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Lowering the Boom: How to Bring In Gen X and Gen Y Clients

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We hear a lot these days about what advisors have to do to attract Gen X and Gen Y clients, and for good reason. We baby boomers aren’t getting any younger, and many of us are rapidly moving out of our asset accumulation phase and into portfolio depletion. To grow, or even just tread water, most firms need to attract younger clients, which brings us back to the X’s and the Y’s. The problem—which is pretty clear to anyone who has spent more than 15 minutes with younger folks lately—is that they aren’t like us, in more ways than you can count. Reaching them requires not only a different way of communicating, but a different way of advising as well.

With a quick Google search, you’ll find plenty of folks willing to tell you all about the differences between Gen Xers (born between 1964 and 1982), the millennials (born between 1982 and 2002, so called because their leading edge started to come of age around the turn of the millennium) and baby boomers. But to uncover how those differences translate into advisory relationships, language strategist and author of “The Language of Trust: Selling Ideas in a World of Skeptics,” Mike Maslansky conducted a panel for 400 or so financial advisors in attendance at Peak Advisor Alliance’s Excell Meeting on Oct. 2 in Omaha, Neb. Prompted by Maslansky’s questioning, the differences between the seven affluent baby boomers and seven affluent Gen Xers and Yers on the panel became glaringly apparent, begging the question of whether many baby boom advisors will be willing or able to bridge this generation gap.

Before we get to their differences, there were a few points about which both generational groups agreed that are important for all advisors to hear. When it comes to hearing an advisor’s initial pitch, all the panelists were turned off by too much talk about the firm. As one panelist summed up the sentiment: “Tell me it’s about me. What are you going to do for me and why that’s important to me.”

Brevity is also greatly preferred when the initial pitch comes to talking about fees. All the panelists from both age groups agreed that the answers they heard to questions about fees were “too long winded.” “If the advisor doesn’t give a number pretty quick, it starts to sound as if they are trying to hide it,” said one panelist.

The panelists also liked the idea of having two advisors working directly with them, rather than just one, particularly if each had a different approach: say, one a quant and the other more touchy-feely, or a female and male advisor team, particularly with clients who are couples. But surprisingly to me and to the one-third of the advisors in the audience who offer them, none of the panelists liked “100% money-back guarantees” for things like planning fees. The group consensus was that it undermines the firm’s belief in the quality of its services. “Better to stay positive” was the prevailing feeling. “Say something like ‘We’ll work with you to make you happy.’”

Not surprisingly, peace of mind was a big issue for the baby boomers, but what was a surprise was that, despite their long-term focus, the retirees and near-retirees wanted their advisors to communicate with them about troubling current news, such as the recent government shutdown. They didn’t necessarily want a phone call—an email would do—but they wanted to know that their advisor was on top of it and what they were doing about it. Peak Advisory Alliance Managing Director Paul West told me: “The prevailing sentiment was ‘Just tell me that you’re watching out for me and my situation.’ Yet less than 2% of advisors in the audience had communicated with their clients over the shutdown.”

Current events were not as important to Gen X and Y, who generally felt that they could take on any additional risk that came with them. Instead, the younger folks were much more concerned about getting value from their advisors in today’s digital, do-it-yourself world. Responding to a couple of advisors’ service pitches, one panelist said: “I haven’t heard a message from an advisor that I couldn’t do myself. Their value propositions were bad. I can just get Vanguard small-cap funds. What is the advisor going to do for me that’s worth the cost?”

Perhaps a function of their age and longer time horizons, all of the Xers and Yers seemed much more focused on the cost of advice than tracking the results. Said West: “Millennials don’t want numbers in their faces all the time. They want to be able to check on them when they want, so don’t oversend data to them.” One of the younger panelists put a much finer point on it: “When I meet with my advisor I only want to know two things. How much money has he or she made from me and how much money did I make?”

This focus on investment returns also surfaced when Maslansky asked the panelists if they wanted other kinds of financial planning, such as debt management, issues with their kids or insurance. All the baby boomers said they did, while only half of the Xers and Yers answered “yes.”

Other hot buttons for the younger potential clients revolved around time management. When they heard an advisor say, “I’m going to meet with you for 90 minutes,” they all started laughing. “Why would we ever meet for that long?” was their sentiment. They do want direct communication, but when they want it. “They don’t like it when they feel it takes a long time to get an answer about something,” said West. How long is too long a time? “Today is good,” he said. “It’s no longer ‘I’ll get back to you in 24 or 48 hours.’” By comparison, the baby boomers said they were happy hearing from their advisor “once a month and meeting once a year, maybe less.”

“One of the primary takeaways from the panel was that as advisory clients, Gen Xers and Yers will require a whole new way of approaching the delivery of advice,” said West. “Their thinking is much shorter term. They are more aggressive investors, and they believe they have more investment knowledge than do baby boom clients. Their advisors will have to be more concise, be better communicators and do it digitally—and often.”

This picture of younger clients acting, well, younger, was confirmed recently by Fidelity Investment’s sixth annual “Millionaire Outlook Study,” which included 151 Gen X and Y millionaires at an average age of 37. With total average assets excluding homes of $5.7 million, they were only slightly wealthier than baby boomer millionaires, whose average assets were $5.2 million, but were much more likely to lead wealthy lifestyles. Gen X and Y respondents were three times more likely to own a vacation home and more than six times more likely to fly first class.

What’s more, 71% of Gen X and Y millionaires consider themselves knowledgeable about investing versus 44% of their older counterparts. More than 80% said they were willing to invest “aggressively,” compared to 27% of the boomer and older group. Finally, while 92% of the Gen X and Y millionaires said they rely on financial advisors for guidance, 77% said they split investment decisions between themselves and their advisors, viewing themselves as “experienced and knowledgeable investors.”

What’s more, a 2011 study by Cisco, “Uncovering Significant Opportunities to Address the Needs of Wealthy Under-50 Investors,” quantified loyalty to advisors among the younger generations: 27% of wealthy under-50s switched advisors in the two years prior to the study, versus 12% of baby boomers and 7% of their parents. Thirty-two percent of the younger investors said they would switch advisors in the next year, and 44% of the under-50s changed advisors in the three years following 2008. One-quarter said it was due to insufficient expertise of the financial advisor; and 21% said it was due to disagreements about strategy.

That Generation X and the millennials are the future of financial advice is an inescapable fact. But it’s a far different future from what baby boom advisors are used to. Some will undoubtedly adapt to the new realities, most likely with the help of younger advisors to bridge the gap with younger clients. I suspect the current advisory business model may have to adapt as well. Consider these answers when Maslansky asked the Xers and Yers, “What if you could have the same advisory experience online with same investment results?” Only one panelist said he’d move online if the costs were the same as a live advisor, but if the costs were half as much, all of them said they’d opt for the Internet.


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