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Why a Top Advisor Asks Clients About Celebrity Encounters

By Joan Warner April 23, 2015

Many financial advisors want to be more than just portfolio managers to their clients. The best pride themselves on creating plans that foster well-being in the personal and even spiritual spheres as well as the material. It may sound squishy, but as a panel of top practitioners at FPA Retreat 2015 near Atlanta, Ga., explained yesterday, it’s all about process — carefully thought-out and documented procedures that their firms follow to the letter.

For example, at Silver Oak Wealth Advisors in Los Angeles, discovery meetings start before anyone shows up, with a phone call preparing clients for the long session, principal Eric Bruck told the audience. When clients arrive at the office, advisors break the ice by asking about traffic — never inappropriate in L.A. — and offer water, tea or coffee. Then they ask questions designed to shed light on clients’ values and personal goals in addition to their attitudes toward money (“What are you proud of?” is one) and take copious notes on the answers. Clients are “going to want to ask questions, but we postpone that,” Bruck said. “This meeting is all about them. We promise they’ll hear it all later in the second meeting, which is the proposal meeting.”

Onboarding is also scrupulously orchestrated at the Boston-based practice of Kirsten Ismail, a UBS advisor. Her team asks more than 60 questions, developed by consultancy CEG Worldwide, to uncover information in seven categories. Some sound weird but often hit rich veins, Ismail told conference attendees (“Do you know any famous people?” and “What’s your ideal weekend?” were examples). She is a big fan of mind maps, for which her team uses Mindjet software, and of circles — advisors and clients sit in upholstered chairs around a round tray for holding cups or documents, not a conference table — to keep clients feeling they’re in a peer relationship, not an adversarial one.

To keep that relationship from turning into a market-obsessed dialogue, Yeske Buie of Vienna, Va., and San Francisco has developed policies for how clients should handle their money that it incorporates into financial plans. For instance, “We will use credit cards for convenience only” is a cornerstone of the debt policy; “I will save 10% of every paycheck” is part of the cash flow policy; and safe-spending policies ask clients to commit themselves to drawing down their assets at an agreed rate — even if a bull market is swelling their portfolios. “The point of policies is to give people a sense of control in the face of a changing world,” said Dave Yeske.

His firm even has a “Policy for Contingent Resources” to help clients deal intelligently with a windfall. Many people, Yeske told the audience, aren’t sure whether they’re going to inherit, or whether their company will go public successfully. That money doesn’t belong in their financial plan — but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t have a plan for it. A client who decides in advance that any potential windfall will be used to put a grandchild through college or set up a children’s library at a local hospital is in less danger of frittering it away.