I've had the pleasure of working as an adviser for over two decades and while I don't feel that different, other than the undeniable evidence every time I look in the mirror, there is no doubt that what people really want from our industry — and the advisers who serve them — has really changed over that time.
As is often true, buyers progress more quickly than the market that serves them. I think that is the case for many advisory firms. While many clients have been looking for something different from their financial adviser, and forward-leaning advisers are evolving to meet their needs, many firms are staying with what has worked in the past. Many successful advisers are choosing to stay the same, not adjusting their services or the positioning of their firms to reflect the change in the marketplace and clients' expectations. Truth is, we unwittingly deliver the service we think our clients want.
Sometimes it's important to step back and ask the question, “Do my clients value the things I think they value?” A good way to think about this question is in the context of a “client bill of rights.” What are the things your clients can count on from your business? Does your client bill of rights align with what your most important clients really want now? I've had the good fortune of running two different advisory practices in our industry and the service they offered had to adapt with the times. As I think back to my prior business at the turn of the century, one that was predominantly an investment firm, the client bill of rights that reflected what we were trying to accomplish would have read something like this:
Client bill of rights, circa 2000:
1. I want my adviser to be an exceptional money manager and outperform the market.
2. I want my adviser to charge less than anyone else.
3. I want my adviser to be available whenever I need him.
4. I expect really detailed performance reporting.
5. I want to understand my underlying investments and why I own them.
6. I want my adviser to be an expert and know the answers about investing and finances.
7. I want my adviser to be honest and be on my side.
Since it was an investment firm, this list was quite reflective of what I believed people wanted at that time from an investment firm. Because we believed this was what clients wanted from us, that was exactly what we focused on. So our first company grew to national stature addressing these areas of concern.
Looking back, I realize that this perspective attracted a very specific type of client. While the message might have been compelling, the type of client we attracted was one that was happy to fire us when we lagged the market or someone else said they could do better or charge less. More importantly, we simply couldn't live up to some of those expectations every day. We couldn't beat the market all the time, we couldn't charge less than others and still provide the service clients wanted. The business thrived anyway and culminated in a sale to GE Financial, but looking back, we would have been far more successful had we amended that bill of rights along the way.
INVESTMENT MANAGER VS. WEALTH MANAGER
Today I work at one of the country's largest and fastest-growing wealth management firms (thanks entirely to my partners and teammates who do the real work), and it seems everyone in our industry has made the shift to wealth management.
So what is the fundamental difference between an investment firm and a wealth management firm? A wealth manager focuses on a person's entire financial life, not just their investments. Given that, shouldn't our perspective on client expectations change too? This amended client bill of rights more accurately reflects what I believe most people truly want from their wealth adviser today:
Client bill of rights, circa 2014:
1. I expect my adviser to really understand me and help me live my best financial life.
2. I expect my adviser to help me make smart financial choices and avoid mistakes.
3. I want my adviser to tell me the truth and be completely on my side.
4. I want my adviser to have good judgment and be able to find answers to my challenges.
5. I want my adviser to bring me understanding and help me feel in control.
6. I expect my adviser to help simplify my life.
7. I want my adviser to be worth what I pay him.
Now here's the good news: We can deliver on this bill of rights with more certainty than the old one. More importantly, the clients who respond to this are the ones we can work with for a lifetime and who value what we do beyond performance and what we charge relative to others.
The challenge is that living up to this standard means framing the entire client relationship in a new way. It also means developing new tools and systems because they often don't exist in our investment-centric financial world. It is also the opening for a massive opportunity because so few firms have made this shift already.
There is no greater reward in what we do than fundamentally improving the course of a person's life. So what does your client bill of rights really look like? Do your clients value it? Most importantly, is your business delivering on it?
Joe Duran is chief executive of United Capital and author of “The Money Code: Improve Your Entire Financial Life Right Now.” Follow him @DuranMoney.