From the March 2009 issue of Wealth Manager Web • Subscribe!

March 1, 2009

Supporting the CSA

The position of client service administrator (CSA) has not only become pervasive throughout the wealth management industry, but has also become the backbone of many of the service capabilities a wealth management team provides. Yet the position often has a vague definition and a problematic career track. It is a position that by nature comes in close contact with clients, but somehow is universally described as "back office" or overhead in nature. It is a position that requires significant technical skills and industry knowledge, yet there is no school for it, no certification and very often no training. Most firms would admit that if they had to downsize, the last to go would be the CSAs. At the same time, CSAs are often ranked towards the bottom of the pay-scale and frequently do not even participate in the firm's profit sharing plan. In fact, the most common question I hear from advisors these days is not, "What do I tell clients about Bernard Madoff?" but rather, "What do I tell my CSA about her bonus for this year?"

First Line of Defense

CSAs are often the first to get the call when the client is upset, first to learn that a client is dissatisfied, and the ones who prepare for meetings and communicate policies to clients. In their job as the "first line of defense" they are often the most exhausted and the most discouraged.

Unfortunately, while CSAs do execute a lot of what happens in the office, neither the client nor the advisor knows exactly what the CSA should be doing. Moreover, the CSA's role can differ significantly from one practice to another.

By nature, the CSA's role is very closely related to the positions of Administrative Assistant and Junior Advisor, and the relationship between the three sometimes defines the career track. In many firms, CSAs act as somewhat more experienced assistants and focus their responsibilities on supporting the advisor. In other firms however, CSAs have extensive client relationship responsibilities. The catalyst is usually the presence of a junior advisor. Firms with junior advisors tend to delegate mostly administrative responsibilities to their CSAs. Firms that do not have junior advisors on the other hand, tend to elevate the CSA responsibilities to various client service tasks.

Before embarking on the position's career track, it is probably best to list the CSA's typical responsibilities. These are the usual responsibilities I have seen:

The CSA:

? Interfaces with the broker/dealer or custodian to open new accounts, update account information, fill out necessary forms and perform routine tasks such as mailing updates or other instructions

? Works with clients on routine requests such as:

-Attending client meetings and taking extensive notes

-Researching products and product pricing, contacting investment managers, carriers, etc. for information
-Answering basic client questions--although a license may sometimes be required
-Showing clients how to access their accounts and read statements
-Handling requests for transfers of funds in and out of accounts (again, licenses and supervision may be needed in order to trade in the account)

-Entering or updating cost basis information

-Filling out necessary forms for opening or maintaining accounts, interfacing with the broker/dealer or custodian to obtain information and account data, and convey service requests
-Maintaining information in the CRM system
-Setting up and retrieving reports in the portfolio management system (Advent, Portfolio Center, Albridge)

-Assisting in generating performance reports

? Experienced CSAs are often asked to train new CSAs or assistants

To me, these responsibilities imply that the individual will have at least two or three years' experience in the investment industry and a good understanding of how the industry operates, as well as the roles and responsibilities of the various parties involved. The position also requires knowledge of products and of the various types of accounts. Last but not least, it seems that--if not required--a license might be quite useful, especially for firms that conduct business through a broker/dealer.

Since very few firms will train from scratch, such experience is difficult to obtain in the CSA position. Most CSAs gain their securities experience as assistants or general administrative support staff in a securities firm office. Once they accumulate some experience, they will be promoted to the higher level of responsibility that involves working more directly with clients.

Becoming a CSA requires training, study and experience and is an indication that an individual is likely to stay in this industry for a while. The problem is that the entry-level position--administrative assistant--is usually a position that does not require specific education or even an interest in the securities industry. Young people who graduate with degrees in finance or personal financial planning do not enter the industry as CSAs; in fact, they are probably not very good candidates since they have no knowledge of the practical operations side of the business.

This creates a conundrum: Where do we find good CSAs? In the medical profession, there are nursing schools and certifications. I wonder why we don't offer a professional training program for Client Service Administrators, a program with some certification at the end that creates qualified people who have demonstrated a commitment to the industry.

Future Prospects

In writing the CSA job description, there is always the unspoken question of whether or not the position will ever lead to becoming an advisor. This is a very difficult question for most firms, since it is clear that if the position does not progress in that direction, it will become quickly "capped." There are practically no firms of which I'm aware that have "senior CSAs." Nor is there a junior level for this position which means that in most firms the natural answer to the question is "Maybe."

The following job description is one that we use with Fusion firms. It is meant to be a starting point for discussion--NOT a standard or recommendation for all firms.

Sample CSA Job Description

Responsibilities

? The CSA is a client service position that supports and reports to the Lead Advisor

? CSAs interface with the broker/dealers or custodians to open new accounts, update account information, fill out necessary forms and perform routine tasks such as updating mailing or other instructions

? Experienced CSA are often asked to train other CSAs or assistants

? Specific client service responsibilities may include:

o Attending client meetings and taking extensive notes

o Researching products, product pricing and contacting carriers for information

o Answering basic questions for clients (license may be required for some)

o Showing clients how to access their accounts and read statements

o Handling requests for transfers of funds in and out of accounts

o Entering or updating cost basis information

o Filling out necessary forms for opening or maintaining accounts Interfacing with the broker-dealer or custodian to obtain information, account data and convey service requests

o Maintain information in the CRM system

o Set up and retrieve reports in the portfolio management system (Advent, Portfolio Center, Albridge)

o Assist in generating performance reports

? Other responsibilities as assigned by the Lead Advisor

Qualifications

? Minimum 2 years of experience in the investment industry

? Securities licenses (6 or 7) are preferred but not required by all firms

? Expert knowledge of Office applications

Career Progression

? May become a Junior Advisor but most CSAs stay in this position for the length of their career. For those interested in becoming advisors completing their college degree (required for CFP designation now) and becoming licensed is important.

Compensation

? The compensation of employees in any position varies significantly based on the strategy of the firm, the compensation philosophy of the firm, the specific qualifications and experience of the individual, the location of the firm and many other factors.

And what would be the criteria for offering the promotion to "advisor" to a CSA? My instinct is to look for academic achievement first--either a form of licensing (Series 7)--or even better, certification. CFP seems the natural choice here. But academic qualifications are not enough; there must be some commitment to client service and client relationships. Many firms also believe there is an implied "sales" component--that the transformation from "support" to advisor occurs when the person starts selling.

In reality, there is really very little difference between a "junior advisor" (see our column in July, 2008 WM) and the CSA position other than the expectation that the junior will grow to manage relationships and develop business. The transition from "supporting" to "managing" is very difficult, especially for independent firms. Rightfully or not, "getting clients" is the ultimate rite of passage most firms seek. Most of the current generation of advisors has been trained in this manner, and they expect the same of their junior followers. On the other hand, I'm sure most advisors hated that experience when they went through it.

In the end, firms don't have to guarantee promotions or opportunities, but it is probably fairer and more constructive not to deny them. Most nurses do not become doctors, but some do. Most CSAs may not become advisors, but those that would like to should not be disappointed.

Philip Palaveev is President of Fusion Advisor Network. He can be reached at ppalaveev@fusionadvisornetwork.com.

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