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Make Clients Understand What Your Credentials Mean

By Murray Coleman May 7, 2014

According to new research, clients these days want their advisors to go beyond the minimum requirements for earning credentials and certifications.

At IMCA’s annual conference in Boston yesterday, the organization released results of a recent survey in which 62% of 1,200 investors currently working with an advisor say it’s important or critical for such professionals to maintain voluntary certifications. Perhaps more significant, 65% of survey respondents said they value advisors who earn certifications from “objective,” nonprofit organizations — rather than, say, an industry association or a particular advisory firm. That makes sense, said Sean Walters, IMCA’s chief executive, in an interview with FA-IQ, since “one wouldn’t expect the board certification earned by a pediatrician, for example, to be issued by the hospital that employs him.”

Of course, IMCA is an independent nonprofit that’s in the certification business. Still, Walters says, the study suggests that investors want their advisors to get more professional training.

Yet clients often can’t tell the difference between one designation and another. As Walters puts it: “They know it’s important to hold their advisors to a higher standard, but they still don’t know enough about the alphabet soup of letters that follows an advisor’s name.”

That’s why advisors should let clients know not only what they’ve studied but also how the work has made them better advisors, says Michael Byrnes, a practice-management consultant based in Kingston, Mass., who attended the conference. Advisors shouldn’t be “shy about telling clients things they’ve learned from a course they took or a workshop they’ve gone to,” Byrnes says. And they shouldn’t stop at hanging diplomas on their office wall. “Clients realize that it’s a good thing if an advisor has more rather than less [training],” Byrnes says. “But you need to show them how that can work to their benefit.”

Ultimately, advisors pass along important information by explaining to clients something about their professional education, says Michael Underhill, chief investment officer at Capital Innovations in Pewaukee, Wis., which has nearly $1 billion in assets. “Individuals as well as institutional clients like to see investment professionals always striving for a higher level of expertise,” he says. “Gaining more varied credentials can go a long way in helping to show people that you take the responsibility of working on their behalf seriously.”

Underhill says he sometimes hears advisors complain that going through more certification programs can take a lot of time and cost a lot of money. But he likes to warn skeptics of the need to stay on top of their game. At some point, a client is bound to throw out an unusual question or two.

“After all,” Underhill asks rhetorically, “what’s the price of ignorance?”