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Developing Top-tier Plan Consultants

Plan consultants are the critical link in the advisor-plan relationship so it makes sense to focus on hiring, training and retaining the right staff for that role. Several successful consulting firms shared insights on how they do it.

Clarify job duties

In addition to consulting with plan committees, consultants at smaller firms are often also responsible for business development. Larger firms are able to carve out the plan consultant role separate from business development, and that can give them a competitive advantage. Denver-based Innovest Portfolio Solutions LLC has a staff of 40, says Wendy Dominguez, the firm’s co-founder and president. Twelve employees are full-time plan consultants, and the primary point of contact for the plan committees. Some consultants are involved with business development, but their primary responsibility is the client.

Mark Wetzel, president of Fiduciary Investment Advisors LLC (FIA) in Windsor, Conn., says that with a staff of 60 employees serving over 350 institutional clients, the firm is large enough to completely separate the marketing and consulting roles. Some of the firm’s 18 consultants are generalists while others specialize in either defined benefit or defined contribution plans. Consultants’ main role is to “service their accounts and to keep their accounts very happy,” he says.

Hire the right people

Firms must decide between hiring experienced or inexperienced advisors. Wetzel estimates that about one-third to one-half of the firm’s hires have little or no experience in consulting. Others may bring two to three years of experience or business school.

Dominguez notes that there is an advantage to hiring inexperienced staff. “Assuming that somebody recognizes that it’s not a real quick career path to a consultant, we would actually prefer that they come up through our research ranks,” she says. “We think it helps them understand our way and our approach to serving our clients.”

Offer a career path

Both firms have clearly defined career tracks. At Innovest, new hires typically start as research assistants. They review investment research, fees and share classes. As they move up the ranks in the research department, they might accompany consultants to plan sponsor meetings to present the research.

The next stages are consultant roles serving on a team. “We always work on our clients with teams,” Dominguez says. “So, a client will have two or sometimes three consultants that interface with them and sometimes if we have three, the third might be a junior consultant who gets their bearings through more on-the-job experience. Then, they would move into a consultant role.”

It can take seven to 10 years to complete that path, Dominguez notes. The firm is looking to create other career trajectories in the firm to keep employees motivated, but the consultant’s role requires a high level of experience and that takes time to develop, she says. “Ultimately the client interface is so important,” she says. “It’s what we do and how we get paid and, so, we have to have really high-quality, experienced people doing that. It’s just kind of the balancing act we have as an employer.”

FIA also provides a defined career development track. New employees spend their first several months in an orientation program. During that time, they are required to meet with every other employee to understand that person’s role in the organization. Training includes a program called “The Life Cycle of an FIA Client,” which describes how FIA develops and retains clients. “The FIA culture is very unique, very client-centric, very professional, very detail-oriented and, so, we spend three to six months teaching people how we do what we do,” says Wetzel. “If they don’t have technical knowledge, we have to teach them the technical knowledge and then even if they have it, we have to teach them about the way we do things and what makes us different.”

Provide professional development

Both firms also require consultants to keep current on changes in the industry. Innovest’s consultants frequently attend professional conferences and the firm’s retirement plan practice group also provides internal education. Similarly, FIA offers both internal and external education opportunities and Wetzel notes that multiple employees are working on the CFA and CFP designations.

These firms’ emphasis on developing the plan consultant role in a professional and deliberate structure has paid off. Dominguez cites a 97 percent client retention rate; Wetzel reports that his firm’s rate is 99 percent with a similar result for employee retention. 

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