From the July 2009 issue of Research Magazine • Subscribe!

Optimizing Time Off

Time away from your practice can improve your career as a financial advisor.

It's 2 a.m. -- do you know where your fellow FAs are?

If they're members of the Excellent Investment Advisor Study Group, they very well could be at their laptops trading e-mails.

"It's always amazing to see who else is up at that time. Last year, when so many of us weren't sleeping, we joked that we should hold our monthly telephone conference call at three in the morning," says Susan L. Kendall, principal of Kendall Financial Services, in Pacific Grove, Calif., affiliated with Commonwealth Financial Network.

Though smart advisors toil mightily during office hours Monday through Friday, smarter ones are using time off to sharpen their skills, stay abreast -- if not ahead -- of the curve and, generally, to pull out all stops in capitalizing on the wealth of opportunity the big meltdown has brought.

No one is saying that nights, weekends and vacations aren't time to kick back. But homework is in order nowadays, and a helping or two should be included on your leisure-time menu.

"A financial advisor that's not trying to hone his or her skills has a very high probability of being extinct in the next three to five years. Only the strongest will survive," says Edythe De Marco, who heads the De Marco Group of Merrill Lynch, in Providence, R.I.

A 27-year advisor, De Marco often travels to weekend coaching sessions, hosts evening cocktail-and-hors d'oeuvre client events and is delving into social networking via LinkedIn and Facebook.

By all means, loll on the beach this summer, play games with the kids; but even while on holiday, work in a little work.

"Vacation time is the best time for creativity. Turn off your phone but not your brain," says Bobbie Meola, a Wells Fargo Advisors senior vice president and productivity manager-director of business development for Arizona major markets. She counsels FAs on how to make their practices more effective.

Relaxation is important; but almost equally essential while on vacation is setting specific goals to read business articles and books, says Meola. She recommends The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression, by Amity Shlaes (HarperCollins) or biographies of ace business leaders. These will "help you put recent events into perspective for clients."

Meola, based in Scottsdale, and formerly an advisor and branch manager, continues: "Sharpen your tools. Clients are scared and vulnerable. In the past couple of months, the [best] advisors have taken advantage of this opportunity and helped to educate their clients. They're the ones who are reading and getting additional designations to make sure they add value and are on their game to take away market share."

Learning to Tweet

Another increasingly important way to keep on top is to get involved with the new social media, to the extent that your broker-dealer permits such online activity. Called Web 2.0, this newest Internet phase focuses on user-created content. The goal is to start an interaction.

It's all the rage to launch a blog, join LinkedIn (to reconnect with folks from your past, exchange opportunities and be part of nationwide FA groups who trade best practices) and tweet on Twitter, where you can stay connected in real time. If you fail to have a presence on this new stage, clients and prospects will brand you behind-the-times.

That surely isn't the case with Dan Danford, principal of Family Investment Center, in St. Joseph, Mo. Nights and weekends find the RIA devoting home-time to networking on Facebook and Twitter, and posting provocative blog notes.

"When you're helping people with their investments, being out there exploring new things enhances your image as an advisor. These new tools are wildly popular, so you're probably missing some relationship opportunities if you aren't using them. The more I do -- having a website, posting blogs, being on Twitter and Facebook -- the more that comes back to [heighten] my credibility."

Incidentally, Facebook isn't mainly for kids, Danford, 53, notes. "I'm talking to a lot of contemporaries who have gravitated toward that medium. I think there's going to be a lot more as we go forward."

Venturing into cyberspace is a new way to actively prospect for clients. "What financial advisors can do in the virtual world with social media is a natural parallel to what they've done traditionally in the real world," says David Lau, chief operating officer, Jefferson National Life Insurance, in Louisville, Ky. The firm, which offers The Monument Advisor, a retirement-geared variable annuity, has developed a step-by-step guide for advisors, "New Rules for Using Social Media."

Of course, advisors have customarily built their businesses through referrals, personal introductions and networking in groups and clubs. Now you can make the same kinds of connections online -- in your house at midnight or getting a tan by the pool. You can even connect by using a cellphone while riding the train home from your office.

Associating with clients through LinkedIn enables you to see on-screen who many of your own personal and business contacts are. That makes it easy to ask for specific introductions. "It's powerful," says Lau.

CPA Kendall, of the study group -- comprised of Commonwealth independents exclusively -- says the five women and five men not only provide mutual support but "try to leverage off one another. It's like having 10 brains instead of one."

Their monthly conference calls, run by rotating moderators, cover a variety of topics and feature guest speakers. The group also gets together in person to share ideas at out-of-town weekend conferences, such as the recent Financial Planning Association retreat.

"If we're all going to get through this [turbulent time] and be better advisors, it's because we're communicating, not hiding," Kendall says.

Further, the FA uses off-hours to attend Commonwealth coaching programs, like one about systems and practices held by CEG Worldwide in Boston this past May.

Likewise, Merrill's De Marco -- named to Barron's Top 1000 Advisors in 2009 -- was set to attend a Rainmaker Weekend in Philadelphia last spring. Offered by the Oxford Institute, it entailed two-and-a-half days of intense coaching on client acquisition.

"That's my primary focus right now," De Marco says. "I need to fine-tune my skills to be able to leverage the contacts I've made in my community."

The Home Front

When both spouses are financial advisors, talking shop at home is inevitable -- and usually productive.

De Marco's husband, Tom Byrne, is the De Marco Group's chief operations officer. "We always talk shop. It's how we think more creatively outside the office," she says.

Typically, though, the pair refrains from discussing business while on vacation. But last Christmas in Stowe, Vermont, Byrne and their daughter had a tough time prying De Marco from her laptop. She had just joined LinkedIn and Facebook, and couldn't help but continuously check to see who accepted her invitations.

"I got a little obsessive-compulsive about it," De Marco admits. "But through Facebook, I've reconnected with people I grew up with or went to college with. Now I've LinkedIn with some of them -- so if they want to see what I do for a living, they can, and without my saying, 'By the way, we haven't talked for 30 years -- but did you know I'm part of Barron's Top 1000?'" she says, with a laugh. "It's a way of prospecting without being overly solicitous."

Joining LinkedIn has also made De Marco easier to find in a Google search. That's a big advantage. Previously, when most folks typed in her name and firm, she cropped up fairly low on the results list. Now, the LinkedIn listing is one of the first to appear.

Danford says he has a couple of hundred Facebook "friends," a "fair number" of them clients. His "friends" also include professional associates, like lawyers and judges. "I've never posted anything like, 'I need to talk to you about your investments.' But they can see what I'm doing, and that enhances those relationships."

In addition, Danford tweets on Twitter, the micro-blogging service for messages limited to 140 characters. "When someone does a Google search on me," he says, "I want a lot of stuff to come up. I want them to see that I was [noted] in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times, and look at articles that I've written. I want them to come away saying, 'Hey, this guy is really good at what he does.'"

Meanwhile, there's so much interest in social media that Jefferson's webinars on the subject have attracted five times as many FAs as its previously best-attended online conferences, Lau says.

"It's a very hot topic -- advisors want to know how they can utilize these tools. One of the great uses of Twitter is to tweet out reminders to clients or to pass on content [e.g., articles] -- by including the links -- that they think clients would be interested in. It's a way for them to actively engage," he says.

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Freelance writer Jane Wollman Rusoff is a Los Angeles-based contributing editor of Research and is the founder of Family Star Productions.

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