Thirsty for growth and eager to expand their customer base, companies of all shapes and sizes, across nearly every industry, will sometimes fall into the trap of trying to be all things to all people. We have seen this in our space over the years, with broker/dealers sometimes making big promises or rolling out shiny new platforms in an attempt to boost their headcount.
Typically, this approach backfires, often yielding products and services that are intended to meet the needs of every advisor but usually end up pleasing very few of them, and in the end, no one wins. Not the firm. Not the advisor. And certainly not the clients.
The most successful businesses understand their strengths and have a strong, customer-focused culture. In other words, they not only have a good appreciation of who they are but also what kind of customers they want to (and can) serve. Financial services businesses are no different.
In our industry, when firms and advisors come together as described above, it’s often discussed in terms of a “fit.” And while the notion of this fit is no doubt important, firms obviously can’t rely too heavily on this dynamic to attract recruits and retain existing advisor relationships. They need to add value in more concrete ways.
An example of this is being able to offer customized support to advisors—especially those with very specialized business models—at each stage in their career, from the industry newcomers just starting out to the established veteran who has been in business for years to those looking to transition out.
Consider making concessions to industry newcomers by offering to discount their affiliation fees during the first year. That makes it easier for them to weather early growing pains and to build their book of business. Firms should also provide ongoing practice management support to rookies in areas that tend to confound even experienced advisors, like marketing, demonstrating “fee worthiness” to clients and coming up with a clear value proposition.
It should be clear by now to everyone in financial services: We need fresh blood, and it doesn’t matter where it comes from, whether it’s freshly minted college graduates who matriculate through financial planning programs or qualified professionals in other fields looking to change careers. The mass retirements stemming from the graying of the advisor class have taken a toll, and years of stiffening regulations and shrinking margins have complicated efforts to replenish the ranks with top talent. Firms therefore have to be willing to invest both time and money in junior advisors as they learn to grow and manage their businesses—not just to lift their own fortunes, but to strengthen the entire industry.
Established independent advisors, on the other hand, have their own style and approach, and typically don’t need—or want—as much ongoing support. In these instances, the best way to further enable their growth is to contain costs and promote operational efficiencies. This will translate into higher payouts, which will allow advisors to re-invest into their practices.
Over the years, some firms have spent lavishly on new platforms and services thinking it will improve their standing in the marketplace and add value for existing advisors, but what most independent advisors really prize is their freedom. That’s as true for the sole proprietors working on Main Street as it is for large, multi-advisor enterprises with a full complement of assistants. (Otherwise, they could work in the wirehouse space, which many of them probably came from in the first place.) This means they are likely willing to sacrifice having access to the newest bells and whistles if it translates into having the flexibility to fully pursue their entrepreneurial instincts.
Each advisor will have a different view of what his/her exit will look like. For some, it will mean selling their books and retiring almost immediately. Others, though, may want to transition more slowly, holding on to a few cherished relationships while giving a successor time to take over their business.
Whatever the case, advisors should be able to lean on their firms for succession planning support, including advice about finding the right partner (ideally one that’s in-network to minimize client disruptions), valuation and financing options. A burgeoning universe of advisor M&A and transition consultants purport to offer these same services, but what many sellers are finding is that these professionals may have motivations that don’t match their own.
When advisors select a firm, culture and fit are no doubt important factors. For some, in fact, these are the most important factors. Still, firms need to recognize that serving advisors well encompasses more than merely having a shared set of beliefs, values and attitudes. In recognition of the fact that every business is unique, firms can add value by not only being nimble enough to meet a wide variety of needs, but by being able to do so at crucial times as advisors encounter different milestones in their career.
Wade Wilkinson is the president and CEO of Securities Services Network.