Pivotal Players

Sales assistants are finally getting some respect. They're taking on specialist roles in broker teams and reinventing themselves as practice managers. Firms are trying to adapt to the new professionalism.Almost everybody recognizes that brokers are engaged in a struggle to move from transaction-oriented sales reps to consultative financial advisers. But what's going on with the sales assistants who

Sales assistants are finally getting some respect. They're taking on specialist roles in broker teams and reinventing themselves as practice managers. Firms are trying to adapt to the new professionalism.

Almost everybody recognizes that brokers are engaged in a struggle to move from transaction-oriented sales reps to consultative financial advisers. But what's going on with the sales assistants who work alongside them? How has their role in the brokerage business evolved?

Witness this shift.

1983: John Cunningham gets his first sales assistant. "The job was to answer phones and do clerical work, but she wanted to grow," remembers Cunningham, a PaineWebber broker in Louisville, Ky.

He decides to encourage her growth. "I shared with her my vision for the business, what my day, week and month looked like, and my production expectations," Cunningham says. "I began to get a mind-set that a sales assistant could be more than clerical."

Cunningham's first sales assistant eventually becomes a successful broker on her own.

1992-2000: Cunningham grooms college intern Tracy King for his sales assistant. He insists she get her Series 7 two weeks after graduation. He begins daily morning meetings to give her "homework" - articles he's clipped on the markets, products, technology and sales skills.

She accompanies Cunningham through programs with several outside sales consultants and joins him for off-site client meetings. He sets their revenue-sharing agreement by asking her what she wants to earn, and tells her he'll see that it happens.

"Now my assistant does everything I do except get new clients and take responsibility for problems," Cunningham says. "She runs the business."

He hires an outside consultant who'll work solely with her to design the infrastructure of his business. He also brings on two assistants for her and redefines her job as client relationship manager.

August 2000: Cunningham, who came over to PaineWebber with the J.C. Bradford merger, observes that his relationship with King is not unique. He sees others have the same attitude. "At PaineWebber, there's more of a focus on building teams and developing sales assistants to be client service representatives," he says.

New Perceptions, New Positions The greatest change in the role of sales assistants over the past 10 years is simply that firms now respect them, says Matt Oechsli, president of The Oechsli Institute in Greensboro, N.C.

"Technology has rendered the clerical role useless," says Scotty King, director of training, recruiting and diversity at Salomon Smith Barney in New York. "If you don't need to type, file and copy, you're freed to add value to the broker."

Firms recognize the potential contributions of sales assistants in the consultative industry environment. "The move to service-oriented business requires a ramping-up of quality in both the individuals we hire as sales assistants and their training," King says. "We're starting to see sales assistants wanting to know how to grow and asking for a career track."

The career track for a sales assistant used to be straightforward: You become a junior broker and take over the senior broker's small accounts.

But brokers are moving away from that, Oechsli says. "If a sales assistant is that talented at the job, how can you replace that person? How much value are you really adding to have the person work the bottom of your book?"

The sales assistant role is evolving in two directions. Brokers either want a sales assistant to be a crack specialist or a "super" sales assistant who can do the broker's job, says Richard Franco, president of Cross Staffing, a New York recruiting firm focused on sales assistants. "There's no middle ground anymore."

Cultivating Specialists Firms are promoting specialization as the new career track. "The role of a sales assistant is growing to become a technology expert and client `concierge,'" says Kirk Hulett, head of human resources and practice management for Securities America in Omaha, Neb.

Salomon Smith Barney views its brokers like small-business owners - its average broker manages $70 million, King says. The firm helps reps identify roles their sales assistants should fill. An assistant might be directed to plan client appreciation events, oversee a team's technology or provide operational expertise, King says.

"On discretionary portfolio management teams, we have sales assistants who specialize in coordinating research for portfolio recommendations," King says. "Very large teams have a sales assistant who specializes in managing support team members."

Some sales assistant specialist jobs - such as registered marketing associate or technology associate - require very sophisticated skills and often are well paying, King says.

Nowadays it's not unusual to have one assistant in a team earning a $25,000 salary sitting next to a more senior assistant being paid $100,000, Franco says.

Katy Tasset joined Dain Rauscher in Denver out of college as an entry-level sales assistant. She followed a typical career path, working for two brokers, then one, and earning her Series 7.

Tasset's interest in the markets grew and her broker began to let her narrow her focus. Tasset got a Series 65 and an insurance license. Then, her broker hired her an administrative assistant.

