01
OCT
2015

Capitalize on marketing resources

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There’s no one-size-fits all marketing solution. What works for any individual or company depends on the target audience, resources at hand, time and money. As an adjunct professor at Furman University in Greenville, S.C., I find myself short on the time and resources it takes to keep the students who sign up for my class interested as well as attracting the best, most motivated students to my class.

So, in my second go-around of teaching BUS 422, Integrated Marketing Communications, I decided to take advantage of a new technology offered by the university: the Blended Learning Studio. When I attended a seminar about the technology, I wasn’t sure exactly how I wanted to employ it or if I had the time to do so.

I eventually decided to create a syllabus video — not just any syllabus video, but one that would showcase my own expertise, the knowledge and expertise of the guest lecturers I invite to the class and the projects I had planned. Having been a student in the not so distant past, I knew that few students paid attention to or read the syllabus. I reframed the concept, calling the video “Hack My Class” and structuring it around seven success tips to help student do better in the class.

Using quotes from past students, examples of past projects and other visual elements, I created what I hope is an interesting, fun and easy-to-watch video with help from Amy Boyter, the technician in the Blended Learning Studio. It showed me that even a situation in which there are few resources, a little time and creativity can work wonders. Don’t be limited by traditional approaches to marketing and client engagement — try to think out of the box and you may be able to come up with some marketing magic that surprises even you.

03
SEP
2015

Barriers to creating an integrated customer-centric advisory practice

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As the universe of financial advisory clients and potential clients gains access to more alternatives, advisors need to leverage their knowledge of and familiarity with their client base to create a more client-centric practice. In past posts, I’ve discussed the general principal behind client-centricity as well as how advisors can better understand their ideal client type and current client base.

Today, I want to focus on the barriers to creating an integrated client-centric advisory practice. Most advisors I know and that I’ve worked with possess a great deal of information about their clients and prospects.

However, there’s a gap between where that knowledge is and the ability to leverage it so that you, the advisor, can exploit the information you have about your clients to really put together a complete, ongoing picture of your clients, what they care about and what they need today.

That gap exists because many advisors don’t possess that complete picture — their knowledge of their clients and their current activities exists in silos:

  • In their heads with information they learn through client interactions that is never shared in a CRM or with their staff
  • In meeting notes in or outside of a CRM
  • In personal and financial data in the CRM
  • In financial and investing data in financial planning and investment management apps
  • In ongoing personal information across social media accounts

 

When you think about it, that’s an incredibly rich treasure trove of information. You may not have access to all that information — for example, if you aren’t on social media with your clients; but, potentially, you could gain access to it. Even if you do have access to all of it, chances are you aren’t putting all the pieces together.

By unifying that information and gaining a complete picture of the client and the client’s concerns, you gain the ability to:

  • Cement your relationship with that client
  • Fend off the competition (rob-advisor and otherwise)
  • Develop a better overall understanding of your ideal client type, which will enable you to market in a more targeted way to prospects.

 

In a future post, I’ll discuss the ways that you can at least begin to create that complete picture and ensure that it’s communicated to your staff and leveraged to help you better meet client needs and for more targeted marketing to prospects.

20
AUG
2015

Toll of financial crisis: $30 trillion & counting

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It’s no accident that the worst economic depression and financial crisis since the Great Depression were caused by deregulation that dismantled many of the protections put in place after the Great Depression. In a report entitled The Cost of the Crisis: $20 Trillion and counting, Better Markets, a nonprofit designed to support financial regulatory reform, tabulated the cost of the crisis on the economy and the American people on the fifth anniversary of the passage of Dodd-Frank regulatory reform legislation.

