The Most Important Similarity Between Top-Performing Financial and Insurance Advisors
by Jonathan Bega
This is part two of our four part miniseries on technology and how it can help financial advisors grow their books. For part one, check out our post from last week titled “the Best Practices to Build a Successful Online Presence as a Financial Advisor.” That post delved into how advisors can create a strong brand online and generate leads into their pipeline. Today, we’re going to focus on the value of processes and the technologies that can help you get there. Enjoy!
Growth is hard, process is everything
As many of my blog readers know, I spent time as a venture capitalist focused on early-stage tech companies prior to joining Finaeo. This involved working closely with portfolio companies that were growing rapidly and was an incredible learning for understanding growth. One of the most common problems I saw occurred during a company’s first big growth spurt, when a company was transitioning from a few customers to many customers. A team has one person, usually the CEO, in charge of big accounts. There are other early founders and employees who may run marketing, customer success, product, etc. But things are clearly manageable. When you have three big accounts, it’s not very difficult to ensure that you keep a proper follow-up and meeting cadence with each one. The problems begin when three becomes 300, and all of a sudden, you can’t just easily remember who’s next on the list. It’s, ultimately, a problem of scaling. As growth speeds up, the CEO fails to keep up with all of the accounts. She starts forgetting follow-ups, missing up-sell opportunities, and messing up deals. It’s not the CEO’s fault, she’s being dragged in 15 directions an hour. The rest of the team faces similar challenges. It’s a lot easier to run customer success with ten clients than with fifty. It’s much more doable to send personalized emails to the 20 website leads compared to 2000. The first solution companies often went to was a mad rush to hire. This often addressed the symptom but not the cause. Often, the cause was simply that the processes lived inside someone’s head, instead of on paper. When more people were added to help, the first roadblock in their way was a lack of clear, procedural guidance.
As I said, scaling is hard. It is very, very hard. This is true whether you are running an early stage technology company or whether you are an advisor trying to grow your book. Yet, growth can be managed intelligently or it can be done in an ad hoc manner which leaves much to be desired. With my portfolio companies, one of the things we always worked towards was towards building out their processes. If you’ve ever talked to me, this is no surprise. The Finaeo office has a habit of calling me “Bega-bot” because of my natural inclination towards processes. But this love has been developed through hard-won experience. People and places that lack processes can only grow so far before they start making mistakes. Think about the number of times you have forgotten a follow-up, or taken too long to respond, and lost that client forever. Left to our natural devices, it happens to us all. There is simply a finite limit to how much we can actually remember to do.
Processes, on the other hand, automates valuable activities for us. Now, I will talk later in this blog about technological automation, but when I refer to automation right now, I mean it in the sense of reducing the mental energy needed to take an action. That is, imagine building your process for a first meeting with a prospect. What would that entail? Perhaps you would send them a templated introductory email with an agenda three days before the meeting. Then reach out the night before to confirm the time and location. After the meeting, you would take down the most pertinent notes on the client, as well as your follow-up tasks, and send him or her a thank you email the following morning outlining your follow-up tasks. The point of a process is that you never waste mental energy deciding which actions to take next. Instead, you just check off boxes in a checklist of best practices. This allows you to focus on the high-value actions, while coloring in-between the lines for everything else.
Process and Advisors
This mindset behind processes is exactly what the co-founders at Finaeo used to build their advisory books. It was the understanding that closing a deal requires frequent touchpoints and maintaining a relationship requires even more. It was also the notion that the larger their books got, the more they had to rely on processes to make sure they stayed on top of their relationships. While every client had his or her own eccentricities, the reality was that the overlap between them, in terms of process, was very similar. For example, Aly (our CEO) used to always lead a meeting with an agenda email the night before and follow a meeting with a voice memo right which included a high level summary of the conversation and the follow-ups promised. By the end of the week, he would send his client an article about a topic they discussed. He would then send two more articles by the end of the next week. It didn’t matter who the client was, this was a process that was transferable for all of them. It took no brainpower for him to know what to do next with any given client. It also allowed him to use templated emails where he just filled in the blanks. Now, mind you, Aly wasn’t alone in his office. He had two assistants who helped him. One would provide him with information before the meeting (e.g., who the client was, what previous meetings were), the other would organize the information after (e.g., inputting his notes, making sure everything was organized). They were an integral part of his process automation and Aly will be the first to admit that he could not have built his book of business without them. But the point is that any advisor, no matter what the size, can benefit from finding a few integral actions that work across his or her clientele and turning it into a process. Something that can be done with minimal thought after a busy day, but which adds huge value to the client and strengthens the relationship.
When I first started writing this blog, it was supposed to be about these client-facing processes. I wanted to understand what best practices looked like for different advisors. What were the overlapping processes? What lessons could be drawn from them? Part of the Finaeo platform centers around uncovering best practices through data, but a good starting point for us has always been through crowdsourcing answers. So I approached a very large number of advisors over the last six weeks and asked them about their processes. My goal was to discover the hidden gems, tips, and tricks to share with you, dear reader!
