Journal of Financial Planning: February 2021
Charesse Spiller is the founder of Level Best, which empowers financial planners and entrepreneurs by teaching them how to level up their operations.
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Every financial planning firm should perform process audits at least every other year, if not annually. If you keep your scheduled audits consistent, the process will eventually become second nature, making it even easier to maintain.
Some years will simply be a check-in to confirm that a well-run ship is continuing to hum along according to plan. Other years, firms can leverage their standardized, scheduled process audit when they need to pivot. This need to pivot might come from a desire to scale more quickly, streamline before hiring, or free up a solo adviser’s time.
A process audit can also help a firm to evaluate technology as options evolve, consolidate, and reduce overhead.1 Setting time aside to audit your firm’s processes allows you to look under the hood of your business and identify opportunities for change, improvement, and growth.
How to Create a Process-Audit System
Many financial planning firms avoid auditing their processes as a one-off project, much less commit to performing audits with any regularity. Luckily, auditing your firm’s processes doesn’t have to be the headache you’re imagining! By streamlining your audit with six simple steps, you can create a repeatable system that allows you to check in with your business processes easily and often.
Step 1: Establish a Committee
You can’t begin this process without knowing who is responsible for which action items. Before you kick off your audit, take the time internally to determine:
- Which processes you’re specifically looking at.
- Which members of your team want to participate.
- What each of those team members is responsible for.
- Whether or not your firm is interested in allocating more resources to a process audit. For example, this might mean bringing in a third-party consultant or allowing team members to commit a full week or more to performing the audit.
Once a committee and a scope of work are established, you can confidently move forward without worrying about whether anything will be missed.
Step 2: Document Existing Processes
If your firm already documents all processes, that’s great! All you need to do is gather your documentation and move to Step 3. However, the truth is that most firms don’t clearly document their processes and need to spend some time doing so ahead of a first-time process audit.
To document your processes, gather all of the information and resources you currently have to support every process in your business (or at least the process you plan to audit). Processes to consider might be:
- Client onboarding.2
- Financial plan preparation and delivery.
- Meeting preparation and follow up.
- Billing and client touch points.
The information you gather can include:
- Checklists and workflows.
- Organizational charts.
- List of technology your firm is using.
- Supplemental documents such as email templates, deliverables, and standard operating procedures (SOPs).
- ‘Getting started’ list.
Once you have everything together, you can document the processes you plan to audit. Write out each step in your process, including which tools and resources are used, which team members are involved, and any other pertinent information you can think of. Remember, you aren’t evaluating or changing anything during this step. You’re only focusing on understanding which tools you already use in your organization.
While this step may seem tedious, it’s critical to organize and review what you’ve already built before working to streamline your processes. This ensures you will get a full picture of what’s going on and can help you avoid reinventing the wheel when you finally go through your audit.
Step 3: Evaluate What You Have
Evaluating your processes can be done in many ways, but I find that collaboration is key. This is when it makes sense to have firm members bounce ideas off of one another. You might schedule an all-team meeting to brainstorm different ways of doing things. I find that most firm owners are surprised by how much input their team is ready to offer, and the different factors that they may not have considered because they aren’t heavily involved in the day-to-day processes.
Together with your team, you can review:
- Key processes.
- High-level workflows.
Together, you can all reflect on what’s working, what’s not, and why. You can also take this time to solicit feedback from members of your team to understand how they view the company, and what they’d like to see change. Some questions you might explore as a team could be:
- Are our systems dated?
- Are we targeting a different client base that doesn’t fit within our current process?
- Are the right team players being used for the tasks they’ll perform the best?
- Does everyone feel that their skill sets are being used to their fullest potential?
Your goal when evaluating is to gather as many ideas as possible to elevate your business and improve your work. To hone the ideas you’re gathering and determine which are worth exploring, remember to review your business initiatives and mission statement with your team. This helps ensure everyone is working toward the same goals.
