Some years ago, a prominent financial planner enthusiastically described the “innovative” career path for young advisors he had created in his firm. “Every new advisor starts as an executive assistant,” he said proudly. “Then they move up to client service, followed by some time in investment and portfolio research. After three years, they finally get to be an associate advisor, supporting a lead advisor.” As my stunned brain was searching for an appropriate response, I wondered what his turnover rate was among young CFPs who started out doing clerical work. Before I could speak, he proudly provided the answer: “This system weeds out people who can’t make it to associate advisor.” No kidding.
To confirm my suspicions, I called a couple of young advisors who had gone to work in his firm. They both hated the job. In fact, one was no longer there. The other one said he wasn’t far behind: “I got straight A’s in financial planning school. I have the technical knowledge, but I’m bad at repetitive work, and I’m bored out of my mind. Consequently, I’m failing for the first time in my life, and it’s starting to undermine my confidence that I should be a financial planner.”
Contrary to the pride this owner-advisor had in his system, I often use this story as the classic example of what not to do to train, motivate and retain young advisors. In fact, in our client firms, we take the opposite approach. After a six-week firm orientation period, we have our associate advisors sit in client meetings with a lead advisor for their first one to two years in a structure we call diamond teams. They take notes, create follow-up to-do lists, update client profiles and, most importantly, learn how professional advisors work with their clients. To make this work, and to provide the maximum support so all of our advisors at every level can focus entirely on serving clients, we create what we call centralized client service and operations departments. They are an essential element in building successful firms.
The idea behind centralized client service is that most client contact and virtually all clerical and back-office functions can be handled more effectively and efficiently by a trained, dedicated staff rather than professional advisors. We found that using young advisors to perform some or all of these duties (as many firms do) is a lose-lose proposition. Because they are neither trained nor motivated to perform these functions, they aren’t very good at them. Then, when they actually do start to gain some experience, they are promoted to an advisory role, and a new crop of untrained, inexperienced young advisors takes their place. Even if they are promoted, the whole time they’re performing clerical duties, they’ll be looking for another firm that will let them do what they were trained to: be an advisor. This is one of the primary reasons for the astronomical industry-wide turnover rate among young advisors.
Instead, we’ve found that essential jobs at advisory firms such as contact with custodians or broker-dealers and other vendors, keeping the technology systems fully operational, entering financial planning data into software, maintaining the CRM files and routine client contact are all better handled by people who are specifically hired and trained to do them well. In our client firms, all the nonprofessional office staff works in the centralized client service department, sending the message that good client service is everyone’s responsibility—from the receptionist to the owners.
All of our firms have dedicated client service specialists whose sole responsibility is to ensure that every client feels they are getting the best, most personalized service possible. In addition, the vast majority of the CSS positions are filled with nonprofessional talent such as administrative people and client service or operational representatives who have virtually no desire to become professional advisors. Instead, the career path of client service specialists is (depending on the size of the firm) to supervisor, manager and, ultimately, chief operating officer.
It’s a little hard to generalize about how to build a client service center, but as a rule of thumb, every firm, no matter how small, should have one support person and add another when it reaches $750,000 in revenue. A new support person should be added for every additional $750,000. When a firm operates with three service specialists, one should be designated the supervisor. When you have six specialists, you’ll probably need a manager over the whole center. As the service center grows, the teams will naturally begin to specialize, usually into client contact, back-office and technology, each with their own supervisors and, eventually, managers.
The key to creating an effective client service department is training: not just on what each job entails, but about the mission of the firm, its goals and its approach to creating the right client experience. Because we hire people specifically for client service work, who enjoy the back-office work and want to stay in these positions for the long term, we have limited turnover and, therefore, limited training. In fact, most of our CSS training is completed in a six-week course built around the company operations manual. In general, here is the training process we go through:
Week 1: A general overview of basic company procedures and technology used in the firm. To understand the firm, every employee needs to understand all the things it does and how it does them. They need to be familiar with the firm operations manual, see that it contains detailed instructions for each task and be able to find them when needed. Each CSS also needs to know all of the various programs, apps and websites that the firm uses to deliver client products and services, and how to use them.
Week 2: Understanding the administrative functions, who completes those functions and to whom they should refer each task. To understand their own job, it’s essential that each CSS have a good overview of who does what in a firm. Nothing will slow the efficiency of a firm faster than consistently sending the wrong work to the wrong people, or erode client experience faster than referring client inquiries to the wrong people. Smooth operations depend on everyone knowing what everyone’s job is.
Week 3: Understanding what experience we want the clients to have with our firm and the types of clients we serve. In his classic business management book “Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies,” Jim Collins tells us that the most important goal of successful businesses (from Disney World to McDonald’s to UPS) is to deliver a consistent experience to their customers. The first step in delivering consistent experiences to advisory clients is to spell out exactly what experience the firm is striving for and make sure every employee knows what it is.
Week 4: Understanding how we do marketing and appointments with prospective clients. Because the growth of every firm depends on attracting new clients, every employee needs to understand where these new clients come from and how they are introduced to the firm. During this segment we review the experience that the firm wants prospective clients to have.
Week 5: Understanding the new client process. It’s also important that every employee understands what needs to happen once prospects have decided to become clients of the firm. Each client’s first experiences with their new advisory firm will form the way they see the firm forever. So, it’s very important that every employee understands that experience and everything that’s involved in delivering it to the clients.
Week 6: Understanding the ongoing client experience the firm delivers—and their role in it. Not until an employee fully understands the mission of the firm, what it does for its clients and the roles of everyone in the firm to deliver those services do we start to train employees in their specific roles.
If you train client service specialists this way, they are able to integrate their work into the overall objectives and processes of the advisory firm. With client services centers—whether they comprise two client service specialists or multiple teams and managers—our goal is to take everything off the desks of our advisors that doesn’t pertain to talking to their clients, attracting new clients or managing the firm (in the case of owner-advisors). This makes every advisor more efficient and more focused, and enables associate advisors to focus on learning how to be lead advisors.