It's always a good idea to think about business strategy at the beginning of a new year. But given everything we've been through in 2008, it's even more important this time.
To glean ideas and learn what some of the industry's top planners will be doing to keep clients and staff at ease and on track, I talked with Arthur Cooper, CFP, co-founder and principal partner of Cooper McManus (www.coopermcmanus.com) in Irvine, Calif.; Bill Glubiak, CEO and managing principal of Cedar Brook Financial Partners (www.cedarbrookfinancial.com) in Cleveland; Clyde Wyatt, CLU, CFS, managing director of Navigation Financial Group (www.navigationfinancial.com) in Dallas; and Don Patrick, MBA, CFP, managing director of Integrated Financial Group (www.integrated-financial-group.com) in Atlanta. All four are branch managers who supervise registered representatives of Securities America. Accordingly, much of their daily responsibilities revolve around keeping clients, staff and affiliated professionals calm, confident, motivated and informed.
"One of the things we're doing is having our Retirement Plans Division hold out-of-cycle client meetings," says Glubiak. "We do normally do annual or semi-annual meetings but, given all the market volatility and negative headlines, felt it was important to meet with clients -- whether they were in cycle or not -- and reiterate that we have a plan, the world is not going to end."
Patrick is doing the same thing. As the head of Integrated Financial Group -- a consortium of 43 independent advisors -- he has encouraged them to update the retirement analyses for their "A" and "B" clients, and to meet for a personal review. "Knowing they are still OK in the midst of today's headlines and mortar rounds is invaluable for the client," says Patrick.
He and his consortium take other steps to ease clients' minds too. "We've conducted open-ended client conference calls and webinars where I, as the resident 'third-party expert,' reinforce the message their advisors have already given them, that we can bypass all of the 24/7 sensationalism with which they're being deluged and make some sense out of this craziness. Even if some clients can't participate in these calls, the invitation goes a long way." Patrick's organization also sends out frequent e-mail updates using Constant Contact, a system that streamlines e-communications.
Glubiak, who manages a team of nearly 50 advisors and staff, all of whom share first-class office space in Cleveland, has been offering town-hall style meetings. Clients and guests are invited to stop by and visit with the firm's chief investment officer. "Getting a professional update, in person, and just being together is very reassuring," he says.
Just as clients need to be brought together and informed, so do staff. "Sometimes we get caught up taking care of our clients' needs and ignore our staff," says Wyatt, who manages a 20-person organization. "But they, too, need to be reassured so that everyone can put aside personal fears, project a sense of calm confidence, and give clients a uniform message." Adds Cooper: "I've had several pep talks with staff who are very nervous. They also worry that, if the market continues downward, they may be out of a job. I try to be proactive and let them know what I'm thinking -- and it's helped. People are joking and smiling again."
Glubiak says he's been doing more impromptu stand-up meetings with advisors and staff. "We have clients walking around our offices all the time. I don't want half my staff walking around with their heads down. I want everyone to be positive and upbeat." Patrick has hosted several conference calls and meetings so staff and consortium members could talk, vent and take a deep breath. I've also pushed the advisors to shut down and recharge on weekends," he says. "A number of them have actually thanked me for pushing them to do so."
These advisors do annual staff retreats, too. "We hold our advisor retreat every January," says Patrick, "and this year my message will be to review revenue goals and either adjust downward by 20 percent or revamp their marketing plans." Cooper, who manages 21 reps in two states and several branch support team members, schedules an annual offsite meeting with his staff to review the past year: "What were the successes, what were the failures, what were the things -- knowing what we know now -- we would have done differently? We incorporate systems to address those issues, map out projects for the coming year and assign responsibility."
Says Ed Jacobson, Ph.D., an industry consultant and author of Appreciative Moments: "Staff retreats have always been a great way to promote camaraderie and help everyone feel truly important. During uncertainty, a retreat is even more important as an opportunity for people to talk about how the market turmoil has affected them, learn that their thoughts and feelings are widely shared, and dissolve the sense of isolation that people often feel." A facilitator of retreats, Jacobson adds that, more recently, "participants have been especially grateful for the opportunity to 'commune' away from phones, faxes and deadlines. Invariably, they return to the office refreshed, motivated and more positive and patient in their interactions with each other and clients."
It might seem counterintuitive, but asking for referrals during a market downturn could be a more ideal time than you realize.
"If you have a positive message for the individual of what's happened under your guidance and what's likely to happen in the future, referrals tend to happen," says Glubiak. "I might say something like this: 'We use these REITs, they've provided a steady income stream, and they're outside the problems of the stock market. If you happen to know anybody who might like to consider these types of investments, I'd be happy to talk with anyone you send our way."
Adds Wyatt: "As the market is going through these turbulent times, many people have been hurt or neglected by other firms. So it's an excellent opportunity to be talking with your clients and making sure they are well informed about their investments and financial plan because you know that a good number of conversations -- especially going into tax season -- are going to get around to the financial markets and what people's advisors did or didn't do for them. Happy, reassured clients will tell their unhappy, uncertain friends about you."
"While advisors have to be careful about budgeting and, due to reduced revenues, may have decided not to do a grand holiday party or client appreciation event, it's important to connect with clients, prospects and staff in social settings and more light-hearted ways. Every interaction should not revolve around financial and economic news," Wyatt says.
Ideas offered by the group included hosting a Valentine's Day Luncheon for clients/guests who are widowed or divorced, sending two theater tickets and a handwritten card to clients on their anniversary (could be wedding anniversary or anniversary of becoming a client), sending a prepaid fuel card and note every time you receive a referral, sponsoring a charitable event and inviting client/community participation and hosting small dinner parties or affinity-based events (wine, sports, civic interest, charitable cause) that bring together groups of like-minded people.
The common themes in the strategies above: keep a cool head, project confidence, increase communications with all key players and look for hidden opportunities.
Marie Swift is the president of Impact Communications, a marketing and communications firm for independent advisors; see www.impactcommunications.org.