While the stock market has recovered the ground lost during the financial crisis, the real economy is still stuck in neutral. Millions of Americans are unemployed or underemployed, and hundreds of thousands have lost homes due to foreclosures. According to the report, the costs to the economy caused by the crisis include:

  • $800 billion stimulus bill passed by Congress
  • $15 billion in completed foreclosures
  • $116 billion decrease in small business lending
  • $2.8 trillion decrease in value of 401(k) plans and IRAs
  • $24 billion decrease in government research and development spending

 

The deregulation of the late 1990s and early 2000s fueled a rise in risk-taking behavior by Wall Street banks and other financial institutions that led to the financial crisis. It’s no accident that Wall Street’s share of total domestic corporate profits rose from less than 10 percent in the last 1940s to just over 40 percent before the financial crisis.

Following the financial crisis, the vast majority of too big to fail banks were either directly or indirectly bailed out by the government, rather than being allowed to go bankrupt. The incredibly costly recovery from the bank-inspired crisis has been borne by the taxpayers.

The lack of accountability surround the crisis is mind-boggling. It behooves us to ensure that the regulations that have been passed since the crisis to re-regulate Wall Street are not watered down, ignored or unenforced. Otherwise, it’s almost certain that another, similar crisis will occur in the future.

29
JUL
2015

Understanding your client base critical to creating a client-centric advisory practice

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folders-25133_1280All too often, financial advisory practices don’t have a good handle on the composition of their current client base or an understanding of the types of clients they’d like to have and are best equipped to serve, otherwise known as their ideal client type.

Don’t get me wrong — most of the advisors I’ve worked with do have an idea of who they are working with, which is helpful. But most haven’t done the work of actually analyzing who their clients are — slicing and dicing their client base by age, marital status, occupation, geographical region, retirement status, etc.

The results may surprise you, or they may not. But conducting such an analysis is an important step because it removes the guesswork. For example, you may be working mostly with retirees versus those who aren’t retired. Or, you may just have the perception that you are working mostly with retirees; the reality may be that pre-retirees make up more of your assets under management.

It’s critical to conduct this analysis as one of the first steps in creating a client-centric financial advisory practice. That’s because you can’t center your practice on clients if you don’t know who they are, what they want and why they are doing business with you. Other early steps include determining your ideal client type and then analyzing any discrepancy between your current client base and your ideal client type.

Here’s how to work through this process:

  1. Current client base: The actual analysis isn’t that hard, especially if you have a CRM. The variables you want to slice and dice by depend on the type of clients you tend to attract and will differ from practice to practice. And different variables will be important in different cases. For example, if your practice focuses around divorcing women, you might want to evaluate your practice demographics through lens such as divorced or separated; retired and pre-retiree; those with children at home and those with an empty nest; those remarried or coupled and those who are not; those with jobs outside the home and homemakers, etc.
  2. Ideal client type: With that analysis in hand, it’s time to move on to the second piece of the puzzle, determining your ideal client type. When I work with advisors, I encourage them to think about their favorite clients. What is it about those clients that you love and what, if anything, do those favorites have in common? What types of work or clients make you want to jump out of bed and get to work as as quickly as possible, versus the types of work or clients who you’d rather stay in bed to avoid? This work is important, because when you understand the price attached to working with people who you don’t really click with or spend time doing work that doesn’t really engage you, you’re wasting valuable time and energy.
  3. Understanding the gap: When you put these two pieces together, you’ll get a sense of where your current reality is in connection to where you’d really like to be. You may have several ideal client types, which is okay, especially if they are closely related to each other. Once you understand who you love to work with and how big (or small) a percentage of those types make up your practice currently, you can take steps to engage in marketing that will attract more of the clients that you want. You’ll also need to figure out how to handle those who don’t fit into your sweet spot.

This understanding of your clientele and your ideal client type is essential to creating a practice that is more firmly focused on clients and to successful growth.

22
JUL
2015

Why create a customer-centric advisory practice?

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This revolutionary shift between the sellers and buyers of financial advice has taken place as barriers to access of financial information have fallen and the amount of choice in the marketplace has risen. These two factors mean that advisory practices that truly focus on their clients and work towards creating a customer-centric practice will position those practices to thrive and grow. Those who don’t — or who pay lip service to the idea of client-centricity — will be more vulnerable to the competition, including other RIA firms, robo advisors and hybrid robots.