Four years after joining the firm, Tasset now has the title senior investment associate and is focused entirely on fixed-income sales. She's a partner.

"Every step along the way the firm showed me the steps I could take to advance my career," Tasset says. "The important thing was for me to tell them I was ready."

Promoting Generalists Specialization may be a good career path for sales assistants, but some feel it doesn't help brokers where they need it most. "Every broker needs a cross-functional practice manager," Oechsli says.

Competition from discounters has increased brokers' need to prove their value with service, Franco points out. He says many brokers are spending more time away from their office meeting with clients. Thus, they need a sales assistant who can handle everything back at the branch, someone who's truly their right arm, Franco says.

Oechsli considers the role of paralegal in the legal profession as a model for sales assistants going forward. "A `parabroker' should be fully licensed, college educated and very computer literate," Oechsli says. "This person should have high-level organizational skills, high-level working knowledge of the financial industry, earn a CFP designation and have a partnership share with the broker."

Taking an Interest Regardless of whether they are seeking a specialist or a generalist, it's crucial that brokers be closely involved in hiring their sales assistants, Franco says. "The worst thing is when the human resources director tells me they want to interview five people for a sales assistant position and choose one without knowing who the broker is."

If a broker does the interview, he often tries to impress the potential sales assistant instead of being as blunt as possible about the job environment, Franco says.

Instead, Franco advises brokers probe the potential sales assistant's needs. Many of them are women with young children or other family obligations, so brokers need to know beforehand if someone can't stay late or work after hours.

During the interview process, potential sales assistants should explain what they want out of the job, Franco adds. One thing assistants say they like most about the job these days is having the opportunity to shape their responsibilities.

Being proactive is central to establishing a career as a sales assistant. "How you position yourself is the key to success," says Echo Petersen, a seven-year sales assistant with Securities America in Mitchell, S.D. "You have to find what the broker needs done.

"When I came in, I started projects to improve the flow of the office. Then, I'd tell him how it would benefit him," she continues. "You do this a couple of times, and the broker begins to trust you." Petersen has become a registered principal, now managing branch compliance for her broker's practice.

Indeed, getting a broker to go along with changes and adapt to a sales assistant's new role is sometimes the assistant's main challenge. This year at Securities America's annual career development program, Sales Assistant University, the program taught sales assistants techniques to "lead up" - manage their brokers to implement ideas. "We hear from sales assistants that they have good ideas, but their brokers won't change," Hulett says.

The financial services field is at a crossroads with sales assistants, Oechsli says. Maintaining the "sales assistant" title shows Wall Street is still struggling with having a sales culture. "If the industry is really becoming consultative," he says, "then the role of a support person will dramatically change."

Few firms have done much to carve a career track for sales assistants. Sales assistants are left to their own devices in defining their career tracks. No certification or designation sets job standards. No professional association helps define the sales assistant role or acts as their advocate. And unless they're registered, they don't fall under any special regulatory guidelines. Plus, most firms have always left sales assistant hiring, training and job descriptions to individual brokers and their managers.

"I don't think any firms have done a good job of communicating to sales assistants the next level to which they can go," says Scotty King, Salomon Smith Barney director of training, recruiting and diversity in New York.

Merrill Lynch is one of the few firms with formal career path training in place. New sales assistants are titled "client associates." After one year on the job, they're eligible to train for registered client associate. After three years, they can choose to train for senior client associate or planning associate. These top titles are only awarded after five years as a client associate.

Early next year, SSB is rolling out its first centralized training program. It will be a "substantial" educational opportunity for sales assistants and other support staff, King says.

Even though Securities America isn't involved in hiring, it plans to debut a sales assistant certification program early next year, says Kirk Hulett, the firm's head of human resources and practice management in Omaha, Neb. Brokers will be able to put their new hires through online training with tests.

Firms are beginning to invest in sales assistant programs, says Matt Oechsli, president of The Oechsli Institute in Greensboro, N.C. However, much of what's out there now doesn't provide a process that sales assistants can implement with their brokers.

"Brokers need to know there's a universal training process for their sales assistants that's done in the branch," Oechsli says. "Brokers should be involved, but should no longer be responsible for training, since it's not their strength."

Transforming the sales assistant job into a profession will require both better training and an increase in entry-level salaries, Oechsli says. But there's not much move to raise base pay beyond $25,000 at wirehouses, says Richard Franco, president of Cross Staffing, a New York recruiting firm specializing in sales assistants.

To attract better talent, Oechsli recommends brokers negotiate with their firm to include the bonus the broker is willing to pay in the upfront salary offer.

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