From the February 2012 issue of Investment Advisor • Subscribe!

Process Implementation: Moving Toward a More Efficient Office

Sometimes the snag in a smoothly functioning practice is the advisor

Advisors are quick to seek efficiency in their firms, but they may not be as swift to realize how their own actions (or inaction) can impede office operations. Take this typical scenario: A practice with three advisors and seven support staff has documented procedures for all of the firm’s core processes. Some of the processes work all of the time, and some work almost all the time, but one doesn’t work well at all. Upon further examination, the team discovers that the dysfunctional procedure is actually excellent—when it is followed. More often than not, however, the advisors drop the ball, affecting the other steps in the process and causing it to break down.

Unfortunately, when it comes to implementing firm procedures, advisors often become “the hair in the sink,” or the obstacle that clogs up the works. Most of an office’s activities revolve around client review meetings, which involve both advisor and staff work. Because so many of their tasks intertwine, advisors and staff alike must follow standardized procedures to keep the firm running like a well-oiled machine. Particularly in multi-advisor practices, successful implementation of documented procedures is key to achieving true efficiency and scale.

From Documentation to Implementation

The first article in this three-part series, “Unchecked Growth,” (September 2011) discussed how to transfer a flowcharted process to a user-friendly checklist, a simple format that promotes consistency, is easy to update, and smoothes the transition when there is employee turnover. The second article, “Want a More Efficient Practice? Examine Your Core Processes,” (October 2011) detailed how to identify your firm’s core processes and how to get your entire team involved in flowcharting them.

In a nutshell, the documentation technique goes like this:

1. Identify your firm’s core processes.

2. Flowchart each process.

3. Document the processes in checklist format.

But the path to office efficiency doesn’t end there. Once you have documented procedures in place, you need to implement them. While following a checklist seems easy enough, implementation challenges arise more often than you might think. Here are just a few of the problems that can derail even the most well-documented procedure:

  • For any number of reasons, the advisor or another team member may fail to perform his or her assigned role in the process.
  • Over time, as the firm acquires new clients, the workload for individual team members may become too great.
  • Breakdowns may occur at especially busy times of the year, such as tax season.
  • Particularly complex processes may not be understood by the entire team.
  • A team member may neglect to share new information or communicate a change that affects the process.

To illustrate some of these implementation challenges, let’s look at a few real-life examples.

Implementation Problem No. 1: Things Get Busy

With the help of his well-trained staff, Joe Advisor runs a busy practice of 350 households. That means a lot of review meetings, each of which requires preparation and follow-up. Joe conducts most of the reviews during a few specific months, typically seeing four clients per day. According to the firm’s follow-up process, he uses Copytalk to dictate the minutes after each meeting, and the dictation is entered directly into the firm’s CRM system. Staff then use that information to create a summary letter for clients, which details follow-up items.

Although the firm’s process works well most of the time, it breaks down about once every two weeks during the months when Joe conducts reviews. The team identifies the root cause of the breakdown as a delay in dictating minutes from client meetings. During the busy months, Joe sometimes fails to complete the dictation immediately following the meeting. Distracted by other tasks, he becomes the proverbial hair in the sink: The CRM system isn’t updated, staff can’t begin their follow-up activities and summary letters don’t go out. If too much time passes, Joe may even forget some of the specific details of the meeting, especially with four appointments per day.

Solution: Pinpointing where a process breaks down is relatively easy when you use the checklist format. To remedy the situation, Joe and his team might brainstorm solutions such as:

  • Joe does the dictation at the end of the meeting with the client in the room. This allows him to get the dictation done, reinforces the follow-up actions and provides a preview of the summary letter the client will receive in the near future.
  • Change the scheduling from four appointments per day to three.
  • Block out time after each review meeting for Joe to complete the dictation.
  • Joe agrees to prioritize this critical step, no matter how busy he is.
  • A staff person joins in on the last 10 minutes of the meeting, Joe summarizes everything and then the staff member handles the follow-up.