I still remember the first interview I had. I asked the advisor what his process before and after a meeting was. He gave me dead air. This happened again and again. Advisors would tell me that it depended on the client. They told me that they would sometimes do this or that. But when I defined processes as a checklist of actions they used towards almost every client, they shrugged. Much like the portfolio companies from my past life, I was seeing people who were trying to grow without putting in the processes first. I decided to revamp my interviews. The first question I asked was “do you have client-facing processes in place?” I defined processes the way described above – actions taken in sequence for almost every client (the odd exception out). I ended up asking 74 advisors this question. The results are below:
Just under one quarter of advisors had process. The other 77% were basically winging it. I wondered what this meant. There were two options – one was that even without processes, advisors were doing well. That processes were overrated. My inner bot died cringed at the thought. The other was that those with processes did better. So I decided to ask a follow-up question: in the last year, how many promised follow-ups did you forget to do on time?
What stood out to me here was that the advisors who said they were process-driven were more likely to answer that they forgot zero follow-ups compared to those lacking process. Likewise, 0% of our advisors with processes said they forgot “many” follow-ups, while just over 10% of the no-process advisors admitted this. Now, mind you, this was a very qualitative question based on an advisor’s gut feelings. It could very well be that I was looking at self-selection bias. Advisors more likely to have processes, primed to think about their processes, would also be more likely to believe those processes worked and answer “none.” So I decided to do a little more digging and split the advisors into quartiles based on their book sizes. The actual book sizes are not listed for privacy reasons, but I split the 74 into quartiles.
The results were astounding:
While only 23% of the total population of advisors had processes in place, 58% of top quartile advisors did! That is, the majority of the best performing advisors were following “automated” processes when dealing with their clients, even though they made up less than a quarter of the population. Meanwhile, almost no advisor in the bottom two quartiles were process-driven. That was a holy **** moment to me.
So what can we make of all this? Well, one potential answer might be that a process makes sure follow-ups aren’t forgotten. Think about the number of follow-ups you make with a successful client. Now think about how easy it is to forget a touch-point and let certain clients slip through the cracks. It may very well be that the best advisors simply never forget these follow-ups, so they don’t lose clients. And while there are a few advisors with naturally incredible organizational ability (the 42% of top quartile performers who don’t have processes in place), the majority of highly successful advisors rely on processes to make sure they stay organized.
Regardless, the conclusion is clear: Financial advisors that are process-driven outperform those that don’t!
Back to Tech, the Drip Marketing Campaign, and What Advisors Can Learn
Before I finish this week’s piece, I want to talk about how it all relates to technology. When I used to work with portfolio companies suffering from process issues, the answer was often to turn to technology. There was Hubspot for drip marketing campaigns, Intercom or Totango for engagement, and Chartmogul for financial metrics. These technologies not only forced processes into place, but also helped automate much of the lower value campaign. For the purposes of financial advisors, I believe that drip marketing is the most valuable technology to discuss.
A drip marketing campaign is probably the most powerful process used by tech companies to grow their revenues. It is “a communication strategy that feeds a customer or prospective client predetermined information over time.” Over time, the messages are “dripped” according to a prospect’s actions and statuses. A simple example is when you go to an e-commerce website and abandon your shopping cart. Over the next few weeks, you will receive abandoned cart emails, discounts, offers, etc. All of these touchpoints are generated to try to recapture your decision to purchase. The email campaign is based on your action of abandoning the shopping cart.
The key to the drip marketing campaign is its automation. It segments and treats similar users alike, and does so in a hands-off manner. It knows the right message to send at the right time for the right client. These touchpoints are often emails, but they can also be phone calls, texts, tweets, and just about any other communication medium. The value here is the consistent low-effort interactions with a customer. By defining a process ahead of time and automating as many actions as possible, marketers stay top-of-mind with their (potential) clients. This repeated exposure, in and of itself, actually strengthens the relationship with a client. In psychology, this is called the mere-exposure effect. Just being familiar with someone (or a brand) makes a client prefer it to competitive offerings.
This is very similar to the processes that advisors ought to be automating. With a smaller book, process becomes paramount. But as books increase in size and client numbers, even the best manual process starts to falter. At this point, advisors may be forced to hire assistants to help them get through the administrative grind. To remember birthdays, plan up-sells based on milestones, and keep notes organized. The problem, however, can be summed up by a quote from one insurance advisor I talked to many months ago – “I needed an assistant when I was at 30 clients, but couldn’t afford one until I reached 100.” The value of technology, then, is to help bridge the gap. It is to help take good processes and automate technologically as much of them as possible.
When we set out to build Finaeo, this is exactly what we were trying to do. For us, the future of process automation isn’t bulky CRMs that take immense amounts of back-office administrative time. The answer is a digital assistant in your pocket. A sales coach that helps you set up your processes based on best practices, and then automates all of the steps that can be automated. So that the confirmation emails and thank you notes are sent out with minimal legwork done by you. So that birthdays are never forgotten and touchpoints with clients you haven’t seen in six months are top of mind. That has been our vision to date, and we’re excited to be marching towards it. In the next two blog posts on this topic, I will talk more about the future of financial advisor. For now, I hope this gives you a taste of what we think is coming up.
If you do not have a process in place, think about your last few interactions with new clients. Trace out which actions you took that were consistent across them. Then the actions you wish you had done for each client, even if you failed to do so. Use this as a framework to build a simple process around on-boarding new clients – a checklist you can place on your desk. Over time, expand it to incorporate your best practices. Voila, you’ve just created your first process. Let us know your thoughts in the comments section below and please subscribe for future blog posts!