By the time you read this, Tom Brady will have played in his 10th SuperBowl. No matter your feelings about Tom Brady, that is an unbelievable accomplishment. Former players from the NFL often joke about the NFL meaning “Not For Long,” as the average length of a career in the league is 3.3 years. The majority of NFL players never have the opportunity to play in a single SuperBowl much less a decade’s worth of championship games.
The most interesting thing (to me) about Tom Brady is how polarizing he seems to be as a player. He’s a guy that almost every football fan has an opinion about, and few fans would claim to be indifferent about him. Some fans love to hate him because they see him as a villain and a potential cheater (DeflateGate). Other fans consider him the greatest of all time. At least, that’s my view from the cheap seats.
How is it possible that these two belief systems can co-exist when talking about a player whose career stats are public record?
The best answer I can offer is— It’s complicated.
The financial industry operates in a similar fashion. There are professionals who hold entrenched views about our business and those exploring new frontiers. We have our perceived villains and our celebrated heroes. I suppose that if you work in a world full of smart people and strong opinions, we should expect it to be quite the soap opera at times.
Unfortunately, that’s not what any of our clients want when it comes to growing and protecting wealth. I suspect that most people come to visit with a financial advisor because they are hoping to remove unwanted drama from their financial lives. Whether it’s retirement planning, starting a new business, or developing an investment strategy; clients are seeking advisors that have the required expertise and intend to work in the client’s best interest. Financial advisors agree on this point almost unanimously.
The discord begins when we begin to discuss HOW to work in a client’s best interest. From a client’s perspective, this may sound somewhat bizarre. Shouldn’t experts KNOW how to best serve clients?
I’d like to say YES, but the best answer I can offer is—It’s complicated. (I mean, our industry can’t seem to agree on whether we should be called investment advisors, financial advisors or financial planners.)
I’d like to explore this perplexing situation by beginning with a distinction that I believe needs to be made– There is a big difference between the financial industry and the financial advice profession. This idea has lurked in the shadows of my mind for a very long time, and I’d never felt it crystallize until I began reading Richard Wagner’s Financial Planning 3.0. In his book, Wagner wrote :
“Industry is increasingly aggressive in its attempts to position itself in an advisory capacity. More and more often, it portrays itself as the financial planner–not as the maker and purveyor of financial product. No longer is Industry content to be a trustworthy and reliable manufacturer/seller but it also claims advisory turf as well… We must protest the Industry’s attempts to encroach on our profession’s turf. Creating confusion between an authentic profession and private product manufacturers baffles, confuses and misleads the public.”
I’ve experienced this confusion firsthand almost every time I watch a major sporting event. Inevitably, I’m going to be bombarded with commercials by well-known financial industry brands that purport to be advertising their love for financial goals and financial planning. The commercials look almost perfect…like a brochure coming to life.
Meanwhile, some of these same companies can have internal business processes that incentivize product sales and create conflicted investment advice. I’ve heard stories about an advisor’s ability to have health insurance could depend on hitting a sales quota. Sadly, I fear that these sales-driven practices result in clients owning financial products instead of having a real financial plan.
As a brief experiment, I recently asked a group of colleagues online about their least favorite financial products. The results that came in were not surprising:
- Non-Traded REITs
- Cash Value Life Insurance
- Ultra High Expense Index Funds
- C-share Mutual Funds
If these products constantly get such a bad rap, why do we continue to see them being sold to consumers?
Some may suggest that our industry’s regulations are insufficient. Others believe that we have the law of supply and demand. The demand side of this equation believes that if there is sufficient demand by consumers, the marketplace will go to work on creating the supply. This could be one explanation for why these products remain in the marketplace.
I have a different theory…
It’s been documented that our industry’s marketing expenditures outpace financial education spending by a huge margin—25 to 1. This data alone should have been enough to make clients and consumers aware that the financial industry’s machine was built to deliver and distribute products, not advice. After all, you can commoditize and scale financial products. Advice, on the other hand, is a different ballgame.
What perplexes me is watching the brand messaging of many institutions that continues to work toward positioning the brand as a trusted name. In some cases, the advertising almost appears to compete directly with advisors themselves, suggesting the loyalty should be with the brand, not the advisor. This advertising is coming from an industry that consumers are already prone to distrust.
Consider just a few examples of when institutions have been exposed to be less than altruistic for their customers:
For some people (and advisors), seeing headlines like this feels like coming to the realization that Frankenstein was actually the name of the doctor, not the creature. It doesn’t sound right at first, but it is.
So, where does that leave us?
This is where the professionals in our industry begin to divide themselves into multiple tribes. Some professionals think that it’s impossible to be impartial if you are compensated for anything other than advice. Some advisors believe that a real fiduciary knows and understands different types of planning techniques and financial products, and they want to keep all potential options on the table. Still, there are other professionals that believe you can use some products but not others. It’s a royal mess.
