Stephen Brody of Greenville, North Carolina, has always been a coach and an educator at heart. In fact, his first career was in teaching. About 17 years ago, however, he decided that being a financial advisor would allow him to create a more dramatic difference in people's lives more quickly.
As Stephen moved into the financial planning field, he often found himself teaching and mentoring other financial advisors. Ironically, over the years, he found that many of the things he was teaching other people to do he was not able to do for himself.
By most people's standards, Stephen was highly successful, but he wanted more out of life. "I was ready for a major transformation, but I knew I couldn't do it on my own," he says. "The markets had changed substantially, and so had my thinking about my business. I had many pieces of the puzzle, but didn't have a way to put them all together effectively." Stephen realized that he needed somebody to help him identify what he wanted, and help him create a systematic way to do it. And so he hired a professional coach.
During one of the first sessions, the coach worked with Stephen to identify his strengths. Stephen told the coach a story about a natural disaster where he'd helped the Red Cross, and as he told the story, the coach identified the types of things that Stephen did easily and well. "These were qualities that I was never consciously aware of. I took them for granted," says Stephen. As a result of that exercise, Stephen realized that he had great leadership skills, and that one of the things that he enjoyed most in life was helping people, particularly when they were going through major life transitions.
After that, Stephen says, he was ready to look at his entire life and business--ready to take the pieces apart and put them back together in a way that would integrate all of his strengths, interests, and values into a new life and refined business model. With the coach's help, he put together, on paper, a clear definition of "Who I am, what I do, who I do it for, how I do it, and what the ultimate benefits are," says Stephen. "I didn't have that in writing before. I was doing it in a haphazard way, but the entire coaching process has given me a much higher level of clarity and integration. Now I know exactly what type of business I want to build and who are the people that can benefit the most from my services. I clearly know where I want to go."
Stephen's business had evolved over the years to provide more and more services. Through the coaching process, he documented what those services were, what levels of service would be appropriate for each type of client, and what fees he would charge his clients to receive his services. Seeing the vast array of services on paper gave him the confidence to decide to raise his fees.
After completing some calculations, Stephen realized, to his surprise, that he only needs 40 great client relationships to achieve his goals. "Once I did the numbers and realized I only needed to work with 40 great clients and didn't have to bring in everybody, it completely took the pressure off," he says. "Now, instead of trying to be all things to all people, I'm very selective. My best clients know that I have limited capacity so they are more active in introducing me to their friends before I close my doors to new clients."
To his amazement, his existing best clients were very receptive to his revamped practice, even the increased fees. He'd been planning to raise fees gradually over a one- or two-year period, but many of his clients said, "No, that's fine. Whatever you think is fair to charge us is fine, and if you want to raise your fee today, that's fine, too."
It's All in the Family
Stephen felt even better about his new business model when new clients started coming through the door of their own accord. One of the clients was a financially independent woman in her late 50s. When he explained his new business model and how he helped people with comprehensive wealth management and vision coaching, she ended up consolidating 16 different brokerage accounts that she had accumulated over a 25-year investment period. She had well over $1 million in her portfolio and now has it all consolidated into two accounts.
"In the past, she always made all her own financial decisions. She'd invested a lot of time in this over the years. But after we started working together and we had everything consolidated and simplified, she immediately gave all of that up," says Stephen. "She simply doesn't follow the markets anymore. She knows that she pays me a retainer. I am her trusted financial advisor, and if there's anything going on in her life that has to do with money, she calls me. I believe that she'd always wanted to find someone she could trust over those 25 years, and I was the first financial advisor that treated her the way that she wanted to be treated."
Soon afterward, Stephen got a call from the woman's sister. "I just want you to do for me what you did for my sister," she told Stephen. "My sister always had all the financial answers, but now when I ask her anything about her money, she simply says, 'I don't know, ask Stephen.' And that's exactly what I want to do and the kind of relationship I want to have with you."
To Stephen's delight, this lady had slightly more than her sister, about $1.3 million, and she again consolidated more than a dozen different brokerage accounts with his firm.
"One of the first things we talked about is what she wanted out of life, and at first, all she would talk about was her financial affairs. She wouldn't go into the emotional issues or the true things that were important to her in life," says Stephen. "So after a couple of appointments, I pretty much insisted that we discuss it. She finally said, 'Well, I've always wanted to go to Greece.'" She'd never told anyone this before. "So now we're working on that dream, and developing a plan for her to go to Greece," says Stephen. "This is really what the business is all about for me--helping people make transformations in their thinking so that they can get a handle on their financial affairs and then use their money to accomplish dreams and aspirations that are most important to them in life."
After that, the first sister introduced Stephen to her son, a high-level executive in the banking industry. The son began asking a lot of questions and voicing concerns about his mother's finances, until finally Stephen said, "Listen, you don't seem to understand. Your mom doesn't need your help. She's financially independent now, and she doesn't need anything from you anymore." The phone was silent, and then the son said, "That's great. I've been worried about her for all these years. Now I know that she's going to be fine.'" A few months later, the son transferred all of his accounts to Stephen as well.
The Client Comes First
Stephen says that he finally realized that the experience is the product--that the entire experience, from the time you meet the clients through the data gathering, the implementation, and then helping them fulfill their life's dreams is ultimately what clients want and will pay for.
Stephen has built a very organized six-step planning process that is laid out in writing, and his data gathering occurs at two levels: One is the story of the client's money, and the other is the story of their life. "The most important thing we look at is their dreams and aspirations--what do they want their money to do for them? So we develop a net worth statement and a life worth statement.
"My business has evolved into a coaching relationship, where my job is really to guide them and partner with them and help them to accomplish things they are unwilling or unable to do for themselves, but desperately want to do," says Stephen. "I found through my own coaching experience that when someone else is helping you, making changes is a lot easier. When a financial professional they respect says, 'Look, go ahead and do it. There's not a problem financially; you can afford it and you deserve it,' then they realize they can follow their dreams in a prudent manner."
"And rather than having to try to figure out what to do," he adds, "I realize that my clients will help me figure out what to do if I simply ask them what they want."
The Bottom Line
The bottom line for Stephen is that his quality of life has improved dramatically. He's excited about going to work, and in 2003, his income was up a third from the year before. His average financial planning fee is up a third, and last year he got 10 introductions to people who turned out to be ideal clients.
Stephen says that when he's in a competitive situation, "I find myself head and shoulders above other people in the industry. While the competition is focused on selling products and investment processes, I'm really focused on the people and the payoffs they want from their money."
Stephen says that his goal is to add about one new client per month who is what he calls "a life transition planning client." Helping the client through the transition may take a month, or it may take 18 months. But once they get to the other side, they become "low-maintenance marketing apostles for my services," says Stephen. "And then I can go on to help another client through a major life transition."
Advisors like Stephen are the future of our industry. If you haven't made the shift from product-centeredness to client-centeredness, now is the time. And if it seems too daunting to make such a major change alone, consider hiring a coach. It's often very helpful to have an outside agent for change. With the help of a competent, caring coach, you can turn your life into an extraordinary adventure.