Let’s take a quick look at the reasons behind this shift:

  1. Access to information: Consumers no longer look to advisors, wirehouses and other financial services firms for information about investing and financial planning. Today, customers can find out information about just about any type of financial service or product and any advisor or firm, anywhere, anytime. That means the customer is more in control of the relationship, or potential relationship, with an advisor.
  2. Era of choice: Customers no longer have to choose between Wirehouse #1, #2 or #3; instead, they have local options, which likely include wirehouses, RIAs, brokers, insurance agents and asset management companies as well as online options, which includes all of the above plus rob-advisors and hybrid robos.

So what does that mean for you and your practice?

Access and choice translate into more control for clients. They aren’t sitting around, waiting to hear from you to make a decision about their investments or their finances. Instead, clients and potential clients are searching for the information that appeals to them, when they want to, either at home or from anywhere with their mobile device.

While an overload of choices and information can leave clients and potential clients feeling beleaguered and may ultimately translate into an individual client or potential client not taking action, the perception of access to information and choice has a powerful impact.

CSIRO_ScienceImage_2102_A_woman_seated_at_a_desk_using_mobile_devicesToday, clients and potential clients have more control and power over their investments and the relationships they enter into to help manage their investments and finances than ever before. While many may not realize this, more are, and are taking action as the universe of information and choices continues to expand.

In a continuing series about creating a customer-centric practice, I’ll explore the implications around this trend and what you can do to make it work for you. Next up — understanding who your clients are and why that’s important in creating a customer-centric advisory practice.

 

10
JUN
2015

Student debt crisis a ticking time bomb

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As the 2015 graduation season fades into memory, the Class of 2015 has earned a distinction that most of them would rather live without — they are the most indebted class in history, according to an analysis of government data published in the Wall Street Journal. The average graduate carries a debt load of $35,000, which ranks as twice as much debt as the average graduate in the 1990s owed.

Backing up to take a look at the bigger picture, a study by Experian that was reported by CNN, revealed that current and former students owe a rapidly escalating $1.2 trillion in student loans. Total educational debt, which includes federal and private loans, has risen 10-fold since 1994.

While a college degree clearly results in average overall higher earning potential, the key here is average. All too many liberal arts graduates are finding that their degrees aren’t the gateway to higher paying jobs. Instead, they are stuck in a wage ghetto of entry-level and/or service jobs, where they can barely (or can’t barely) keep up with their escalating loan payments.

And increasingly, student loans aren’t just a problem for the young, who, after all, have their entire careers to pay off their loans. A study by the New York Federal Reserve Bank noted that two-thirds of student loan balances are held by borrowers not in their 20s and that the number of borrowers over 40 increased at twice the pace of the number of borrowers under 40. In fact, student loan balances held by borrowers age 60 and over, increased nine-fold from 2004 to 2014.

That being said, average balances are not horribly high. Most borrowers owe less than $25,000; 40 percent owe less than $10,000. According to the Hechinger Report, the highest debt loads are held by graduate students and those attending for-profit colleges.

The problem, or time-bomb, of escalating student debt for those of all ages, is causing all sorts of repercussions in the economy. For the young, it’s delaying household formation, so more graduates or those who have debt who weren’t able to graduate for whatever reason, are stuck living at home with Mom and Dad because of their debt load and low wages. That means they aren’t renting apartments, buying furniture, getting married, having babies, buying houses, etc., all activities that foster economic growth. For the older and old, it means working longer, delaying retirement and potentially relying more on the frayed social safety net to make ends meet.

More than half of current borrowers are either still in school or are in deferment, meaning they aren’t yet required to start paying their loans back. Of those who are in repayment, 17 percent are in default or delinquency. Default rates are rising for recent graduates who are now in repayment, with 25 percent of those who left school in 2005, 2007 and 2009 at 25 percent. The number of borrowers who default every year has increased from 500,000 10 years ago to 1.2 million annually in 2011 and 2012.

