenge all advisors face, regardless of how successful they currently are. And although almost everyone in the industry has heard that asking for referrals is an important way to grow a business, many advisors struggle with this. Which raises the question, as recently posed by Ron Carson at a recent keynote presentation: “Why don’t more advisors ask for referrals? Are advisors afraid to ask for referrals because they’re not proud of their own services?”
In this week’s discussion, we talk about why it is so hard to ask for referrals as a financial advisor, and how the many barriers – including our pride (or lack thereof) in the company or products we represent, our confidence in our own value, or even shame about the industry we are in – can make it hard to ask for referrals.
Of course, when financial advisors get started, it isn’t feasible to ask for referrals, because you don’t have any clients yet to refer you; instead, the only choice is cold calling, “cold knocking” (walking the streets and knocking on the doors of small businesses), or some other cold prospecting strategy. In fact, arguably for newer advisors, the whole appeal of being able to ask for referrals to generate new business is the opportunity to get away from cold calling and other types of prospecting!
Yet the caveat is that it’s difficult to ask for referrals, if you’re not actually proud of your company and its products. Because if you know, deep down, that your solutions aren’t really the best for your clients, you’ll likely self-sabotage your own behavior – as I experienced myself when starting out as a life insurance agent, struggling to prospect and ask for referrals because I was embarrassed about the sales tactics my company was using at the time!
Of course, ultimately becoming a real financial advisor is not about getting paid for your company’s products, but getting paid for your own advice, knowledge, and wisdom. But that still means it’s hard to ask for referrals until you’re actually confident in yourself, and your own knowledge. And here, too, many struggle, because if we don’t actually know anything about financial planning, and we know that we don’t, then we can’t confidently convey our value. Which is why professional designations like the CFP marks are so helpful… because often it’s only after completing a designation that many will really start to feel confident that they can bring value to the table, and ask for referrals.
Although even once advisors have expertise and can truly add value as a financial advisor, it can still be hard to have confidence to ask for referrals, when telling people “I’m a financial advisor” risks making you a social pariah because so many consumers have had bad prior experiences with advisors! That’s the challenge of trying to do business in a low trust industry. When metrics like the Edelman Trust Barometer finds that fewer than 50% of all consumers trust financial services companies, it’s literally an odds-on bet that if you say “I’m a financial advisor” and ask for referrals, that the person’s first and immediate impression of you will be negative!
The bottom line, though, is just to recognize that there really are a lot of barriers that make it hard for us to ask for referrals, all of which are built around our own fears and discomfort in what we do, the value we provide, or the company/industry we represent. Our fears hold us back. And often our fears are quite well-founded. It really is uncomfortable asking for referrals when you’re not proud of the company and products you represent. Or you’re not confident in your own value. Or you’re ashamed of the industry you’re in. So, if you find yourself at one of these blocking points, figure what do you have to do to grow past it – whether it’s leaving your company, reinvesting in yourself and your education, or differentiating yourself from the rest of the industry – or you won’t have the confidence you need to ask for referrals!
Asking For Referrals To Sell Investment And Insurance Products
As most of you know, I started my career in financial services, working in a life insurance company, straight out of college, into a life insurance agency. It was the year 2000, so the hot product at the time was variable universal life insurance. Buy life insurance. Invest the cash value in the stock market.
Now, back then, the only way you could get started was you had to go out and prospect. You could do cold-calling, or you could walk the streets and cold-knock on the doors of small businesses. There were some long-term career life insurance agents in that office who built their whole careers knocking on the doors of people’s homes, like, literally selling insurance door-to-door, cold-knocking, back in the 1960s and 1970s.
But ideally the goal for most advisors is to get away from that as quickly as possible, by getting some clients and then asking those clients for referrals to new clients and prospecting your way forward from there. It’s basically the…Asking for referrals was the pathway from cold-calling and cold-knocking.
Frankly, compared to cold-calling and cold-knocking, proactively asking for referrals seems like a pretty good deal. But here was the thing. I couldn’t do it. I just couldn’t do it. I couldn’t bring myself to ask clients and prospects I was talking to if they knew anyone else who might benefit from our company’s products and services. It was what I was trained to say, and I couldn’t do it.
Deep down, I think the reason why is exactly what Ron said. I wasn’t proud of the company and the products that I represented. Because at the time at least, it really felt like the company was solely focused on one product, a variable universal life, at least in our branch, where it was all the managing partner wanted us to talk about with every prospect we met.
Even as a novice agent at the time, I knew deep down that not everybody on the planet needed a VUL policy. What’s worse I knew we didn’t even have the best VUL policy on the market, because we got trained in how to overcome objections, including the objection of outselling competing products that illustrated better than ours.
So I was in a position where the company was pushing me to sell a knowingly inferior product to a wide range of people, who often didn’t even need the product. Lo and behold, I didn’t want to ask for referrals. I just couldn’t do it.
To be honest, it…Well, I guess as Ron’s question suggested, it wasn’t that I was afraid, per se. It was frankly that I was kind of ashamed of what I was selling, what I was doing. Ultimately there’s only one good way you ever really deal with that. You have to leave, and that’s what I ended up doing. It basically becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. I wasn’t proud of my company’s tactics and the product I represented. So I didn’t ask for referrals, and I didn’t get much business, which meant I couldn’t qualify my contract, which means the discomfort with the company and its products eventually meant that I no longer had a job selling that company’s products. Funny how these things work out.
But I think it’s a good reminder for all of us that you can’t stay at a company where you aren’t proud of what they do and their solutions that they provide. As Ron had put it, if you wouldn’t knowingly, willingly, and happily recommend your mother and your grandmother to the company that you’re working for, you need to find a different company. You need to go somewhere else because, otherwise, it will become a self-fulfilling prophecy. You won’t be comfortable asking people to do business. You won’t be comfortable asking for referrals, which means you will self-sabotage your own success, and it’s not going to work out anyways.
So save yourself some time and extended, but inevitable, demise. If you aren’t able to ask for referrals because deep down you’re ashamed of the company or products you represent, find a new company to represent, and get over this hurdle.
Asking For Referrals Requires Confidence In Your Own Value [Time – 4:50]
Now that being said, the truth is that even if you want to ultimately become a financial advisor, where your primary job is actually not selling the company’s products, but selling your own advice and knowledge and wisdom, then what you really need to become proud of, so that you can represent confidently, is yourself and your knowledge.
Here too, I’ll admit that this was actually a huge struggle for me in the early years, even after I left the insurance company. I switched to working in a much more financial planning-oriented independent broker-dealer, but I still had to struggle. I didn’t really know anything about financial planning. I was about 23 years old, with a bachelor’s degree in psychology, and I knew I didn’t know much of anything about financial planning. It’s hard to confidently ask people to work with you and pay you for your advice, when you know you don’t actually bring much value to the table and give very good advice.
For me, that was the primary motivator to go out and get my CFP marks and ultimately continue on with a lot of additional post-CFP designationsfrom there, because I couldn’t confidently convey my value and ask for their business until I knew, for me personally, that I had the knowledge and value to convey in the first place.
So for me, it was only after completing some of those designations that I felt confident enough that I knew my stuff and felt I really brought value to the table, that I finally started to get comfortable asking prospects for their business, asking for referrals and introductions, and actually started doing business development. And that was a good 8 to 10 years into my career, because it’s a lot easier to ask for referrals when you’re truly confident you actually add value and help people. I mean why would you not ask for referrals at that point? You have the knowledge. It helps people. Why do you not want to help more people by telling them what you do?
In fact, I find that’s one of the key differences between advisors, not product salespeople, but actual advisors who are good at business development and asking for referrals, versus those that aren’t, is that the ones who are good at it mostly just comes from their confidence in their own value. They feel it’s only natural to share their expertise with more people, to help more people. Why wouldn’t you if you have the expertise?
Asking For Referrals In A Low Trust Industry [Time – 6:59]
Now, really, there actually is one reason why you probably wouldn’t, even if you have the expertise. It’s because even if you have the expertise to add value as a financial advisor, it’s still hard to actually tell people you’re a financial advisor, because so many consumers have had bad experiences with advisors. I’m sure all of you who are advisors listening to this, you have experienced this. Right? You’re at a social event, and someone asks you what you do, and you say, “I’m a financial advisor,” and they say, “Oh, yeah. I have a financial advisor. He helped us with our life insurance a few years ago,” because they think comprehensive financial planning is getting a life insurance policy.
Or you say, “I’m a financial advisor,” and they take a step back and start looking for someone else across the room to talk to, “Oh, hey, Johnny,” because they’ve clearly had some bad experience with a financial advisor or salesperson in the past, and now they’re assuming that when you say, “financial advisor,” you’re just there to sell them something, and they didn’t feel like buying anything today. It makes it really hard to ask for people’s business and ask for referrals as a financial advisor, when so many people have been stung by a bad financial advisor in the past. It feels like you’re not telling people about this great service you deliver. You’re confessing you’re a financial advisor and hoping it doesn’t make you a social pariah.
