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Practice Management > Building Your Business

Focusing on the Right Business Model

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The focus in the independent advisory world these days seems to be on service models, that is, creating new and better services for today’s investors. Discussions on this topic typically go like this: “What type of clients are you currently attracting or would you like to attract?” Followed by,

“What services do these clients want and need?” But these are the wrong questions to ask. Most of my time is spent talking to firm owners about what they would like their businesses to become and then working with them to build those businesses. Today, owners’ goals usually focus on a target AUM number (like $1 billion) or annual gross revenue (such as $5 million). These aren’t the right goals, though, because once they are attained, business firm owners usually are less happy than before.

All of this stems from having asked the wrong question from the beginning. Rather than starting with the clients they want to attract, firm owners should focus on which services they truly want to provide.

Think of this as another way of asking: “What do you really want to do for the rest of your life?” After all, the vast majority of your time and that of your partners and employees will be spent delivering the financial services you choose to offer.

Make a Choice There are plenty of services to choose from. Some advisors like creating financial plans. Others get a jolt from designing and managing investment portfolios. Others really dig insurance and/or estate planning.

Some advisors even have more specific areas of interest: taxes, stock option plans, small business management, trust and estate planning, etc. Regardless of the exact services you are inclined to provide, it’s worth remembering that financial planning, investment advice, retirement planning and general financial advice all require diverse knowledge and expertise. And providing all of these services may not be of interest to each and every client.

Thus, rather than taking on everything and anything that “will get your businesses to $1 billion,” you should focus on attracting clients who need the specific services you want to provide.

For instance, if you like stock options and compensation plans, focus on business executives. If insurance issues are of interest, zoom in on estate planning and small business owners. If creating and managing investment portfolios is your thing, target pre- and post-retirees. If college funding excites you, reach out to folks with high school age children.

In general, owner advisors can and do hire other advisors to provide the client services that they themselves aren’t particularly attracted to.

Yet in my experience, this sort of firmwide “schizophrenia” results not only in the failure to build the firm the owner(s) really want(s), it undermines the many benefits that come from a focused business in which everyone is working toward the same goals.

To help firm owners identify the client services they truly want to offer, I ask advisors these questions:

1. What is the service that you most like providing to clients? Keep in mind that this is a personal question directed at the preferences of firm owners — rather than a business question about which services would be the most lucrative or are in the highest demand by investors.

2. If you offer that service to clients, what is the next service that they will need and what are any other services they will likely require in the foreseeable future?

It’s important to realize that focusing on one service often leads to adding other services down the road. For instance, one client wanted to focus on planning for stock options. Then she realized that clients with those needs would later need financial planning and estate planning, so she added them. Next, she included investment management, limited to meeting with each client once a year.

Another advisor wanted to focus on investment management using a long-term strategy. He then added retirement planning, including goals and needs, but was very clear that he didn’t work with clients in the distribution stage of their financial lives.

3. Finally, what services don’t you want to provide? There are many reasons why business owners don’t want to provide specific services, ranging from high regulatory risks to low profit margins, marketing difficulties or simply a bad experience or two.

It’s important to be up front about what you don’t want to offer — and why. Also, listen to the concerns of your partners and/or employees based on their experiences.

Organizational Strategy Based on the answers to the above questions, you easily can identify the clients you do — and do not — want to work with. This doesn’t mean you should jettison existing clients who do not fit your new client profile. However, it does mean you should stop taking new clients who don’t fit your profile, and designate some advisors to continue working with your legacy clients and/or start working with other professionals to get the client comprehensive help.

Once you’ve identified the services you want to provide going forward, other common issues in your business fall into place. Obviously, your service model becomes clear. Less obviously, so does your organizational strategy.

I’m not talking about an “org chart” here. An organizational chart simply identifies the jobs that currently need to be done within your business. In contrast, an “org strategy” outlines the current positions within your firm, along with the jobs that will need to be filled in the future and when that will happen.

Organizational strategies have many other benefits for a business. Based on the services that your firm will offer going forward, it’s easy to communicate how the business will grow and what new opportunities will emerge. It essentially becomes a vision statement that lets everyone in your firm know where your business is going.

I’ve found that when a workable org strategy is clearly communicated to the employees of a firm, it changes their focus. People become far less concerned with their current compensation and far more interested in how firm growth can lead to their career advancement.

And, of course, narrowing your service model makes marketing much easier: You know who your target clients are and what you intend to offer them. Plus, with a good reputation among potential clients with similar needs, your referral rates will climb.

Upside of Focus A focused service model strategy also reduces or even eliminates “service creep,” that is, the tendency of firms to add extra services to accommodate specific clients over time. Keep in mind, the more services you offer, the more you decrease the efficiency, profitability and (sometimes) the service quality control of your business.

Thus, you can build a successful advisory firm by focusing more on specific clients. Many advisors have done just that by targeting clients like business executives, professional athletes, doctors and vineyard or dry cleaning business owners.

Are most of these advisors happy with their choices? My best guess is that it’s probably close to 50/50. But I do know from experience that a much higher percentage of owners of firms focused on providing the services that they really want to offer are happy with their choices.

For most of us, true happiness doesn’t come from doing the things we can do, it comes from doing the things we genuinely want to do. Why should building the advisory business we want be any different? I realize you think you can do it all, but do you really want to?

Angie Herbers is an independent consultant to the advisory industry. She can be reached at [email protected]