In this scenario, there are a wide variety of possible workflow changes. The important thing is for the team to identify the bottleneck in the process and decide on a practical solution together.

Implementation Challenge No. 2: Lack of Commitment

As part of its marketing plan, XYZ Wealth Management decides to market to existing clients as well as prospects. The firm has always sent a birthday card to each client, but this year they agree that the advisor will also call the “A” clients on their birthdays. The office creates a flowchart and checklist for this new process, which requires staff to identify the A clients on the birthday card list and mark their birthdays on the advisor’s calendar, adding the client’s phone number to make it easy for the advisor to call. But sometimes, despite his staff’s assistance, the advisor simply doesn’t place the call. As a result, staff members occasionally mention the birthday calls to clients who haven’t received them, only to create confusion and embarrassment.

Solution: Once a process is set, it’s critical to identify any implementation problems quickly, before clients become aware of them. If a process simply doesn’t work or if the team (or the advisor) isn’t sufficiently committed to it, cancel it.

Implementation Challenge No. 3: Failure to Communicate

ABC Financial has a well-documented process for handling a wide variety of client service calls between review meetings. Occasionally, however, problems with cash disbursement arise when a client needs funds immediately. Looking into the matter, the staff members who handle the calls learn that the firm’s broker-dealer has an integrated cash platform with straight-through processing where an online cashiering entry allows a client to receive cash within hours. As it turns out, the advisor was aware of the platform’s capabilities, but never mentioned it to his staff.

Solution: For a firm’s processes to run smoothly, the right information must get to the right people. As new technology becomes available, a simple change in procedure can make a big difference in efficiency. One of the benefits of the checklist format is that it’s much simpler to update than traditional written procedures.

Checklists: More Than Meets the Eye

If you encounter process implementation problems—and it’s likely you will—the flowchart and checklist approach makes it easy to diagnose where the process breaks down. The team can then work together to brainstorm possible fixes and the solution can be incorporated into the process flowchart and checklist. As I’ve emphasized throughout this series, it’s essential that all team members understand how their actions (or lack of action) contribute to the firm’s overall efficiency.

With more and more firms converting to automated processes and paperless offices, the idea of using a paper checklist may seem antiquated. In fact, many CRM systems allow you to program process checklists into the office’s workflow. Before converting your hard-copy checklist to an automated process, however, it’s wise to “bulletproof” it—that is, actually checking off each of the items to ensure that the process is perfect. While it may seem cumbersome, it will save the firm time in the long run. After all, there’s really no point to automating a sloppy process.

Even after you automate a process, you may find it helpful to return to the paper checklist every so often to verify that the steps are still correct and efficient. Larger firms may wish to assign a different process to individual staff members and have them “surprise audit” the procedure a certain number of times per year. The staff person who completes the internal audit then presents the results at a staff meeting, takes responsibility for making changes, and revises the “Last Reviewed” date at the top of each procedure. Keep in mind that it’s important to update your written procedures at least annually.

Sounds Great—But Does It Work?

You may be thinking, “Identifying core processes, flowcharting them, converting them into checklists and working through implementation challenges sounds like a lot of work. Is it worth it?” Here’s what one advisor who adopted this approach had to say:

“For years, I said I wanted increased efficiency and standardized processes. But I was the problem. Because the processes weren’t documented, I was personally doing too many of the steps. I always said I would get around to it. But any time there was a meeting scheduled to document processes, I cancelled it. The flowcharting and checklist approach sounded easier than other approaches we had tried in the past. So I gave it a try. It took our team a little longer to apply the process the first time we did it. But after that, we could zip through many procedures quickly. And the teamwork we experienced simply by using the approach was valuable as well. Now, I feel free to let go and delegate because I know exactly what is going on. Whether I’m around or not, I don’t have to tell people what to do. The documented procedures help us all stop and think—are we as efficient as possible? Ultimately, both our firm and our clients benefit.”

Will this technique work for you? If you’re seeking meaningful gains in efficiency, it’s well worth a try.         

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