Michael Austin/© theispot.com

Quick quiz: what are the two biggest business headaches of the most successful financial advisors?

Answers: (1) Marketing — they don’t have a dependable, predictable system for getting, as I’ve put it, “derrières in chairs”; and (2) Staff — getting the right employees on the bus and in the right seats, and then keeping them there.

Marketing is not our problem, but if you have been reading these columns, you know we definitely have had our share of employee hassles. In fact, I threatened to use all of my last year’s columns bemoaning our hiring failures!

My thinking has evolved on hiring and retaining top team members. When we started this practice in 2011, I was most concerned about giving our clients a WOW experience. Obviously, we needed many great, happy, satisfied clients to make the business a success. This was my entire focus.

I was fortunate, too, in that my first client service manager (CSM) was Josh. We had worked together for years, so I trusted him and knew he would do good work. I didn’t have to helicopter over him to make sure things were done in an excellent manner. Plus, he is my unofficial partner in the business and more than ready and able to take over should I get run over by the proverbial bus. In short, I was able to put all my attention on building the practice, because Josh was so great at doing the support we needed for this model.

The problems started with our first hires after Josh. Rather than bore you with our many mistakes, let’s just say, not having the right employees, is very, very expensive. We find after a year on our team, the best of our CSMs can only do 80% of the job requirements. We definitely lose money on them for at least a year. In fact, it can take two years for a good CSM really to add to the bottom line.

Here is how my thinking changed: it slowly began to dawn on me that the employees were more important to me (and our business model) than the clients! This was a startling revelation to me. My thought process is if we have great team members, who really love up our clients, the clients will be happy and refer their colleagues. This has really proved to be true, as at least 90% of our new clients last year came from referrals.

In fact, we could easily take losing a client or two, but losing a valued team member is devastating because they can support over 100 households.

Retention Plan

Once I realized that I had to put more energy into keeping the team happy, we developed a team member retention plan. I thought of it as creating “the best place to work.” I figured, even millennials, who tend not to have loyalty to their employers, could stick around if I created a best place to work.

Here are some of the things we started doing last year, in my quest to create a business that retains it greatest assets: our team members.

The “Our Hero” Award: I took one of my favorite silver frames, and created an insert that says “Our Hero” and then announced this award to the team. The rules are simple: anyone on the team can give it to anyone else, for help above and beyond what is expected. The nominator moves the award to the honoree’s desk and then sends out an email stating why they are getting the award. This always means, the lucky honoree gets a round of emails from everyone else on the team congratulating that person and thanking them for his or her great service.

I never expected that I would get the award, being the boss and all. However, I have gotten it twice. Most recently, this was for doing 100% of my debriefs in a timely manner.

We give this award out for a variety of reasons. Alyssa got it recently for getting not one but two clients who have been difficult to reschedule, back on the books. Victoria got it one week when our cleaners didn’t show and she and her darling husband came and cleaned the entire office.

I wanted our team members to get recognized for their great work and let them know how much other team members appreciate them. I was also hoping to create an atmosphere of team togetherness. This is not a solo sport — we need each other, all the time, to serve our clients.

We hired an administrative assistant to assist the client service managers. Our CSMs are all college educated, frequently with finance degrees, and fully licensed. I began to recognize that our CSMs were doing a lot of admin work that could be done by someone who was not licensed. I want CSMs focusing on making trades, creating the financial plans, servicing clients and doing the high-level analysis. Rescheduling clients and filling out paperwork was both draining for them and time-consuming.

We hired an amazing person to provide this admin support and this has gone a long way to reducing some of the stress in the office. In fact, it is working so well that we are currently looking to hire another one.

My goal is for the CSMs to realize that we appreciate them so much, we are willing to hire extra team members to assist them and reduce their work load.

We created a “best place to work” committee to come up with more ideas for our companies. The team reported they wanted to do a “dream” session. I was a bit perplexed at first, but they explained that one of the key things in keeping team members happy is to help each and every one reach their dreams.

Their research says that many people lose the ability to dream as they grow older. This was a totally new thought to me, as I am still working on my dreams and goals every day so it never occurred to me that others don’t do this! But I trusted what they were telling me. So we had a dream session with all the members of our companies. Each team member came up with one or two dreams they wants to share and we put them on a board. We all want to help each other get to these dreams.

I had two dreams for the board: to get to my goal weight (no surprise there!) and to have 100% of our team members say we are a “best place to work.”

My plan for the next step is to host a follow up session around some of the principles I learned from the book “Psycho-Cybernetics,” by Dr. Maxwell Maltz. In a nutshell, Maltz found that you could literally change your self-image, not by telling yourself you were successful, but by spending time every day visualizing yourself in detailed situations where you are being successful.

I used these principles as soon as I got out of law school, where I would spend time visualizing different parts of a trial. I still use them today. For instance, in the rare case we have an unhappy client, I spend as much time visualizing the meeting, as I do in case prep. I carefully picture, what are their concerns, fears, misconceptions, etc., and how can I best help them overcome them. This allows me to be calm and fully focused on helping our beloved clients.

We created a full plan of employee benefits. I am not sure we missed hiring any quality people by our benefits program, but I wanted to make sure we could compete with the big boys.

Here is what we do:

We pay for all their CE, including the cost of taking exams and the prep courses.

We have a health care reimbursement plan.

We are doing a SIMPLE IRA, which means we give every employee a vested 3% of their base pay. We are planning to move this to a 401(k) this year.

We offer a complete financial plan for each of our team members. Some of our employees have a high level of student debt. When that happens, we want to use this time to help them come up with a strategy for getting out of debt. We feel any stress reduction on the home front is likely to help at the office, too.

I devote myself to making their career goals come true. Most of our CSMs want to become financial advisors. As a result of the complexity of our process, it can take a CSM five years to be able to meet with our top clients. As much as possible, I want them to sit in on client meetings, and I serve as their coach and mentor. This year, I will be spending more time than ever, training, coaching and loving up our team members.

We give them 15 days of PTO per year. I don’t care how they use them — they don’t have to be sick.

We offer a flexible work schedule. Living in the frozen tundra of Minnesota, we do get snow days. If possible, I am happy for team members to work from home on those days.

We do semi-annual, written employee evaluations (and informal ones at 30, 60 and 90 days). The written evaluations are used for the quarterly profitability bonus.

Bonus Time

Finally, we have four different bonuses:

The most fun, from my perspective, is the profitability bonus. We share a large portion of our profits, on any quarter where we are profitable, with the entire team. The team members’ shares are divided based on their salary and their scores on the employee evaluations. The higher the score, the more bonus they get. My theory: we couldn’t be profitable without you, so you deserve to share in the wealth.

A competition bonus. These vary from quarter to quarter depending on what part of the business we feel needs a little extra push. Past competitions include getting our large list of clients who wanted to reschedule, back on the books. We did one on having CSMs follow our (rather extensive) protocols. One of the things we will be working on this quarter is helping our CSMs sort through the high priorities, as they sometimes get bogged down in details.

A retention bonus. Just the way employers get their employees to stay, by creating a vesting schedule in 401(k) plans, we created a special cash bonus for longevity with the firm.

A “just because” bonus. Sometimes, when I see a team member has been working extra hard, we give them a dinner out, a card for Target or extra days off. These are not large, but I want everyone to know how valuable they are.

My favorite day of the quarter is personally handing out each bonus and thanking our team members for helping us get to where we are.

— More by Katherine Vessenes on ThinkAdvisor: