The Push Toward Professionalism

Elite advisors are very serious about their profession and are always looking to improve.

A convergence of events has provided me with another one of those blinding glimpses of the obvious, prompting the professional advisor as the theme of this month’s column. First, I was immersed in the findings from our 2012 affluent research project, and what kept surfacing was the degree to which financial advisors were still not able to meet the expectations of their affluent clients. This has been an ongoing trend exacerbated by the financial crisis; things appear to be improving, markets are going in the right direction, but headlines continue reminding affluent investors that all is not well.

The second event that got everyone’s attention was a very unflattering op-ed piece written by Greg Smith, the London-based former employee of Goldman Sachs, in The New York Times claiming that the pursuit of profits trumped the firm’s fiduciary role of serving the client. Whether or not this was simply the rant of a disgruntled ex-employee or a relatively accurate account of how business is being transacted, it served to heighten affluent investor awareness regarding the professionalism and trustworthiness of their financial advisors.

All of this came to a head during a break at a full-day workshop I was conducting in Chicago. The advisors in attendance were a major firm’s top producers. One advisor pulled me aside. “How many of these advisors would you guess really consider themselves to be a true professional?” he whispered in my ear. “I know these people, and I’d tell you I’m being generous if 25 percent really consider themselves a true professional.”

Full disclaimer, I knew the advisor since he and his partner had been long-standing coaching clients of my firm. Both are extremely professional, they operate their team like a business, and it’s no coincidence that they excel at acquiring and developing loyal affluent clients. That said, what prompted this whispered comment was a “value proposition” role play I had just taken everyone through. One might assume this role play is too basic for top advisors, but despite all the training and workshops, many found themselves still challenged. Our conversation ended with his parting comment—“I’m not worried about myself or our team, but the retail brokerage industry is in trouble. The model is broken, and today’s affluent aren’t going to tolerate advisors pretending to be professional.”

So, in the spirit of complete honesty and self-awareness, use the following questions either as validation that you’re on track, or a blueprint from which you can work up to higher professionalism. It’s been my experience that elite advisors, like the advisor whispering in my ear, are very serious about their profession and are always looking to improve.

  • Do you have a clear profile of the ideal client you want to serve and a minimum standard for accepting a new client into your practice?
  • Do you have a well-defined wealth management process from which every client is served?
  • Do you have a consistent client experience for onboarding new ideal/minimum clients, for servicing existing ideal/minimum clients, and for strengthening client loyalty?
  • Do you involve both spouses in your client experience and wealth management process?
  • Does your office present a warm professional first impression?
  • Do you have a clearly defined service model designed to deliver personalized Ritz-Carlton-quality service to your ideal clients, and a modified version for servicing your remaining clients?
  • Do you have a process for “wowing” your ideal clients?

Professionalism takes work. However, it’s been my experience over the years that every advisor is capable of high-level professionalism. The secret: “want” power. A financial advisor must want to perform at the highest level of professionalism. I’ve yet to encounter a financial advisor, much less a top producer, who was incapable of high-level professionalism if they determined it to be a priority.

The advisor whispering in my ear was being a bit harsh. Nevertheless, it would behoove advisors serious about serving today’s affluent to get into the habit of continually improving their professionalism. You can use the aforementioned questions to get you started—and don’t let yourself get overwhelmed. Work to improve no more than three areas at a time, and over time, you’ll find your professionalism at a much higher level.

The future is now for the true professional advisor.

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