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Big Firms Out to Fix Trainee-Failure Rates

By Chris Latham August 29, 2014

Depending whom you ask, anywhere from 70% to 90% of new advisor trainees leave the business by their fourth year — mainly because they hate “selling.”

Pershing estimates only 10% of trainees stay into their fourth year. Cerulli Associates points to a success rate between 20% and 30%. In consequence, much is made of major brokerages’ hope that funneling rookies into experienced teams, and gradually introducing them to the culture of revenue production, is a safer approach than tossing them into a sink-or-swim model based on cold-calling.

Yet firms hiring millennials are also grappling with this demographic’s preference for work that benefits others over doing whatever it takes to sell financial products. That’s a disconnect companies are racing to address, since too few trainees are rising up to replace droves of retiring boomer advisors.

Dubious production benchmarks are in part to blame for the high failure rate, according to Craig Pfeiffer of New York-based Advisors Ahead. He held several management roles at Morgan Stanley and its predecessor firms before founding his consultancy, which mentors and places entry-level advisors at firms. “My instinct tells me many of the firms are still hiring people against performance metrics they can’t be expected to hit — when they don’t know how to get there, because they haven’t had a chance to learn,” he says.

The major obstacles new advisors must surmount arise from the increasing complexity of the industry, says Racquel Oden, who heads Merrill Lynch’s advisor strategy and development program. Financial markets, client needs and government regulations have evolved in ways that make it harder for trainees today than those who came in a decade ago, according to Oden.

While she says 35% of the firm’s total of 3,000 trainees stay on long-term, the goal is to hit 50% in the next few years. That’s one reason Merrill recently launched its Team Financial Advisor option. This puts trainees in established practices that are looking for junior-level assistance in areas like client acquisition, planning solutions and relationship management.

“We anchor that training around goals-based wealth management,” Oden says, “It’s really shifting the conversation from performance to life goals and life priorities for our clients.”

Racquel Oden

Where most entry-level trainees at Merrill come from second careers and are, on average, age 40, recruits at Raymond James often are in their twenties with some sales experience. Having to address a wider generation gap has prompted the big regional brokerage to reconsider how it interacts with these millennials, according to executives Dave Patchen and Matt Ransom. Half the firm’s 100 or more inbound trainees stay on after three years. About 20% of the trainees are from the firm’s independent-contractor division, and most of those trainees are the adult children of advisors.

More Stress

Young trainees want to educate and help clients in the course of providing fee-based services. They don’t want to peddle products on commission, Patchen says. But success on that track requires cultivating a strong client base — which has an unavoidable sales component, not least in the alchemy of turning prospects into clients. That’s why Raymond James has begun pairing millennials with mentors with whom they can share ideas and learn how to handle prospects.

Reverse mentoring is another promising tactic, says Ben Harrison, head of business development at Pershing’s RIA-support unit. This lets the custodian’s boomer and Gen X employees learn firsthand how millennial colleagues view career growth and incentives. For example, newbies are apt to view flexible work hours as crucial perks, he says — a concept quite foreign to boomer-age managers.

Like Merrill’s Oden, Patchen says the process of training advisors has become harder. “The sales cycle is a lot longer, so the ramp-up time for new advisors is longer,” he says. “That makes it more expensive, which means it requires more patience and can be more stressful for recruits, branch managers and firms.”