Fall brings to mind images of falling leaves, crisp apple cider, carved pumpkins, and the harvesting of crops planted. It’s also a time when brokers are returning from their summer vacations and ready to get a fresh start on their busy work months ahead. This is a great time for financial professionals to survey the landscape within their office, and take a hard look at how to take their client relationships to the next level.

Who builds client relationships? Most financial professionals point to themselves. However, a study conducted by State Street and Knowledge@Wharton (an online resource that captures research generated by the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business) asserts that often only 15% to 20% of the client’s contact is with the financial advisor. The other 80% of the contact is with the professional’s assistant and support staff. Many financial professionals are looking to build their business, and need a strong service model. An all-too-significant number of professionals are adding clients as fast as they can, crossing their fingers that the service level will rise to meet demand.

Savvy professionals view sales assistants as an untapped resource that can help grow sales and enhance their firms’ service delivery. An efficient, organized sales assistant can give a financial professional a competitive advantage when it comes to client relationships. Sales assistants are trouble-shooters who juggle everything from tracking down dividend checks to coordinating seminars. They are the glue that holds the practice together and keeps its operations on track. For example, they have assumed many of the practice’s compliance duties, ensuring that forms are signed and filed, documentation is maintained, and professionals are updated on new compliance regulations and procedures.

As a significant portion of professionals move beyond reliance on commission-based selling, they find themselves turning to the sales assistant to share an increasing portion of the administrative burden. This can free up time for client meetings and directly impact the bottom line. The role of today’s sales assistant is undergoing change, moving well beyond strictly administrative functions. They are optimizing their role by taking on more complex tasks such as conducting investment research and asset allocation studies, helping brokers create sales illustrations, and venturing further into the development of prospecting materials and pre-sale endeavors. Sales assistants are also increasing their knowledge of the industry and are pursuing registrations, generally FINRA (formerly NASD) Series 6 or 63. However, sales assistants are careful to refrain from tasks that require registrations beyond what they hold.

Many professionals are turning to their broker-dealer for guidance on sales assistant training. Some broker-dealers provide online courses for sales assistants or incentives to earn licenses. Others hold education sessions to augment sales assistant knowledge. In addition, brokers are turning to product providers and even wholesalers to step in with help and training. Pioneering mutual fund and annuity providers are adding online education, Web site features, and other tools to help professionals help their sales assistants.

For example, The Hartford Financial Services Group, Inc. (“The Hartford”) (NYSE:HIG) offers half-day sales assistant forums. Using broker input, The Hartford has developed interactive sessions that present tips, tactics and best practices for the changing sales assistant role. Attendees work on improving branding messages, increasing the number and quality of client touch points, and setting client service standards.

When professionals think through their service model and make adjustments to it, the quality of client interactions rises significantly. Professionals have worked hard to plant the seeds of great relationships. Attention to those relationships, utilizing all of the office staff will reap big dividends come harvest time.

Meg Aldrich is a senior marketing consultant at The Hartford Financial Services Group, Inc. She works in The Hartford’s eBusiness Marketing & Strategic Initiatives Unit, which includes responsibility for the HartfordInvestor Web site. Her responsibilities include spearheading The Hartford’s initiatives for sales assistants and broker productivity improvement. She holds an MBA from Harvard Business School and held prior marketing positions with IBM and General Electric.