Conference in a Column: FPA gathering reveals confusion, anxiety over social media

Mar 11, 2011 @ 3:45 pm

By Davis D. Janowski

Advisers came from as far away as Australia to attend the Financial Planning Association Business Solutions conference, held in Cambridge, MA last Thursday through Saturday (March 3 through March 5).

More than 300 advisers attended, a record for the conference; and there were 19 exhibitors and sponsors along with several dozen of their staff.

The first day of the conference was a technology expo co-hosted by Investment News and the FPA.

As one might expect its sessions focused on many of the technology conundrums advisers are grappling with.

In fact the opening keynote was presented by Gerd Leonhard, an entertaining and highly energetic European futurist who told advisers that they absolutely must get engaged in social networking or face being left in the dust.

Immediately following the keynote was a session presented by a noted attorney and expert on compliance issues who warned advisers of the danger inherent in social media and urged advisers to take a slower more measured stance on social media adoption.

Advisers that attended both experienced some uncertainty.

“There is a need to harmonize the growing use of social media and compliance with the SEC's requirements. At this point I'm not entirely sure what those requirements are,” adviser Craig Larsen wrote me in an e-mail. He is with AHC Advisors Inc. and among 10 adviser-attendees I contacted for their post-conference thoughts.

Several of them reported that they saw social media usage growing rapidly, that they wanted to use it more but that at the same time they remained perplexed as how to best to proceed and stay compliant.

Perhaps the SEC will provide additional guidance sooner rather than later following the agency's recent sweeps.

Even so, many advisers were happy to see social media being as openly discussed as it was.

“We transitioned to the independent world in 2009 after four years with a wirehouse. So you can imagine how revolutionary it was for us when we made the jump,” wrote Nicholas Roy of the two-man Somnio Financial Group LLC.

“For us as younger advisers (29 and 30) it was great to speak with older colleagues from different business models. I was impressed at the amount of advisers currently using social media for personal and/or business use,” he added.

Plenty of tech talk

In addition to discussions of social media there were sessions on account aggregation, behavioral profiling technology, client collaboration, client portals, integration, mobile applications, and web-based marketing tools.

For some advisers major technology initiatives took center stage.

“While, like many advisers, I watch the development of social media and new tools such as iPads, the increased emphasis on the integration of software packages was the exciting news for me,” wrote John LeBlanc in an e-mail. He is a principal and wealth manager with Modera Wealth Management LLC — as well as the firm's chief operations officer.

“It was great to see multiple custodians on the same panel discussing software integration,” he added, referring to the Custodial Integration Panel, which had technologists from Fidelity, Pershing, Schwab, and TD Ameritrade.

Modera, in its current form was the result of a merger and Mr. LeBlanc pointed out that he now found himself in the midst integrating the combined firm's infrastructure and was therefore considering not only hardware and software issues but looking at cloud-computing solutions.

“Having recently passed the $1 billion in assets under management mark and with two locations and 28 people the challenges will be real yet very exciting…While there were surely solo practices present it was nice to be able to chat with many other larger, multiple-office advisers at the conference to see what they consider to be their challenges and opportunities,” he wrote.

The conference has continued to represent a good cross-section of firms over the years. I continue to enjoy how at one moment between sessions I can be having a conversation with a pure planner who manages no assets to speaking the next moment with someone from a firm like Modera.

Benjamin Hiers of Northeast Planning Associates Inc. wrote to me that he had been able to gather information on several areas his firm is working on.

“I was particularly interested in the sessions on account aggregation and client advisory boards, these are two topics that we are currently investigating at our firm, and I feel I was exposed to a range of resources and best practices in each,” he wrote.

Practice management

Day two of the conference took a deep dive into issue of practice management.

Addressing adviser needs in this area is really, I've been told by many, the genesis of the conference.

I sat in on and listened to parts of several of the day's sessions.

One of them, Julie Littlechild, founder of Advisor Impact, presented “The Economics of Loyalty: Anatomy of the Referral,” really got at the heart of the matter.

I later heard from more than one adviser that they had heard this or a similar presentation at other venues.

One of those was Modera's Mr. LeBlanc.

“It drove home the fact that with increased competition we need to regularly work to get referrals from our clients and others,” he said.

Much of the research Advisor Impact has done focuses on taking a hard look at your most successful client relationships and figuring out why they are: What problems do you solve? What goals did you help achieve? What types of clients have you helped? How have/did you work with these clients to solve those problems or meet specific goals?

You as the adviser can then take that information and in turn apply it to the merely “contented” client and make them into a truly “engaged” client, thus “turbo charging” the relationship.

I sat in on several other practice management-related sessions that day including that of Stephen Wershing, and his "Client Driven Practice," which centered on creating a formal process for getting referrals. As more than one of the sessions pointed out, referrals are the primary means by which most advisers grow their business, but, as Mr. Wershing found by querying the audience of around 40 advisers almost no one has such a system in place.

Suggestions

“As you know, this business is fragmented and, at times, can be very lonely for the solo practitioner,” wrote Lyman Jackson of the independent registered investment advisory firm Jackson Financial Advisors. He specializes in financial planning and investment advisory services for individuals, families and small business owners.

“Bottom line: I advise you and the boards that plan these events to always be mindful of the three major categories of planners: Starting Out, Solo Virtuoso, and Ensemble. Some of the presentations seemed to be geared towards the $1 billion practice and above,” he suggested.

Those firm types or categories, he pointed out, actually originated with a presentation he had attended at the 2006 Business Solutions conference.

It was my third year assisting in the planning of the event by serving on a volunteer task force. I have to admit, it is a lot of work and a real commitment of time for the dozen or so folks that serve.

Even with the professional FPA staffers managing and coordinating the many hours of planning calls we never know quite what we have until the conference has concluded each year.

So in my soliciting of advisers I inquired about not only the good but the bad and ugly as well.

“For me the conference was too tech heavy. I have many of my tech resources in place and I was looking for other practice management sessions,” wrote AHC's Craig Larsen, “There were a few, but since they were offered in groups instead of tracked I missed many of them. So I was a little disappointed this year.”

It is impossible to make everyone happy but these are all points well taken.

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