Nothing Sells Like Team Spirit at MetLife

Firm’s managing director finds three benefits: clients get holistic planning, advisors increase business and stem losses

Want to keep your clients? MetLife recommends pooling strengths with another advisor. Want to keep your clients? MetLife recommends pooling strengths with another advisor.

The finances of all too many New Jerseyans ended up like so much flotsam and jetsam after Hurricane Sandy blew its gale-force winds through the Garden State two years ago.

But just as a threefold cord is not quickly severed, holistic financial plans afforded their owners greater durability at that challenging time, says Bellaria Jimenez, managing director of MetLife Solutions Group, a large financial services group with offices throughout New Jersey, Pennsylvania and New York.

Many investment advisors “never instructed their clients about flood insurance or having an emergency fund. There were people displaced for a long period of time who didn’t have business interruption insurance,” she tells ThinkAdvisor in an interview.

Jimenez works on the management side of the MetLife affiliate, cultivating a team-selling approach to make sure that the kinds of lapses common at the time of Hurricane Sandy do not occur among clients of her firm’s 264 advisors.

The absence of a holistic approach can be a liability to clients — “not registering the account in the right manner could result in state tax issue,” Jimenez cites as one example.

But it also limits business opportunities for the advisor — just as it exposes the client to preventable losses, so too does it expose the advisor to the loss of a client.

The root of the problem, Jimenez says, is that the complexity of client needs today is too great to be serviced by a single advisor. As she inventories the matter:

“Education costs are so high now — going to college is almost as expensive as having a mortgage. Longevity increases mean you have to make sure your money doesn’t outlive you. And since people are living longer, health costs are becoming a bigger issue, so long-term care insurance is becoming key to financial planning. And because we’re living longer, we have to make sure we are keeping up with inflation,” she says.

But she continues, noting that the once high proportion of Americans who had pension plans has given way to a small sliver who own them today.

“That means most people have to fund their own retirement; if they’re business owners, they have to plan their own retirement.

“And there are a lot of changes in society,” Jimenez continues. “People are getting married later in life; they’re having kids later in life. They have to plan for a college education while planning for their own retirement.

“And this sandwich generation has to take care of their parents who are living longer while taking care of their kids who are going to college [right at the time] they’re planning for their own retirement. So advisors have to understand a complex picture.”

This view of the increasing complexity of reality and consequent need for advisors to specialize in college planning, retirement planning, investment accumulation or insurance — together with the greater profitability of advisor teams — has fueled MetLife Solution Group’s efforts beginning three years ago to encourage its advisors to partner with one another.

The firm had seven teams three years ago, but today has 17 teams, with four advisors on average. Jimenez’s goal is to have half the firm’s advisors on board a team.

She acknowledges that some advisors are simply not interested in joining a group. But she warns of the business risk of not doing so.

“The reality is client have all these other needs. They’re going outside. So you’re really exposing your clients to other advisors and other philosophies. That can expose you to losing that client,” she says.

 The advisors who are embracing her firm’s team selling approach, however, are discovering stickier relationships with clients, increased contact with clients (through other team members), increased referrals and ultimately a different and more holistic view of the client.

For example, Jimenez says her teams’ clients are now less likely to be “confused about something—among financial advisors, that happens often,” she says. “A client has a question for an advisor in the field [who can’t quickly return the call] and gets frustrated. But now there’s someone there to answer the phone.”

So how does an investment advisor who get the message — that his clients are seeking insurance advice on the outside — proactively pair with another advisor?

Jimenez recommends partnering on a couple of cases, a process she says usually takes a year.

“There’s got to be synergy; it’s not like an arranged marriage,” she says.

“Because we're a big organization, we have the advantage of knowing all our advisors and can make arrangements internally. But most of the time we’re actually getting people coming to us and saying they’d like to work as team.”

That signals the start of a long learning process, where the advisors have to adopt a service model and learn to become a “we” rather than an “I” — to market as a team and talk to clients about the team.

To further that end, MetLife Solutions Group has developed a playbook for each of its teams to foster a shared vision that all members can reference. As the advisors expand their collaboration, they grow together and come to genuinely experience a team outlook, Jimenez says.

“One of the key things we’re seeing is the accountability has drastically changed, which is helping all the advisors working together,” she says. “As a sole practitioner, you hold yourself accountable. But in a team, everyone is…building toward a goal together. Peer accountability is very different—you don’t want to let your team down.”

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