As Time Goes By

It's a typical day at the office Fifty e-mail messages await your reply. Four nervous clients are on hold. Three unfinished financial plans sit on your desk. Another two urgent calls come in. And you still have to prepare for your certified financial planner study group tonight. These days, it's a mad, mad, mad, mad world for brokers. Jittery clients need constant attention, trades must be executed

It's a typical day at the office

Fifty e-mail messages await your reply. Four nervous clients are on hold. Three unfinished financial plans sit on your desk. Another two urgent calls come in. And you still have to prepare for your certified financial planner study group tonight.

These days, it's a mad, mad, mad, mad world for brokers. Jittery clients need constant attention, trades must be executed immediately and finding new clients is harder than ever. All this, while fitting in the classes, study time and tests needed to stay competitive. And, let's be honest: Organization probably isn't your strongest suit.

“I find that, as a group, brokers are poor at setting priorities,” says Terri Levine, a coach in North Wales, Pa., who works with many reps. “They tend to jump at whatever comes across their screen.”

Still, Levine, and other coaches like her, insists that time management for brokers doesn't have to be an oxymoron. “We make choices every day,” says Sharon Seal of Coaching Concepts in Baltimore. “And time is a resource you can manage, instead of letting it steamroll over you.”

Many brokers have already figured out how not to get flattened. They offer some advice:

Delegate

This is a must. There are tasks, like drawing up client financial plans, that only you should do. Much of the rest, from filling out forms to confirming trades, should be done by someone else. “If I'm buried in paperwork, I'm not helping my clients much,” says Eric Brotman, vice president of Berman Financial Group in Timonium, Md., who has a staff of four. “That doesn't make rain.” Of course, you can't expect to afford a phalanx of assistants overnight. David Bendix, president of Bendix Financial Group in Garden City, N.Y., has gradually added support staff over his 12 years in business. He now has five assistants, permitting him to spend all his time on client planning and contacts. Thomas Sanczyk, wealth manager for Northwestern Mutual Investment Services in Fairfield, N.J., has taken that further. He recently hired a part-time staffer to file documents for his two other assistants. (Total compensation for all three: $100,000.)

At a big wirehouse, where it's common to find five brokers to one assistant, you might have a harder time. The formula for the broker-to-assistant ratio is usually determined by production. The answer may be to grow your own: Hire an intern yourself. Brotman hired college interns for 20 hours a week, paying them out of his own pocket. With their help, you can boost production enough so that the firm eventually will agree to foot the bill for a full-time staffer.

If you don't have control over salary of support staff, then focus on professional development. “Make them more like a partner in the business,” says Seal, especially in big firms where “assistants aren't as invested in what brokers are doing.” That means meeting regularly so they understand your goals, and increasing their responsibilities as time goes on.

Work in blocks

You answer an e-mail, take a call, read a prospectus, take another call. You don't have to work that way. The experts advise, instead, that you organize your day into blocks. David Nelson, president of Life Enhancement Systems, a St. Petersburg, Fla., consulting company, calls it “Focus 50.” Meaning: You work for 50 minutes at a time on something — answering e-mail, writing a client plan — take a 10-minute break, then move to the next block. Otherwise, “You're constantly using different parts of your brain, doing things that require different skills, and that's exhausting,” he says. If you keep the blocks to 50 minutes, then no calls go unreturned for more than an hour or so.

Make a to-do list

Yes, of course, you know this. But when? Try every Friday. “You lay the foundation for the next week. You know what's urgent, what to tackle first,” says Brotman. Include time estimates for each task. So if you, say, have five minutes before a conference call, you can look at your list and complete one of your five-minute activities. You can also get your assistant in on the act. Consider Lance Alston, a financial planner with Carter Financial in Dallas. Every Friday, his assistant e-mails the next week's schedule for his team. “It helps everybody organize their priorities,” he says.

Establish goals

It may sound hokey, but when you have the big picture in mind, everything else makes a lot more sense. “If you're moving at such a high speed, you need to have goals and priorities crystal clear,” says Julie Morgenstern, author of Organizing from the Inside Out. “You need to ensure you're making the right choice at every moment.” She suggests organizing your work into major categories, such as client planning or generating new business. Then determine your major goals for each area — increase your client base by 20 percent, say — and the specific activities needed to achieve those ends. Ultimately, if an activity doesn't further one of your goals, you have a choice: Toss it or delegate it. “If you decided you'll conduct four seminars to get new clients, and someone calls about a fifth, you know to back away,” says Morgenstern.

Let go of clients

Chances are, you have a bunch of clients who take up a lot of time, without adding to profits. But with a limited number of hours in the day, you can't afford to keep them on. “There's only a certain number of people you can help efficiently,” says Bendix. “And you have to concentrate on clients who generate the most revenue.” Several years ago, he determined the maximum number of clients he could serve and established a $500,000 account minimum; those who didn't make the grade were transferred to a junior associate.

Biorhythms

Tailor your work to your energy level. Alston, for example, knows he's least peppy after lunch. So, that's when he takes care of certain client phone calls. In the morning and evening, when he has more energy, he does challenging work, like charting client financial plans.

Take courses when it's slow

To qualify for some professional designations, you have to do a whole lot of work. Whenever possible, schedule your classes for less busy periods of the year, like August or the yearend holiday season. Or do as much of it as you can via e-mail.

Streamline client communication

Phone calls won't go away. But you can cut down on the number of interruptions by creating standardized communications, like newsletters and e-mail updates. “You want ways to contact clients all at once, rather than a piecemeal basis,” says Alston. Anticipating a surge in calls, what with so many clients jittery over the market, he recently sent out a newsletter update. Result: He expects to reduce client calls by about 10 percent.

Another approach is to turn your Web site into something really useful. Three years ago, Bendix designed a Web site giving clients access to account information and important forms. Now, they get the material from the site, instead of calling his office — dramatically cutting down the number of information requests.

Schedule downtime

If you don't, you'll never get to the gym, or whatever it is that keeps you going, and your productivity is likely to suffer. Manuele Wasserman, a broker with Morgan Stanley in Baltimore, is a case in point. She treats exercise as she would any other appointment, scheduling it in her calendar, along with all her other meetings and phone calls.

Use your commute

Alston spends the 40-minute drive listening to tapes providing updates on such topics as financial planning, taxes and marketing. Or you can follow Wasserman's lead. She moved firms — and offices — to shorten her commute to two miles. Now, she often leaves for home at 4:30 p.m. to take a dinner break, only to return later when the office is quiet. Says Wasserman, “It gives me a control over my time I didn't have before.”

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