Being a Professional Means Being There for Our Clients

Journal of Financial Planning: August 2012

Ross Levin, CFP®, is the founding principal of Accredited Investors Inc. in Edina, Minnesota. His book Implementing the Wealth Management Index, published by Bloomberg Press, is now available. (

Our clients had a 20-year age difference. The husband was still working past age 90, but they were already discussing how she wanted to move out East to be closer to her daughter and grandchildren. She came in shortly after he had a stroke to discuss putting an elevator in their house. He was going to be in a rehabilitation facility for at least a month, and she wanted to have the place ready before he moved back.


Why was she going to spend money on an elevator in a house in which she no longer wanted to live, in an irrevocably changed emotional environment? Instead we talked about options in the face of the upheaval that just occurred. We talked about whether it may be more convenient to take the $30,000 that the elevator would cost and apply that to renting an apartment in an area that they loved so that she could get the house ready for sale. We discussed moving out East now, so that she may have more family around to care for him if he needed it. We talked about how hard it is to make a change and that sometimes getting the hard stuff over with at once may be the best way of handling things. And we shared some laughs about things that he had done and said over the years and some tears regarding how even when the expected happens, it still feels so unsettling.

The Right Frame

I was thinking about this conversation as I was reading Practical Wisdom by Barry Schwartz and Kenneth Sharpe. The discussion that we had was a framing discussion. We could have talked about the best way to finance an elevator and see whether we could get any kind of reimbursement from anyone for it. That conversation would have been totally appropriate for some clients, but probably not this one. Instead, the conversation shifted to various possibilities around not necessarily moving on but moving differently.

“Our task when we make decisions is not to avoid being influenced by frames, but to choose the right frames, frames that help us establish what is relevant,”1 write Schwartz and Sharpe. These frames that we help establish can only occur in conversation. When I started in the business in 1982, financial planners or wealth managers were not the trusted adviser for most clients. Attorneys and accountants were counselors who provided objective and, at times, integrated advice. Many of us in our industry were providing products that fit the frame which we were given—tax shelters for the client who wished to pay less in taxes, life insurance for those who wanted to make sure their family was protected, and stocks or mutual funds for those willing to bet on an economic expansion that did not yet exist. We generally were the plumbers who were there to fix the problem.

But the intervening years have shifted things. Now, financial planners or wealth managers are working differently with our clients. Whether we are paid by fees or commissions, we have stepped in to fill the void in other professions caused by increasing pressures for billable hours and the advent of Turbo Tax. Not only do we have a seat at the professional table but it is often in our own conference rooms. This is in part because we have built our profession and in part because other professions opened their doors to many who took their eye off the trusted adviser ball. And so our seat may not lead to a permanent place setting. The advantage of our increasing professionalism may sow the seeds of our ruination. There will be more people entering our field, claiming to do what we do, and just like lawyers and accountants, some will be terrific and others will simply dilute our brand.

What’s Your Telos?

As Aristotle said, “A wise person knows how to do the right thing, in the right way, with this person, in this situation.”2 This is what we need to desperately hold on to. This is our telos, or purpose. There are several ways in which we can hold firmly to our position.

We need to be wise and smart. For example, we understood client risk tolerance until we didn’t. Clients who expressed their comfort with risk did not have the slightest clue what it was until 2008 hit. We will get in trouble if we become too reliant on protocol and not perspective. When clients were freaking out in March 2009, we didn’t just point them to their investment policy statement and say, “You said that you could accept losses of this magnitude.” Some we had to cajole, some we had to reason with, some we had to modify slightly their stock to bond ratios (which we were able to do by substituting high yield for stocks without great risk to upside). But once clients showed us who they were, we could work with them for what they showed us, not what they told us.

At the CFA conference, GMO’s James Montier talked about how finance suffers from physics envy, but mentioned the key differences between finance and physics: physicists don’t bet that the feather falls faster than the brick, and in a physics model, the atom does not game the system. His point is that often we introduce complexity as a way to justify our existence or our fees.

We’d better know our stuff, but we’d also better know our clients.

We need to be with our clients. As a parent, I would like to debunk the concept of quality time over quantity time. The best conversations we had with our daughters came from long car rides or time spent together. We can certainly offload client contact through computerization, but we are also offloading our connection. My most fragile client relationships are those in which my clients are simply too busy to schedule our regular meetings. For some of them, I am still a professional, but I suspect I am a plumber, not an adviser. They are fine until something needs fixing, and by then I may have lost some of their trust.

We need to be in this together. We need to continue to share with, challenge, and support each other as professionals. We need to stay curious and learn from others who are doing things differently than we do them. We need to attend conferences, read newsletters and journals, and contact those who have written something that has impacted us or with which we disagree. We need to come from a place of abundance where we want clients to be served in the right way for them. This may mean turning away good prospects that we are not equipped to handle.

We need to not trade on our professionalism. Being a professional is not a currency, it is a responsibility. It has taken a long time for this business to become a real career of which we can be proud. Obtaining the CFP® certification and belonging to FPA should be minimum expectations for being in this space.

We worked hard for that seat at the table; let’s make sure that we take the steps to stay there.

We will be opening our offices for a full day October 29 to share with up to 20 individuals all aspects of our firm. Please either email me or check out the Foundation for Financial Planning’s website ( for details.


  1. Schwartz, Barry, and Kenneth Sharpe. 2010. Practical Wisdom. New York: Riverhead Books. 64.
  2. Ibid., 85.
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