It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that based on current trends, both borrowing and defaults are likely to continue to rise. Debt loads grow the longer students take to repay, and with extended payment plans, many even younger borrowers can find that they are still paying off their own loans while they are struggling to save and or pay for their own children to go to college.

This is creating a moral crisis for some borrowers, who are having to make a choice between paying back a crushing student loan burden and achieving any type of financial security or satisfying career.  These borrowers are starting to question the morality of supporting colleges who are paying gigantic salaries to administrators and athletic directors while building even more fancy facilities and the banks who act as intermediaries in the lending process. It’s the college industrial complex and eventually, something has got to give because this vicious, out of control lending cycle is not crippling individual borrowers by the millions, it’s crippling the economy and won’t get any better.

A powerful and provocative column in the New York Times, Why I Defaulted on My Student Loans, is generating a lot of conversation, as is a piece in Salon, Who Doesn’t Want to Default on Their Student Loans? The College Debt Crisis is Crippling Us, with No Real Relief in Sight.

I don’t have all the answers, but extending repayment terms is not the answer. Something has to be done to bring down the level of tuition or increase the amount of grants available, not just keep adding to the already large debt burden of students.

03
JUN
2015

Revolving door out of control at SEC

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When there’s little or no separation between financial regulators and Wall St., it’s no wonder that trust in the government is at an all time low. The latest evidence of the cozy relationship between the federal Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and the Wall St. firms it regulates came late last week, when Andrew “Buddy” Donohue, an executive with Goldman Sachs Group’s asset management unit, was appointed as the chief of staff to SEC Chair Mary Jo White.

There’s no doubt that experience working with the nation’s top market regulator yields rich dividends for staffers who move onto (or back to) private industry through the revolving door. The Project on Government Oversight (POGO), in a report entitled Dangerous Liaisons: Revolving Door at the SEC Creates Risk of Regulatory Capture, provides details about this co-dependent relationship.

Regulations require that former SEC employees (alumni) must notify the SEC when they plan to represent a client or employer on a matter during the first two years after leaving the agency. Between 2001-2010, which encompassed the real estate bubble, the financial crisis and the beginning of the recovery, 419 SEC alumni filed 1,949 disclosure statements. There’s no way to know how many alumni would were outside of the two-year window appeared and on how many matters.

Let’s be honest, these former employees aren’t appearing on behalf of you and me, their job is to represent their employers or themselves, in ways that likely run counter to the interests of the American people. As POGO eloquently states, their mission is to “try to influence SEC rule making, counter the agency’s investigations of suspected wrongdoing, soften the blow of SEC enforcement actions, block shareholder proposals and win exemptions from federal law.”

This latest appointment is quite discouraging because Donohue is likely to be the most influential staffer at the agency, as his job is to assist the SEC Chairman. In a statement about the appointment, Better Markets, a nonprofit dedicated to promoting the public interest in financial reform, noted, “The SEC’s hiring of a Goldman Sachs executive to be the SEC Chair’s very powerful, very influential Chief of Staff is an affront to the tens of millions of American families who suffered through the 2008 financial crash and are still struggling to recovery today.”

What’s even more interesting is that this isn’t Donohue’s first experience at the SEC. He’s a revolving door veteran, having previously served as — wait for it — head of investment management regulation from 2006 to 2010. No, I’m not quoting from an Onion article. It’s beyond ridiculous that a senior official who presided over one of the worst regulatory failures in recent memory is not only back with the federal government, but is in an extremely influential position. Wanna bet he’ll be back on Wall St., in an even more influential position, in a few years?