This is the challenge of doing business in a low-trust industry, with low barriers to entry. The Edelman Trust Barometer, which is kind of the leading global survey that measures consumer trust, finds the financial service industry as the least trusted industry there is. We are dead last. Fewer than 50% of all consumers actually trust financial service companies, which means it’s literally an odds-on bet that when you say, “I’m a financial advisor,” and ask for referrals, that the person’s immediate first response of you will be negative, because fewer than 50% of consumers trust financial services in the first place.
Like it or not, as financial advisors, even as we try to become our own profession, we’re still representatives of the financial services industry. I think that makes it harder for all of us to ask for referrals. When you know the odds are that bad, it’s hard to want to be productive. It’s easy to be afraid that the reaction when you’re going to ask for referrals will be negative. So you just don’t want to do it at all.
Frankly, I think this is one of the main reasons, as financial advisors in the past couple of years, we’ve been evolving our titles and labels. You know? Financial advisor is associated with financial services industry, but wealth manager feels more aspirational, as though we’re trying to separate ourselves out. I’ll admit it at least, I’m often ashamed of the industry I represent, even as someone that’s trying to help improve it, because I also know the bad stuff that happens in our industry.
Asking For Referrals When Clients Don’t Know Who To Refer [Time – 9:29]
Of course, even when you do actually ask for a referral, there’s still the awkward reality that, often, when you ask someone for referrals, the person responds, “Um. Can’t think of anyone offhand.” Now it feels even worse to ask for referrals. What are you supposed to do at this point? Drill deeper? “Are you really sure you don’t know anyone who might want to work with me?” Because that doesn’t sound desperate.
Indirectly, I think this is one of the many reasons why having some kind of niche or specialization is so important. Think of it in the context of another profession. Imagine you’re an orthopedic surgeon. Most doctors get their business by referrals. They get business from patients who refer them. They get business from other doctors who refer them, but you don’t see a lot of orthopedic surgeons going to networking meetings saying, “Do you know anyone who’s blown out their knee lately?” because they don’t have to. They’re an orthopedic surgeon. If you have knee problems, you already know you need an orthopedic surgeon. If I have a friend who has a knee injury, then I refer him to an orthopedic surgeon I saw a couple years ago, because I’m trying to be helpful.
In other words, when you have a niche or a specialization, you don’t have to go out and ask for referrals. You establish your expertise and become known for what you do, and people refer the business to you. Think about it from the other end. If you had a friend who was having knee problems, and you knew a great orthopedic surgeon, why wouldn’t you make the referral to help your friend? It doesn’t matter whether the surgeon asks for referrals or gives me a pen and paper to write down the names of three knee-injury people I know. Frankly, it wouldn’t even help, because if none of my friends just had a knee injury, I wouldn’t know anyone to refer.
I’m not going to make that referral until I actually connect with the friend who just had a knee injury, and then I’m going to make the referral, which means what really matters isn’t that the surgeon asked me for referrals at all. It’s that I know his specialization is orthopedic surgery and that he fixes knee injuries. Then he just has to wait because the next time I meet someone with a knee injury, my brain is probably instantly going to make the connection because that’s what our brains do all by themselves. Oh, you tore your ACL? I know a surgeon who does great work on ACL injuries. Let me introduce you.
What Does It Take For You To Ask For Referrals?
But the bottom line here is just to recognize that I think there are a lot of barriers that make it hard for us to ask for referrals, as financial advisors. I think Ron Carson was right here. It’s our fears that hold us back, but they’re well-founded fears a lot of the time. It really is uncomfortable asking for referrals when you’re not proud of the company and the products you represent, or you’re not really confident in your own business value, or you’re ashamed of the industry that you’re in, or your clients never seem to come up with a name when you do ask for referrals. So what’s the point? You just stop asking.
So if one of these are your blocking point, what do you have to do to grow past it? Do you need to change the company you’re representing, to one where you’re actually proud to ask for referrals because you believe you bring a good solution to the table? Do you need to reinvest in yourself with CFP certification or some other post-CFP designation? So that you’re confident enough in your own value to proudly ask for referrals, because you just want to help more people with the expertise you have.
Do you need to find a way to market and position yourself so the value is unique enough that you’re clearly differentiated from the rest of the bad people in the industry? Or do you need to refine your specialization or niche some way, to make you so referable that you don’t need to ask for referralsbecause people naturally think of you when they’ve got a particular problem or challenge, where you have the niche expertise to solve it, and they say, “Oh, I know a person that can help you.” So what’s holding you back from asking for referrals?
So what do you think? Why is it so hard to ask for referrals as a financial advisor? Is it due to the companies we work for? The industry? Our lack of confidence in ourselves? How have you overcome the barrier to asking for referrals? Please share your thoughts in the comments below!