We’ve all sat through them—the consumer panels that pop up at every industry trade show and conference. It’s important to listen to the clients we serve, but a panel of three strangers seems of little value to those who listen (actually listen) to their clients each and every day. It always struck me as more show than substance.

That is, until “Jessica” discussed her situation at a top producer event for a major financial services company. To say you could hear a pin drop doesn’t do the level of rapt attention justice.

Jessica’s husband was a Navy pilot killed in the line of duty in Afghanistan. She received the news as a mother of a two-year-old while nine months pregnant with their second child.

“Here comes the lady with the downer of a story,” she self-deprecatingly joked, lest you think she felt sorry for herself.

“I was handed a pretty sizable check within two and a half days of hearing the news,” she said. “I was a deer in the headlights. I was numb and had no idea what to do. It was all a blur. I had to make these decisions that could affect the rest of our lives.”

Her brother recommended a professional he was using, a former Army soldier that Jessica felt she could trust because “he would understand the situation and the benefits I would receive.”

“I had to focus on being a mother,” she said. “I had to turn it over to him and say, ‘Here, you deal with this. Please don’t mess it up.’”

Here’s the rub: when asked by the panel’s host if her financial professional was a broker, investment advisor or an insurance agent, Jessica said, “I think he’s an investment advisor, but I’m not certain.”

The title was never revealed, and it didn’t really matter, since Jessica was clearly happy with the service she received. But it was something of a fail that her financial services professional did not immediately, upon meeting her for the first time, make clear his qualifications and specific area of expertise. Maybe he did and Jessica was too numb to notice, but she seemed incredibly sharp, especially when discussing the future of her family. 

The bigger fail, of course, is with the industry itself. The Merrill Rule, whether someone is an agent or truly an advisor and so many other efforts to obscure roles and skill sets do us all a disservice, and can result in disaster for incredibly important situations like those described above.

While Jessica’s story is relatively (and thankfully) unique, situations of equal import constantly arise. We all know it’s not about making the sale, but helping the client, which is why honesty in marketing and promotion of qualifications is absolutely critical.