One of my old mentors had a favorite definition of “T.E.A.M.” — Together Everyone Achieves More. Holding true to this mantra over many years played a big part in creating a record of jaw-breaking success, not just for the individual advisor but for the entire support team and a select group of strategic partners.
In today’s fast-paced, knowledge-driven world, the concept of “team” may be more important than ever. My father-in-law, an accomplished ex-military officer, reminded me just last week that we are all wise to acknowledge the Parabola of Knowledge: The more we know, the more we know we don’t know. That’s why creating a core team and adding satellite support from CPAs and attorneys has been a successful formula for financial advisors over the years.
Just ask Devery “Rusty” Cagle, founder and president ASE Wealth Advisors in Greenville, S.C. A CFP who also holds the CRPC (Chartered Retirement Planning Counselor) certification and the CAP (Chartered Advisor in Philanthropy) designation, Rusty’s clients tend to be small business owners and high-income taxpayers. While Rusty traditionally serves as the quarterback, he is sure to suggest and coordinate the additional expertise clients need to meet their goals.
The Team-Building Process”When we start out with clients, we ask who their other advisors are,” Cagle says. “Then we contact those people and coordinate things, assuming that the client is happy with the relationship. To make sure this is the case, I ask the client about the process they used in choosing their other advisors; that usually leads to some thought-provoking answers.”
“We want to make sure that we have a solid advisory team in place, one without ego interference or conflicts of interest. If the client has a trusted relationship with another professional and things are going well, we’ll ask them to connect us. We’ll do our best to work with the existing professionals; however, a lot of times the client will say, ‘You know what, I really didn’t have a process for picking this person and now that I think about it things aren’t really all I’d hoped they could be.’ If that’s the case, I’ll recommend people we’ve vetted to help deliver all the services and advice we think will be needed.”
“The strategic team approach is really about having economic glue, not glitz with no execution,” continues Cagle. “When we are working together at our best, all of us are focused on the client’s best interest. We may be looking at year-end tax planning and how we can save the client from incurring capital gains. We might develop a charitable-giving plan or work with a business owner to create an exit strategy. But all of us are dedicated to helping the client and are interested in being synergistic — in essence, we must check our egos at the door.”
“We’ll look at the executive summary, benchmark where we’re going, discuss what’s important to the client, and teleconference to be sure we are all on the same page because all our different expertise really does flow across different avenues. That’s the magic of what we’re doing from a collaboration standpoint.”
Jenifer Cohen, a CPA with Greenville-based The Cohen Company, is often a part of Cagle’s strategic team. “Basically, we’re working on a client’s life plan. It’s helping them reach their goals, whether that’s through tax savings or investment planning or creating a strategy to help them put a child through college. As professional advisors with different disciplines, we all need to know what’s going on and work together to get them through that life plan. We certainly all have our specialties but we can’t all know everything. We must develop strong professional relationships.”
Jane Lindstrom, also with The Cohen Company, adds that most clients tend to rely on one advisor to serve as the quarterback but that it doesn’t really matter who’s the lead as long as there’s a clear understanding of who’s taking on that responsibility. “Only through working with other professionals can we help our clients truly accomplish their life plan. We have also found that as better customer service is delivered, through a team approach, clients start to trust us even more. Client satisfaction and referrals increase. And because a number of independent professionals are all looking out for the client’s best interests through a coordinated effort, each of us can concentrate on what we do best. This reduces stress for all involved.”
Strategic partner Frank Warren, an attorney and founding partner of Warren & Martzin, in Greenville, says: “Before I went to law school, I was in the insurance industry. One of the things I found frustrating was attorneys and CPAs who did not seem to understand that we were working with the same material. In addition, they may have had prejudices about what a particular discipline or industry was all about; that made it very difficult to accomplish meaningful things for clients. When I started practicing law in 1989, I realized that an interdisciplinary approach works better for clients. As smart as our mothers think we are because we went to law school, we don’t know everything. We can’t work in a vacuum because the things we are doing will impact other places that are important to our client families.”
Cagle chimes in: “It’s like planning a potluck supper. It takes several people bringing their own dish before you have a full meal. But instead of everybody showing up with dessert — which may be our specialty — and assuming somebody will bring the main dish, plates and utensils, we’re coordinating the experience and deliverables.”
Cabinet MeetingsBut building a network where you can service a client from all aspects and feel that everybody is working well together is one of the hardest things to do, according to Los Angeles-based Jeff Joy, an estate planning attorney with Greenberg Traurig. Thanks to the Internet and e-mail, Jeff is a frequent addition to Cagle’s strategic team. One effective strategy is to schedule a “cabinet meeting” — quarterly is ideal if, for instance, a business owner client is developing an exit plan, but at least once a year.
“We get all the advisors in the same room with the client and assess how we’re doing in getting the client to where he needs to be. Especially on the exit planning side, there are a number of different elements at play. By starting three to five years ahead of the eventual exit, and holding regular cabinet meetings, we won’t be caught flat-footed.”
In addition to the meetings described above, this experienced strategic team gets together without the client present. “Not necessarily at the client’s expense but just to learn more about each member’s business capabilities and specializations,” adds attorney Jeff Joy. “That way it’s easier for us to present suggestions, ideas or techniques that might work for the client.” They also copy one another on important communications, as long as this does not create a confidentiality breach.
The advisors also meet to network and share business strategies. The cross-pollination and group synergy has helped them better serve their clients and meet important business goals.
Marie Swift is the president of Impact Communications, a marketing and communications firm for independent advisors; see www.impactcommunications.org.