United Capital CEO Joe Duran.

Most talks at this week’s Inside ETFs conference focused on financial products and returns.

But Joe Duran, CEO and founding partner of the RIA United Capital, zoomed in on the client experience. “We are a financial-life management company,” he told the crowd assembled near Miami on Tuesday. (He did add that United Capital has about $22 billion in assets.)

“I’m not here to talk investments — let’s talk about we get paid and how we earn what we get paid,” he told several thousand advisors and other financial professionals.

“I have a couple ideas to make you more competitive … in a rapidly changing world,” the popular speaker said. “We’ve built the business by answering the industry’s own question: What problem are you getting paid to solve?”

The correct answer isn’t making sure your employees and clients “don’t run out of money,” according to Duran, “but how can you help them live rich?”

The value of advisors isn’t to impact “average clients, because they don’t exist,” he said. “All of us live once-in-a-lifetime experiences.”

Financial lives and expectations change constantly due to illness, kids and grandchildren, and so on.

“Think about what you do in terms of the client experience and deliver it” accordingly, said Duran, pointing to firms who excel at this like Starbucks, Apple and Southwest Airlines.

He showed, via photos and slides, the power of client experience in delivering a shot of tequila. A shot of a premium brand — say, Don Julio 1942 — is $6.80 at Costco, but at a fancy beach resort it’s $45.

“Value is perception, not reality,” said Duran. “Price is fact. Value is perception 100%. And it’s driven by how [that value] delivered, how it’s explained to you and how it’s experienced.”

When your clients ask themselves if your work as an advisor is worth the fee, they reflect on the client experience. Their view? “They must feel it’s worth it, which is what great brands understand.”

A quote from John Dewey reinforces this view: “The deepest urge in human nature is the desire to feel important.”

And, Duran said, “It’s the same with firms like Apple and Tiffany. The unifying factor favoring a premium brand is the level of importance you feel when you consume it. Great brands make us feel special.”

Winning Zone

Drawing on the work by branding guru Graham Robertson, the speaker pointed to the importance of the “winning zone” — where your business delivers beyond your rivals’ capabilities.

“You must expand the winning zone and change the marketplace in your direction,” he said. “Be different, like In-N-Out Burger or Apple, the first tech company to say, ‘You do not have to be a techie to use this.’”

In other words, Duran continued, win by “identifying an area of ground that no one else has and in which competitors can’t catch up to you,” like Amazon.

Financial advisors and planners are “almost all doing the same thing,” he said, and that means they are in “the losing, risky zone.”

Today, big players like Vanguard are giving advice, planning and investments away for free (or nearly free).

“Disruptors are empowering consumers and making geography and time obsolete with their direct-to-consumer offerings,” Duran explained. “Now, you can have a dedicated planner on your phone.”

For Vanguard, that means $100 billion growth in a year.

For advisors that raises the question, “Why are you worth 1%? You have to break through and show value — make clients feel important and be clear why you are worth it.”

First Step to Take

To create a winning client experience is understanding: Clients must feel that you know them and what they really care about, according to Duran.

“Clients don’t want to be charged to hear about things like Sharpe ratios, alpha and the consistency of a financial plan,” he said. “They want you to know what they really care about.”

This means that advisors should probe client with questions like, “What wakes you up at 3 a.m.? And why do you work?”

These types of questions can push advisors beyond helping clients not run out of money to supporting them to “make the most of their money while they are alive, here and now,” said Duran.

That thinking, he adds, is the key advice and reason United Capital’s business is built around financial life management. “Money is fuel — not a destination, not an end state, because people are not walking wallets.”

Duran also discourages advisors from thinking about clients as members of demographic groups and instead suggests using these categories: emergers, builders, securers and protectors.

“Have honest conversations” with clients, he said. And tell them things like, “Let’s make sure you take all your vacation time and … that you spend time with the people you care about.”

Really digging into an understanding of why your clients are working can reveal “what [you] are doing to serve that mission,” Duran explained.

Next Three Steps

Another key strategy to embrace is finding ways to interact with clients on mobile devices.

“You must be on mobile, he said, that way when there’s a bump in the market “you can have two-way communications.”

Embrace tech apps that make you “relevant and notifiable — and easily in touch,” Duran added.

Also, focus your practice and communications on being consistent.

Finally, deliver instant gratification for clients. “Make them feel good right now,” said Duran, which is not happening much in financial services today.

“We are compared with dental cleaning, but we can do things about it!” the speaker said.

Imagine clients in retirement not as individuals sitting on a park bench, but as people having meaningful lives and engaging in interesting activities. “You can do this by talking to them about their lives and what brings them meaning today — not the future.”

What’s your biggest enemy to growth? “Not being good enough,” Duran said. “What you were doing a decade ago does not cut it today, and it won’t be [so] for the future. The market will evolve, so … change before you have to.”

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