Step 4: Perform Your Audit
Once you and your team have all your ideas on the table, you can start to perform your audit. To kick off the audit, start by determining which pitfalls in your current operation need to be addressed. These likely came out when interviewing your team and asking for feedback. For example, do they feel meeting preparation and follow-up could be automated to increase efficiency? Is your onboarding process too clunky for clients? Identify the key holes you need to fill in your current processes, then turn to the solutions you gathered in your all-team meeting.
Select the ideas or solutions that best meet your needs and increase efficiency in your firm. An ideal solution will consolidate technology, reduce man-hours worked, and elevate your client experience.
Once solutions have been identified and revised versions of your processes have been written, you can determine how these decisions will impact your firm’s day-to-day operations. Break down all the process changes you’re making as an organization and discuss how it will impact your company as a whole. Let’s look at a few examples:
- Your firm decided to add a new service offering to target an up-and-coming niche group (subscription or one-time plan). This will require a separate client onboarding process, as clients will be billed directly rather than have their fees pulled from their investment accounts.
- Your firm is bringing on another partner with the goal of increasing revenue by 30 percent in the coming year. This will require your sales process to be tailored to your growth goals. It will also require you and your team to look to increase revenue from your current client base—either through additional assets managed or by generating referrals. To accomplish these things, your team should be trained on your new sales and follow-up processes and keep closer track of sales opportunities in your customer relationship management system.
Step 5: Implement
If you’ve gone through steps 1 through 4 thoroughly, implementation should be a breeze. All the information and resources you gathered that are part of your processes can be updated or adjusted and immediately used in your firm. It’s helpful to go through your getting started guide and ensure all documents or steps you had outlined are recreated with your updated process in mind.
Remember, all processes that have been updated need to be newly documented and made available to all team members, so they can easily adapt to the changes you’re making. If you’re delegating parts of your new process, it can be helpful to have an approval process in place to help iron out any kinks you run into as the new processes are implemented.
Step 6: Monitor and Adjust
It’s easy to assume that because you’re planning to schedule a process audit every year at the same time, there’s no need for ongoing monitoring or adjustments. You can just tackle it all next year, right?
As much as I wish this were the case, the truth is that processes often need more tweaking in the moment. Some changes can’t wait a year or two until your next audit. So, what do you do during the monitor and adjust phase?
One way to continually monitor your processes is to put a point person in charge of updating all SOPs in place, or a process manager.3 This is important because when a process is newly updated, some collateral-like templates or workflows may become outdated. This person can update all these elements and track whether they’re being implemented accurately. If you and your team find that some of your “new-and-improved” processes aren’t actually moving the needle in a positive or impactful way, it may be time to pivot and adjust.
Create a best practice for all employees to follow when they see a process that needs updating. For example, if a team member feels a process needs to be updated, they can reach out to the process manager. From there, the process manager can decide if the change needs to be immediate, or if it can wait until your next annual audit. Typically, this responsibility is delegated to the director of operations.
Commit the Time Necessary to Complete the Project
Process audits can feel overwhelming and time consuming, but they can have an immeasurable impact on your business. The top mistake I see firms make is not committing the necessary time to complete the audit. They cruise through steps 1 through 4 because they want to get straight to implementation and change. Unfortunately, when this happens, implementation can go awry, and not all the changes selected are a perfect fit.
It’s critical to take your time when auditing your processes to make sure you pick the right solution, and implement it correctly, so your time isn’t wasted. The last thing you want is to realize that your new, shiny processes are a mess because you didn’t update templates (or other parts of your operation) to reflect the process changes you and your team were so excited about.
- See “Building a Minimalist Tech Stack,” a blog post by the author, at www.getlevelbest.com/blog/building-a-minimalist-tech-stack.
- See “Simplify Your Onboarding Process in 60 Minutes,” a blog post by the author, at www.getlevelbest.com/blog/simplify-onboarding-in-60-minutes.
- See “Best Places to Store Processes or SOPs,” a blog post by the author, at www.getlevelbest.com/blog/best-places-to-store-processes-or-sops.