So what’s to be done? Here are a few thoughts, mainly focused on Congressional and SEC actions:

  • Enact tougher standards on the revolving door, which currently bars staffers from lobbying the agency for a year after leaving SEC employment
  • Beef up the SEC budget so that the staff, where merited, can earn higher salaries and have more resources to do their jobs
  • Promote transparency by posting post-employment disclosures online
19
MAY
2015

Advisors, what is the call to action for your firm?

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I’m talking call to action in a broad sense — what defines your firm and differentiates it from the advisor down the street or across the country. A financial advisory or wealth management firm’s call to action isn’t your value proposition, niche or list of products and services, although those can help lead you to the answer.

It’s both more and less tangible, both for you and the clients who benefit from your best work. It’s not easy to determine, but if you can nail it, it’s marketing gold.

In the branding work that I do with my financial advisory clients, I ask these men and women to consider a number of questions, including:

  • As you go about your day, what is it about your work with clients that gets you excited?
  • And what is it about that work that gets your clients to refer you to their friends, neighbors and colleagues?

 

Understanding what your individual call to action and your firm’s call to action will not only be immeasurably helpful when it comes to designing marketing collateral and specific, content marketing related calls to action, but it will also help you understand how you want to spend your days and the types of clients, employees and colleagues you want to surround yourself with.

Clues pointing to this broad call to action are everywhere. Here are some places you might find them:

  • Within your client base, a commonality that your clients share.
  • Among the very specific type of investment and financial planning products and services that you offer.
  • A common thread in your philosophical approach to the profession.
  • Your work day, working with a client to solve a difficult problem; or conversely, in your discomfort with a client that you’d just as soon avoid.

 

Uncovering your differentiators and that broad call to action is critical. In this age of robo-advisors and the overall increasing commoditization of the the profession, the more deeply you understand what makes you different and what drives you, the better you can make your case to prospects and clients and the better position you’re in to craft a business that keeps you engaged.

In my next post, I’ll get into conventional calls of action and their role in advisor marketing.

 

12
MAY
2015

EU, IMF aid to Greece: lifeline or noose?

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During the last five-and-half years, the government of Greece has attempted to walk a tightrope between it’s national interests and external creditors. During each iteration of the credit crisis, Greece has given into the demands of the IMF and EU, slicing its budget, instituting “market” reforms and overall, towing the austerity line.

Finally, the patience of the Greek people, exhausted by catastrophically high unemployment, an eviscerated social safety net and no prospects for improvement in the economy climate, may be running out. Greece is scrambling for cash to repay loans that are now due, and crisis is again front and center.

This all to easily could result in Grexit, a Greek exit from the European Union and the Euro Zone, an outcome that should and could still be avoided.

While we here in the U.S. undoubtedly suffered through the financial crisis and still operate in an economy that is not back to “normal,” I think it’s difficult to appreciate what the Greek people are still suffering through, including:

  • More than one-quarter of all Greeks (26.5 percent) are unemployed, with youth unemployment standing at 52.4 percent and the jobless rating for the long-term unemployed at 73.5 percent.
  • An economic recession that lasted six years and which may very likely extend into the seventh year, as growth in the first quarter came in an an anemic 0.5 percent.
  • Persistent deflation, which has lasted for more than two years, with prices most recently falling by 2.1 percent year-over-year.

 

The human cost of imposing austerity has been tragic, despite the assumptions by the IMF and EU that the Greek economy would bounce back quickly, as detailed by Paul Krugman in this January column. Austerity is a failed policy that never had any legitimacy and has destroyed too many lives already.

Greece needs help, not another kick where it counts. Potential actions that could actually help Greece and it’s creditors include extending debt repayment deadlines, cutting interest rates, reinstating access to credit lines for Greek banks and actually cutting the size of the debt owed. These solutions could actually provide the Greek economy with a chance to grow again, increasing employment and creating a welcoming environment for investment.

Such a solution would benefit not only the Greek economy and the Greek people, but the EU, the Euro Zone, the IMF, the European economy and the global economy. Punitive measures haven’t worked, and it’s time to try something that actually might change the dire Greek economic situation.

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