Evan Beach, CFP®, AWMA, is the director of wealth advisory at Campbell Wealth Management in Alexandria, Virginia. He’s a Kiplinger and Credit.com columnist who has also been published on Yahoo Finance, CNBC, TheStreet.com, Bloomberg, and U.S. News and World Report. He earned his CFP® designation at age 26, becoming one of only 33 percent of CFP® practitioners in their 20s at that time.
It’s June 2017, and despite my boomer co-workers telling me that I’m “too young to have back issues,” I’ve been struggling with my lower back for over a year. I finally succumb and make an appointment with a local chiropractor. I’m encouraged at the end of the first appointment when he states that he should have me back to running in four to six weeks if I follow his process. “Sue will schedule your next appointment on the way out.” Fast-forward eight weeks and eight appointments: still no improvement.
I decide to go another route and go to a physical therapist who specializes in rehab for athletes. While I’m far from my athletic peak, the clients at the PT office look a lot more like me than the patients at the chiropractor’s office. At the end of my first appointment, the therapist offers another appointment but no firm guidance on how soon I would feel better. Nor did he lay out a plan, such as: “If you do X, you’ll be better by Y.” So, I didn’t. Long story short: I got better, then worse. It wasn’t until I took it upon myself to return to the PT office and about four consecutive weeks of work that my problem was completely resolved.
What’s the point? One product was clearly better for me. The other was “Amazon easy” to buy. The chiropractor provided simple instructions for me to keep paying his bills. Neither product was bad. They were just built for different people.
In our world, there are bad products, and even bad people. And guess what? They are better salespeople than you. I know this because I taught a training program at a major broker-dealer. We taught classes five days per week. Four were about sales. One was about financial planning and products. I am not saying that people coming from these programs are bad people or even that their product is bad. Many of them run the biggest RIAs today. However, I believe that there is a negative correlation between sales skills and product quality. Typically, the people with the worst product or service are the best salespeople. They have no choice. If you’ve ever sat through a timeshare presentation, you know what I’m talking about. In financial planning, the only way to solve this problem is to make marketing and sales training as front-and-center as time value of money calculations. If you believe that consumers are better off with you than without you, even after they pay you, the best possible thing you can do is get your product and service into as many hands as possible. To do this, you need great salespeople at the front end of great companies. If we don’t, consumers will take the “Amazon easy” path to a lesser solution.
In the next 800 words, I’m going to outline a five-step process for embedding sales into the culture of your organization. By doing this, you are improving our profession. By improving our profession, you are improving lives. The opposite is also true.
Step 1: Recruit for Growth
Our firm spent years and lots of money trying to perfectly craft our core values. It wasn’t until we went through the embarrassingly easy Entrepreneurial Operating System (EOS) for defining core values that we put together a list of values that was truly reflective of who we are as a firm. One of those is that we are growth oriented. Every person on our management team embodies a growth mentality. Every quarter, we follow the EOS people-analyzer process to ensure all team members align with our values, and thus our culture. We hire and fire based on these core values.
As owners, we become frustrated if any of our people don’t care about the growth of the company as much as we do. It’s naive to think they would. However, if you adopt a values-based hiring system, you’ll filter out the people who view growth as more work instead of more opportunity. Unfortunately, prioritizing values over skills means that it takes longer to hire and longer to train as you’re often closing the skill gap. More bad news: You must provide a path to acquiring equity or else those growth-oriented folks will grow something on their own.
Step 2: Rotational Training
If you’re reading this article, you’re probably aware that the RIA space is hyper-competitive. Some of the biggest RIAs have model rotational training programs. New hires rotate through investments, tax, etc. Much of this training builds on or repeats the education they got in school. What’s missing? Training on how to actually get the clients to show up. Unfortunately, this is also missing from the CFP® exam curriculum. We need to lean into this gap. Otherwise, anyone on a partner path will flounder when they get to the point where they’re expected to develop business.
In my informal, yet wide, search, I have found one large independent RIA that is front-and-center about its focus on sales: Pure Financial Advisors. They also are crystal clear about their fiduciary focus. The takeaway here is that not only can you be a fiduciary and a good salesperson, but that the best client outcomes are created by fiduciary platforms that have great salespeople. It wouldn’t matter how well a YETI cooler worked if no one knew it existed.
Step 3: Standardized Processes
It’s July 2019, and business is booming. We have no idea a pandemic is on the horizon. Life is good for everyone except one of my wealth advisers who has seen his close rate fall to about half of the firm average. Same guy, same expertise. So, what happened? I looked at our fact-finder questionnaire from a few meetings and discovered that no notes were taken next to any of the wedge questions, such as: (1) If you ended up needing long-term care, what’s your plan for paying for it? Or (2) Has your adviser reviewed your tax return yet this year? We have these simple questions sprinkled throughout the fact finder, and they weren’t being asked. An easy solution to get the adviser’s numbers back in range.
Think of your process like a cocktail recipe. All the different ingredients come together to deliver a product, and ultimately an experience, that makes patrons return. It shouldn’t matter who the bartender is. If the drinks aren’t popular, it’s a problem that can be solved at the firm level. If your firm isn’t growing, the process needs to change. If only one bartender’s drinks aren’t popular, it’s not a process issue, it’s a personnel issue. In either situation, it’s easy to identify.
Your sales process should be focused on what clients want. Your service process should be focused on what clients need. Morningstar research1 shows us what clients actually value. I have expanded upon that work on the Kitces2 platform. The more standardized and automated the process, the better. Look to your CRM for consistency across the team.
Step 4: Separation of Roles
1-800-COMCAST. The number we all dread dialing. “Press 1 for sales. Press 2 for service.” Odds are, if you press 1, you’re going to have a much better experience. The person on the other end of the line is more likely to work with you to get you across the finish line as a new Comcast employee. The techs behind option 2 are not there to make sure you’re having a great day. They (at least some of them) know how the equipment works and how to get you back online.
We are so young as a profession that this separation of roles exists only in the most mature organizations. The faster you separate, the faster you’ll grow. This can hurt margins short-term as it means paying one person to bring in new clients and having another highly paid individual to service them. However, the growth should raise the firm and enterprise value faster than the added cost. Additionally, good salespeople and good service people have different skills. If you have the right people in the right seats, the client will have a better experience. Adding technology efficiencies and automations in conjunction with this shift will bring your margins back up.
Step 5: Close
Imagine if my PT closed the same way my chiropractor did. I would have been fixed in half the time with half the cost. Ask yourself this: If an uneducated consumer meets with you and the local agent from Northwestern Mutual in the same week, who is going to get the business? Northwestern Mutual has a national ad campaign and a robust sales training program. The other firm sports your last name. You may very well be a better choice for that consumer. If you truly want to be a fiduciary, and do what’s best for the client, you need to be running toward what we’ve been running from: sales.
- Wendel, Steve. 2019, May 17. “Do Advisors Know What Clients Want?” Morningstar. www.morningstar.com/articles/929993/do-advisors-know-what-clients-want.
- See Beach, Evan. 2020, October 19. “What Clients (Actually) Value Most In A Financial Advisor.” Nerd’s Eye View. www.kitces.com/blog/evan-beach-value-financial-advisor-goals-priorities-morningstar-returns-communication.