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A Boomer Couple Goes Virtual Window Shopping for Advisors

Key elements of a good investment advisor website.

A good website that tells a story can be a big plus for investment advisors in terms of attracting new clients. Let’s consider the baby boomer couple that we met in “A Boomer Couple Prepares to Interview Investment Advisors.” They’re meeting with their estate-planning attorney and tax advisor, who’ve asked the couple to debrief them on their experience interviewing, assessing and selecting an investment advisor. We join the conversation at the point when the couple is talking about the role that an advisor’s website played in determining whether to contact that advisor for an initial meeting. Later in this meeting, they’ll talk about what impressed them, or not, in the meetings with the prospective advisors.

The Search

The tax advisor asked the couple, “I know that we gave you some names of some investment advisors, but you expanded that list based on your own research. How did you go about that?” The couple replied, “We got a couple of names from friends. But, basically, we went online, looking for advisory firms in our area.”

“So,” asks the attorney, “As you searched, what made you decide to look at a given advisor’s site and, once there, what told you to either stay at the site and explore it or just go on to the next one?”

The couple explains, “For starters, we limited our search by geography, meaning how close the advisor is to our home. We agreed on an acceptable time and distance from home and went on from there. By the way, that’s how we started our search for a tax advisor, in addition to a couple of referrals, of course. Also, you know that all your referrals were to independent firms, as were the recommendations from our friends. We stayed in that lane in our search. But we’re already planning to add more lanes. Aside from that, it was just a matter of opening sites and doing a quick gut check about whether to delve further.”

The Websites

“You asked what we looked for once we opened an advisor’s site. To make a long story short, we asked ourselves if the advisor ‘spoke’ to us from the website. To the extent that you could call what we did ‘virtual window shopping.” Each window had two panes: the description or ‘story’ pane and the current developments and insights pane. We‘ll explain.

Standing in front of the story pane, these are just some of the things that we hoped to hear the advisor speak to us about:

  • Who they are, their credentials and their experience. They all did that, albeit with varying detail. What’s interesting is that when we went back for a second look, now with a more practiced eye, we began to see gaps between their credentials and experience on one hand and, on the other hand, the clientele they say they serve and the services they say they provide to them. In certain cases, things just didn’t add up.
  • Their clientele. This was important because we wanted to know that we would be playing to the advisor’s strengths and getting our fair share of attention and service. Some advisors were specific enough about their clientele for us to know whether we’d be a fit. They told us in clear terms that they were best suited for this or that type of individual. Others were all over the place, especially the advisors who tried to describe their clientele by way of examples, scenarios or even testimonials rather than with clearly delineated parameters.
  • What they do and who does it. Obviously, they’ll all manage our investments. But some will do more, much more. The websites we liked, and explored further, clearly delineate their services for each type of client. So, we were able to see what that advisor could do for people like us. What’s more, we could see who provides those services. Others, by comparison, describe their ‘additional” services in terms so general as to be meaningless. And you can’t see who does what.
  • How they do it. We decided that a new form of thrift plan would be to put a dollar in a jar every time we saw the word ‘personalized’ in a website. Do they think that we’ll pay their fee to get ‘generalized’ advice? Anyway, as our list of interview questions suggest, we were looking for a linear, intuitive process by which they took our facts, circumstances, aspirations and constraints and turned all that into a recommended investment approach.
  • Their pricing. We realized early on that we were gravitating to the advisors who structured their fees in a way that allowed us to pick and choose the services that are of interest to us. Said another way, we were uncomfortable with an approach that built in services such as financial or estate planning that we don’t want and certainly don’t want to pay for.
  • The strength, soundness and continuity of their firm. This is huge! Some advisors’ websites assume that an intelligent ‘shopper’ would look for evidence of their firms’ strength, soundness and continuity. Accordingly, they speak directly to those concerns and make it easy to navigate to third-party sites to check them out. They basically tell you why you’ll be with a strong firm today … and tomorrow. Other advisors, meaning the ones we stopped considering, seem to give those points short shrift, beyond any obligatory links or whatever. We assume that the absence of that kind of gravitas wasn’t just an oversight. It was because there isn’t much to say.”

Current Developments and Insights

The attorney and tax advisor then ask, “You mentioned current developments and insights. What were you looking at, what did it tell you and how did it figure into your thinking?”

Blogs and commentary. “Well, we’re really talking here about things like blogs, commentaries, webinars, podcasts and so forth. First and foremost, we looked to see how current they keep the site and how substantive and well written any notes or commentary are.”

Webinars. “The most interesting, and often most telling, stuff were the webinars and podcasts. Some were very effective. Others not. The effective presentations were well structured and what we called ‘client-centric’ or ‘investor-centric.’ It’s as though the firm knew or were professionally advised how to present the topic to an intelligent, well-informed audience of clients and prospects tuning in to learn something or to get assurance for how their money was being handled during a difficult period or whatever. They were tuning in for a reason. When the presentation was about a particular development, they were laser focused on what we needed to know, how it affected us and what they, as a firm, are doing in response. If the topic was just a general update on the markets and positioning, they told us what they were doing and why. The point is that the presentations were all about us, the audience. The presentations that weren’t worthwhile were ‘organization-centric’ or more accurately, egocentric. The emphasis was more on the presenters than the audience. We joked that, after watching or listening to some of these presentations, we didn’t know much more about the purported topic, but we sure knew how smart and self-important the presenters were. But, seriously, these programs said a lot about the firms.”

Estate Planning

“You know that estate planning isn’t something we’re particularly concerned about or interested in. We’re much more concerned about living long lives and low yields than we are about estate taxes. But still, we tuned in to learn more about the firms and their people. As we listened, we realized that the most effective presenters spoke to us as individuals first, spouses second, parents/grandparents third and taxpayers fourth. When it came to discussion of planning techniques, the effective presenters told us how they would be involved in structuring those transactions and why they added value. Least effective were the presenters who spoke to us in exactly the reverse order and never got around to describing their role in the transactions. Their presentations reinforced our preference for working with advisors who don’t automatically price that kind of planning into their fee structure but have it available when and if. If they asked us, which they didn’t and probably won’t, the estate planners should collaborate with the investment people to make presentations along the lines of the one we read about in ‘Planning Today for Possible Dependency Tomorrow.’

Keeping Track

“Again, there’s more, but you asked us about initial impressions, and that’s what we looked for. The challenge then became one of organizing our research and staying on track. We created a matrix so that we could track our work, keep everything in one place and have room at the end for our notes. We put the name of the firm at the top of a column and then had row upon row of facts and criteria, most of which tied to our interview questions. When we were done, we got on the phone with a select few. We know that’s probably TMI, but we had a good time with it. Next time we get together, we’ll tell you about our impressions from the meetings and how we think that input can be useful with your clients who are about to embark on the same tour we took.”

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