May 30, 2008

A Battle Over Values, Not Ideas

I recall my training from years ago. I was instructed to meet the client when they arrived, look them in the eye, shake their hand, turn around, and begin walking back to my desk. The client would simply follow as I took the lead. After all, I was the professional and they were the uninformed clients being led to investopia. "Why, even a newly minted broker knows more than 90% of the clients," I was told. What I wasn't aware of at the time, or chose to ignore, was the sales culture so prevalent there. All I heard was how much broker Bob made or how well broker Jane was doing. The focus was on sales, hitting the numbers, making your goals, and most important, cashing your check.

There's nothing wrong with making a good living or even becoming extremely successful. I do have a problem with the way it's often accomplished.

When ethical standards are sacrificed for gain, someone suffers and this someone is usually the client. As long as there are large companies with shareholders expecting gain, the independent advisor will always have an edge. The key is to clearly articulate it. Sometimes that's not so easy due to the barrage of advertising emanating from the wirehouses and banks. Plus, there's an army of well trained soldiers who, for the love of money, are spinning their "tales from the script." This battle is no more than a debate, not of ideas, but of values. If it were only about ideas, then we might agree to disagree. But because it's over values, and the client is the prize, someone needs to stand up and protect them. When the markets were increasing at a rapid pace, it was far less noticeable. As long as the client's account was growing, everything was fine. But everything wasn't fine. Unethical practices continued and regulators were ill equipped to provide the necessary oversight. So human nature, being what it is, continues and will continue until the end of time. Since trust is the most important ingredient in a client-advisor relationship, ethics must be at the center, since ethics and trust are brothers.

If trust is established without ethics, then you have the equivalent of an oasis in the desert. The client may dive in, but they'll end up with a mouthful of sand.

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