From the April 2007 issue of Investment Advisor • Subscribe!

Designated Advisor

A wealth management program wins plaudits

Can a new set of letters after an advisor's name transform her into a wealth manager? Maybe not the letters alone, but months of study that give advisors a way to structure their practice around client service, and the confidence to talk with clients more broadly about their financial picture, sounds at the very least like a positive development for both advisor and client.

Last year Sigma Financial Corporation invited about 100 of its top representatives to take part in a special program designed to help seasoned reps make significant changes in how they run their practices, and earn a new professional designation, the Certified Wealth Strategist (CWS). The first two days at Sigma's Ann Arbor, Michigan, home office were devoted to classes about "how to set up your business, how to go after high-net-worth clients," says Sigma's director of firm development, Jennifer Bacarella. After the introductory classes, representatives had the opportunity to choose whether they wanted to go on to get the CWS, which was developed by Athens, Georgia-based Cannon Financial Institute, and the New England Institute of Finance in Boston.

Kenneth Wink, president of Summit Financial Consulting, in Detroit, and co-owner of the firm with his dad, Robert, is a registered rep, an investment advisor, and has insurance licenses. Initially, he was not sure whether to get the CFP designation or the CWS, so he talked to a number of CFPs who told him, he said, that the CWS designation was "more comprehensive and more helpful than the CFP. Everything about the CWS designation is about discipline and being organized. They give you the tools to comprehensively plan for everyone." Using the strategies learned in the training, Wink says he's "literally doubled our productivity in one year."

The coursework takes about 26 weeks, using books, online materials, and videos followed by an exam. "Once you get done with that we reconvene," for more classes, explains Bacarella, in which "they actually interview you, and videotape you giving your branding message to a client, how you work with your clients," as the next step toward completing the requirements. "You have to pass the videotape portion; you're not allowed to use notes or anything, you're just supposed to [imagine] that you have a client sitting on the opposite side of the table." The last part of the series is a "capstone" report of 20 to 30 pages that recaps what the reps learned in the course and is the basis for their business plan.

Participation in Sigma's program was very high. Of the original 100 or so invitees, 24 have completed the required work, with another 73 still enrolled. The firm has invited another 50 top planners to take part in the next round of CWS courses starting this month. Sigma pays two-thirds of the $3,000 tuition, and reps pay one-third.

Other Options for rReps

So far, only Sigma's top planners have been asked to take part, but Bacarella says that First Clearing, Sigma's clearing partner, is "doing some classes with reps, and also Cannon has their own classes, in Chicago and Florida," so reps from any firm can sign up on their own. Other broker/dealers are adding practice-building programs as well. ING said in February that it would invite 200 of its top advisors to participate in the 401(k) Coach Program to help them expand their practices to the corporate 401(k) market. "The ING 401k Coach Program is one in a series of practice development programs and tools that ING will introduce over the next couple years," said to ING's senior VP of corporate market products, business development, and strategy, Rick Mason, in a statement.

According to Bacarella, the CWS is about "defining the relationship with the client, and being the one person that handles everything with them--from financial planning issues to stock options, estate planning issues to powers of attorney. What the designation teaches you is how to get in front of the clients and gather assets, help them with every part of their financial landscape, to be able to answer questions, but also to show them things that they may have already accomplished, things that they need to accomplish, things they haven't even thought about."

Bacarella argues that for most of the reps that went through the program, "it provided a lot of clarity; instead of just sitting down with a client, and off the cuff, saying, 'Okay, well, where are your investments, how are you doing this ...?' it gave them a structure. I think that's really what planners lack sometimes."

Wink notes that the documents he now uses for every client meeting "are very structured: these are the 13 things that we are going to address," and these documents become part of the client's file, reviewed at every meeting.

Response from reps has been "overwhelming," according to Bacarella. "They feel comfortable going in front of high-net-worth clients because they feel that they have all the tools that they need to do that." She's used the techniques with 15 clients so far, and reports great reactions: "My clients come back to me and go 'You know, Jenny, I've never even thought about that, I'm glad you brought that up,' and 'Wow, I didn't even know that that was something you would be interested in or you would need to know.'" She adds that "they feel even more comfortable with me, they feel more in touch, that I know exactly what's going on in their future, and am helping them to plan, maybe for some potential pitfalls that neither one of us brought up prior to that. I've also gotten referrals or introductions from existing clients," who have gone through the process with her and were pleased.

"All of the reps that I've talked to personally that have gone through it have found that it's just given them renewed strength with their clients," says Bacarella, "they say that clients have an average of three planners that work with them--it's given them the ability to explain to the client why they should only have one planner."

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