The good news is that I believe the financial advice profession is going through an inescapable season of change. Financial advisors are realizing that the absolute best way to serve clients is to develop a financial planning process that puts the client front and center. For these advisors, there is no predetermined course that ends up with a product sale. Clients gets to be the experts on their lives, and the advisor guides them through a process that allows a full financial diagnosis to take place.
Process > Financial Products
A newer development that is also taking root in our industry is the idea that clients will no longer be constrained by geography. I’m just a financial advisor in Fort Mill, SC; but our firm serves clients in multiple states. I expect this trend to continue in the years ahead due to the accelerated adoption of technology that has taken place during the coronavirus pandemic.
With virtual meetings, webinars, podcasts, youtube, and search engine optimization; clients will no longer be stuck with searching for a “financial advisor near me.” Instead, clients will be able to broaden their search to look for financial advisors that are the best fit for them. I still believe that general retirement planning and retirement income planning will still be a primary focus for clients in the years ahead.
Clients who have very specific concerns, like the special needs community, will be able to search the web and find a financial planner that has that specialty. I believe this is a win for clients and for the financial advice industry. Advisors should embrace this change by developing and growing our professional networks so that we can better direct clients to professionals best suited to serve them.
When I think about this road ahead, I believe that the independent firms that continue to thrive will lean heavily on technology. Many financial advisors today feel nervous about the rapid advancements of FinTech. In the spirit of full disclosure, I am sometimes unsettled by the rapid disruption. However, I believe our profession needs to embrace technology as a force multiplier, not view it as a replacement. Advisors that can effectively leverage technology will be able to focus their time and energy on the deeper, more connective work that truly drives value for clients.
The clients of tomorrow will likely be digital natives, but they will still have a need for someone who can help them navigate the human side of finance (Hint: this is the hardest part of dealing with money—the fact that we are all unique humans). Each of us will continue to have subconscious money scripts, limiting beliefs, and bad behaviors when it comes to money.
In some cases, the rapid advancement of technology may even exacerbate some of these human issues. For instance, it’s likely that sports betting becomes legal in all 50 states in the near future, while trading apps like Robinhood are renewing the idea that stock trading is akin to gambling. We have to realize that our emotions and quirks that make us unique individuals may also work against us when it comes to financial success.
This is where the financial professional of the future will be able to stand in the gap. A good financial planner will be able to seamlessly weave between the roles of technical expert, financial literacy coach, and money mentor. In my opinion, there’s no other way to provide comprehensive financial planning.
Clients should expect advisors to have a planning framework that is consistent, in-depth, and flexible. Make no mistake, the financial industry will defend its turf against this new breed of financial planners. I fully expect those billions of marketing dollars to pivot into online search domination and content creation. Huge entities will offer “financial planning” as a loss leader to entice clients to keep their assets from moving away.
For some clients, a low touch, low expectation relationship will be sufficient. However, I think financial advisors that have an authentic voice, a comprehensive planning process, and a passion for serving clients will be able to shine in the years ahead. If this pandemic has taught me anything, it’s that relationships with people have tremendous value.
People > Everything
I’ve always felt that clients want to be understood and valued as people. Money touches just about everything in our lives. Financial planning clients should want to work with someone who knows the stories behind the numbers.
How else can an advisor possibly provide authentic and meaningful financial advice?
If you remember, I began this writing with a discussion about Tom Brady. I’m guessing that you already know that Brady and the Bucs won SuperBowl LV. This gives Tom Brady a 7th championship ring, and it arguably makes him the greatest team sport athlete of all time.
His professional accolades aside, the real reason I thought about Brady when writing this was the exchange he had with a teammate in the late part of the 2020-2021 season…
One of Tom’s teammates was upset because he believed that he was snubbed for a spot in the Pro Bowl– a wonderful honor and accomplishment. Brady quickly reminded him that they were chasing something much different, much bigger than a Pro Bowl.
Think about the difference in mindset it takes to put aside accolades like the Pro Bowl and focus on the SuperBowl. Individual athletes can shine for a season or they can have a terrible year—just like financial products. Players can be loved and also hated–just like financial products.
Like the individual players on a team, financial products may have a role to play. To be successful in the long-run, like Brady, you have to think bigger than just the individual parts. We must begin with the preparation, discipline and process. The long-term plan must become the main thing.
There are many, many financial advisors that believe in the impact of financial planning. They believe that clients are unique individuals and deserve to be treated as co-equal collaborators in the planning process. My favorite part–these planners believe in helping each other as much as they believe in helping their clients. The financial advice profession is a helping profession, and we believe in the process of planning. We believe in helping people over everything else.