Less Is More: Clearing out the Business Clutter

Journal of Financial Planning: January 2016


In any business, it is very common—and easy—to accumulate clutter. Why do we hold on to so many things that we do not really need? Is it necessary to keep all client paperwork and subsequent overstuffed files?

Over several years coaching financial advisers, I have found that most find themselves with more than just physical clutter such as client notes, research reports, and old newsletters. In fact, I believe there are four types of clutter. Once you understand what those are you will realize that it’s time for you to clear out all of the clutter that is weighing and slowing you down.

Physical Clutter

Physical clutter is probably the easiest to detect because it is physically present. Take a minute to look around your office and ask yourself, “If this were someone else’s office, would I think it’s messy?” If you answer, “Yes” you are overwhelmed with too much physical clutter. Most financial advisers have some degree of physical clutter, but if it has taken over more than half of your work area, then it has grown out of control.

Both the financial services and insurance industries produce a lot of paperwork. Some paperwork, such as new account forms and policy contracts, are essential to have on hand. However, some paperwork is surely just taking up space. If you have a stack of journals or newspapers piling up in the corner of your office, or if you have notes that cannot be attributed to a particular client file (and any other miscellaneous clutter), then it is time to schedule a clean-up.

Emotional Clutter

Emotional clutter is much more difficult to manage because there is no visual component (until the physical clutter begins to crowd your work space). It can be a task to consistently figure out where something should go, and that is why many advisers find themselves taking the path of least resistance and just forming piles with the intention of filing items later. However, without scheduling a weekly filing hour, those piles continue to grow and become overwhelming, further pushing the task to another day, week, or month.

But emotional clutter isn’t just about putting off finding a place for physical items. It can also be emotional baggage associated with negative attitudes and belief systems. For example, Mike S., a veteran adviser who after 24 years in the business said to me during a coaching session, “I have not prospected in over 12 years. I know what it felt like while I was building my business and I’m not going through the feeling of being rejected again.” His fear of rejection translated into being on a production plateau for nearly half his career.

Product Clutter

Product clutter is the most socially accepted form of clutter. Some advisers even consider it a badge of honor to have hundreds of stock positions, numerous mutual fund families, annuities, and money managers to follow.

Product clutter occurs for several reasons. In fact, some individuals may not know that they are even experiencing it. Take for instance a client of mine, Don K., who after 11 years of being an adviser decided to run a report that showed every product position he managed for his clients. He was shocked to learn that he had more than 1,400 positions.

Product clutter can be tied to emotional clutter; the adviser believes if he or she reduces the positions they manage, they reduce the value they bring to their clients.

Have you ever considered that having many products creates unnecessary pressure on you? Clients aren’t working with you because of what type of product inventory you have; they are working with you because they trust you and your expertise and recommendations.

Client Clutter

Client clutter is when you feel emotionally drained by specific clients—the types of clients who have a negative emotional impact on the adviser. The reason we have client clutter is because we value the client’s business as being perceived at a higher value than we do ourselves and our own boundaries.

Rob J., an adviser with 15 years of experience, described to me his anxiety associated with an upcoming client review. “He’s one of my biggest clients and I don’t even want to meet with him. He has been rude and argumentative with me in the past.”

Sometimes, having difficult clients is part of the client mix, but learning to navigate and find meaningful ways to cope with these types of clients can reduce the anxiety when meeting with them. Like with any relationship, if a client is disrespectful and you address that nicely but firmly with them and the behavior continues, you owe it to yourself to fire that client without regrets.

Hopefully, with some of the examples shared here, you realize that it’s time to declutter your business in one or more ways. If you are committed to making your business much more harmonious, start by defining exactly what areas for your business would benefit most from some organizing. Then, determine your detailed goals. Next, schedule a time to manage the clean-up by putting it on your calendar just like any appointment. You are more likely to do it if it is part of your planned activity.

Streamlining your business isn’t necessarily about having more of any one thing. In fact, sometimes less is more.

Daniel C. Finley is president of Advisor Solutions, author of 101 Advisor Solutions: A Financial Advisor’s Guide to Strategies that Educate, Motivate, and Inspire, and a regular contributor to the FPA and Journal of Financial Planning Practice Management Blog.

General Financial Planning Principles
Practice Management