In business—as in life—the lessons are often in the mistakes we make. But sometimes the better knowledge is seeing the mistake coming and avoiding it altogether. A routine exercise for business owners is the “what worked” and “what didn’t work” review of their practice. For many advisers, when considering the “didn’t work” part of the equation, the overriding theme is “I knew better but…”
Here are a few scenarios:
- Adviser A: Had a client ask him to manage half of his assets, while the client self-managed the other half.
- Adviser B: Built his practice with farmers and ranchers, then found himself working with two ultra-wealthy clients that were taking all his time.
- Adviser C: Was amazed when he got a call from an $80 million lottery winner. He was managing only $35 million at the time.
Each of these advisers got to a point where either they were fired or they fired the client. On paper, or with the benefit of hindsight, it is easy to say they should have never taken on the client. But how do you prepare yourself if you’ve taken on a client who’s not a good fit? What can you do to identify your walk away moment?
Why Walk Away? Two Sides of a Bad Relationship
Each scenario was a challenge for the adviser who was involved—a challenge that upset their business. It is easy to see the adviser’s side of the bad relationship, what we often miss is the other side. The effects it has on the office:
1) Staff. The staff has to deal with major interruptions that an ill-fitting client brings to the table. Requests that are outside of normal process and procedures take time to learn and process. It drags down efficiency and because it is new, opens up potential for mistakes
2) Marketing and client relationship management. Time spent on ill-fitting clients takes away from marketing and new client acquisition for many advisers. What could the adviser be doing better with his/her time?
3) Revenue. For the adviser who lives in an AUM world, we know that with planning, onboarding, etc., the revenue earned is backloaded over time. In other words, the time you spend upfront with a client is earned back over the years from the advisory fees. A short-term relationship typically does not pay for itself
Avoiding in the First Place
One of the challenges for most advisers is to understand their target. I have often written that creating a persona or an avatar of your ideal client as the way to specialize your practice, and to focus on a niche. Some advisers however, are not ready for that level of specialization and a few may not go that deep. No matter where you come down on identifying the ideal client, I think it always starts with a few things:
- What is the target? Simply stated, in the broadest terms possible, everyone in the “class” of people that you want to work with. The class could be the type of business that you find most interesting such as legacy planning or income planning or it could be retirees in general etc.
- What is the ideal? Again, in broadest terms, what do they value or what will they value from your relationship?
- What is the deal breaker? What will they not value, or what would cause you to walk away?
Note: Each of these is a subset of the others. The “deal breaker” is a subset of your ideal clients; the ideal clients are a subset of the target. Knowing the deal breaker before they walk in the door makes it easy to say no, or to direct them to someone else that can fit their needs.
What Happened Next
The client fired Adviser A (above) after a year. The client’s reasoning, “I know you outperformed me but I just can’t give up managing my own assets. I guess I’m not much of a delegator.” All of Adviser A’s pre-work, planning and effort was wasted.
Adviser B terminated his relationship with the ultra-high-net-worth clients. He found them a home with another adviser that had a more investment-focused service model. The staff was thrilled to go back their type of clients—ones that appreciated planning and were less demanding.
Adviser C could not compete with the constant second-guessing by competitors and family members trying to get a foothold into the $80 million lottery winner’s life. Every waking moment was spent defending and babysitting the assets and the client. He gladly went back to his recently ignored book right after the new client fired him.
We all know when something does not feel right. Maybe we should be prepared beforehand, in writing, so we are more prepared to walk away when it doesn’t.
Editor’s note: A version of this post appeared on SEI’s blog Practically Speaking. You can find it here.
John Anderson is the managing director of Practice Management Solutions for the SEI Advisor Network. He is responsible for all programs focused on helping financial advisers grow their businesses, create efficiencies in their operations and differentiate their practices. He is also the author of SEI’s practice management blog, Practically Speaking.