In the early 1990s, I met a superstar insurance agent who I’ll call Percy (not his real name). Percy looked a little like Bob Denver but he had impeccable credentials: a Princeton grad with a law degree from the University of Virginia and an MBA from Stanford. After stints as an attorney and a venture capitalist, he decided the real action was in life insurance.
Percy wasn’t arrogant, but he was extremely confident in his knowledge of law, finance, and insurance. His background and experience gave him unique skills that were highly valued by high-net-worth entrepreneurs. So he decided to only work with those who had a minimum of $100 million who would generate $500,000 in commissions. This master influencer only closed two to four cases a year. But his annual income put him in the top 1% of all insurance agents in the U.S. So I asked him for the key to his success.
“You have to have big conversations with these people,” revealed Percy. “Most advisors engage wealthy clients in small conversations, at the level of a technician. The people I work with already hire dozens of technicians–if I’m seen as just another technician I’m dead on arrival because of the prospect’s conscious and, more importantly, subconscious perceptions of me.” Percy believed that “the size of your conversation determines the size of your paycheck,” your house and, ultimately, your legacy. So he set out to have “the biggest conversations with the wealthiest people possible.”
Percy’s strategy was to position himself as a peer of his clients, rather than an employee. Wealthy clients, he argues, yearn to talk with someone who understands their issues and pressures–they need someone who asks big questions and guides them into a “big conversation” in which he listens to their most deeply felt concerns.
When I asked Percy why he didn’t increase his number of clients by lowering his minimums, he said, “A lion will starve eating mice all day. Why have conversations that will attract mice when I know how to have conversations that attract elephants?”
Those words echo in my mind as I write this column. Over the past 25 years I have seen the conversations held by the entire investment industry become bigger and bigger. There are five conversations that chart where advisors come from and where they are going:
- Securities selection
- Investment manager selection
- Fee-based portfolio management
- Comprehensive wealth management
- Wealth and life optimization
By tracing the past we can see what types of conversations leading edge financial advisors may be having in the future.
Starting Small: Product Centered
In 1981 I got my first job in the financial services industry–as a wholesaler for a sponsor of real estate partnerships and mutual funds. I called on a lot of old-fashioned stock pickers whose favorite conversation went something like this–”Mr. Jones, XYZ Corp is currently selling for $10 a share, but our analysts predict that within six months it should be selling for $18 share. How much do you want to buy?”
The top-producing stock jockeys had all the securities and market statistics at their fingertips. They used that information to overcome objections and bully people into buying individual stocks and bonds that they said would beat the market.
Although many of their clients had extremely large securities portfolios, they hid that fact from their brokers. Since the majority of the brokers focused on small “product” details, and had no real process for managing money, they ended up with small accounts and small trades.
Under this approach, the complexity of the securities marketplace and the imponderables of the future were boiled down to a simplistic premise: We have specialized information that will make you rich if you take my advice.
In the 1980s, brokers were taught to have small conversations about individual securities. It seemed proper, based on the history of the industry, but it was soon overtaken by a much more sophisticated offering.
Bigger: Client Need Centered
During the early 1980s I also called on financial planners. I noticed that they were having “bigger conversations” with their clients than the brokers. Since they prepared a written financial plan, they saw all their clients’ assets. Most importantly, they enlarged the conversation to include not just the clients’ current situation, but their future goals. The focus was revolutionary: make financial and investment recommendations based on the unique needs of each client.
The focus of these investment conversations was not about individual securities but rather on how to pick the right mutual fund manager or managers to help clients achieve their goals. Mutual funds had many benefits for owners of individual securities, especially if they had large portfolios holding many securities through multiple brokerage accounts. The planners stressed professional management, diversification, and consolidation of the clients’ assets into a select group of mutual funds.
Most important, the documented track records of mutual funds gave the financial planners benchmarks for future performance projections. Although many of their projections proved to be overly optimistic, they laid the foundation for an entirely new approach to the investment industry: putting the client’s needs–not products–at the center of the conversation.
Not surprisingly these bigger conversations often attracted bigger portfolios including rollovers, inheritances, and other serious money.