Financial Planning Insights Interview Part II

The Strategic Imperative of Planning

“In the midst of market turmoil, without a doubt, those clients with whom we have engaged in a goals-based planning approach are doing better in every way compared to those with whom we have not. There is absolutely no comparison.”

This comment was made by a senior executive (and career Portfolio Manager) during a recent Executive Forum we conducted with a group of industry leaders. His comment points to the power and value of a goals-based planning approach and serves as reinforcement of the insights shared below in Part II of our four-part series on Financial Planning.

As introduced in Part I – The Evolution of Planning – the perspectives we are sharing here come from interviews we conducted with four individuals who we have seen uniquely effective in the integration of planning into their organization and/or their practice.

Providing insight from an organizational perspective are:

Joseph Sicchitano – SVP, Head of Wealth Planning and Advice Delivery
George Fernandez – VP of Practice Management

And from a front-line Advisor perspective are:

Bill Newburn – SVP, Wealth Advisor
Bradford Hutchins – Private Banker

For this part of the series, we asked Joe and George about the rollout, adoption and implementation of their planning initiatives, and what they would do differently if they had the chance. We also poll Bill and Brad on their adoption of planning within their practices and the impact it has had.

ORGANIZATIONAL PERSPECTIVE

Greene Consulting: When did you/your firm initiate the strategy to incorporate the use of financial planning software into your organization?

Joseph Sicchitano: While we have historically always had planning software in the mix at the company for the last couple of decades, we made a conscious decision in 2012 to reimagine what the client experience could be if it was anchored in an advisory experience based on planning, a rich relationship-focused client experience, and complementary technology that made it all accessible and transparent to the client so they could trust that any advice was, in fact, customized to them and 100% targeted to help them progress towards the things that matter most.

George Fernandez: When I began my career in 2000, the firm was already using planning software. In fact, they had been using it at the advisor level since 1998. Prior to that, they did conduct financial planning engagements with clients, but the service was centralized (I recall this because my wife and I were clients). My current firm was founded upon a planning client-centric approach; therefore, the adoption of financial planning software was immediate.


GCA: How important is it to your firm’s strategy to have your advisors equipped with financial planning software to support the client experience and why?

Joseph Sicchitano: It is critical and built into our overall strategy. Because we truly believe that every relationship with a client should be anchored in a planning-driven, advice-centric approach, we are fully committed to a strategy with two priorities:

  1. Develop and release advisors to do as much planning as their competence and confidence will support as an integral part of their advice delivery experience with clients. This is a very scalable model that, though slower to develop over time, is far more sustainable than approaches that keep planning and planning platforms at arms-length from field advisors and ultimately further from the client experience.
  2. Because planning specialists/professionals are fewer in number and a scarcer resource, we are very strategic and thoughtful about how best to deploy their efforts. Planning professionals are best deployed when they are focused on scope driven, higher complexity, higher opportunity engagements.

George Fernandez: Financial planning software is considered a very important tool for our client experience because it provides advisors an opportunity to help our clients focus on what’s most important. I believe we help them address two fundamental questions: “What’s important about money to them?” and “What’s most important to them?”. The convergence of these two questions becomes the focal point of their plan and this underlying foundation is monitored using the planning software. Therefore, planning software should be able to capture their life’s priorities and remind them often. This reduces the focus on asset rates of return and increases the focus on their personal goals and priorities.


GCA: How has it impacted your firm’s performance?

Joseph Sicchitano: Without disclosing any direct results, we keep a close eye on many factors when it comes to planning and advice and its impact on the client experience as well as the company’s results. We look at:

  • Impact on client satisfaction, confidence levels, affinity, etc.
  • Depth and breadth of planning across a comprehensive list of planning areas
  • Likelihood and actual activation (taking action) of plans by the client
  • Impact on business results
  • Variations - i.e., type of engagements, with and without aggregation, comprehensive vs. focused planning, etc.

With few to no exceptions, every metric (both client and firm) is positively impacted by planning.

George Fernandez: Let me address the expectation first. This is the million-dollar question about technology in general. With any type of technology, your hope is that it does two things. The first is to bring the ability to scale the business by simplifying the process and creating efficiencies. The second is to enhance the client experience. The challenge is calculating the ROI.

Very few firms that I’ve encountered have done benchmarking studies both before and after technology implementation, which would enable them to determine how technology helped them reduce cost by eliminating or reducing inefficient practices. This would apply to all technology, including planning software.

With that said, there is no question that planning software is expected to impact the firm’s performance; however, the reality is that a meaningful benchmark is difficult to obtain. It’s essentially the chicken and the egg story. Did the software impact performance or did increased performance increase the use of software?

So how do you begin measuring the impact? I believe it begins with tracking the lifecycle of a client. That is, tracking how they came onboard, the tools you used, the process, the analysis and recommendations, the implementation and the client results over time. To date, I’m not familiar with anyone that has effectively achieved this – if you discover one during this interview process, please share… (ALERT: I just saw a demo tonight that may actually be addressing this!!! – more to come when I can share.)

As for our firm, I am unable to attribute technology to the firm’s performance. However, I do know that it helps bring the client’s goals and concerns to the forefront and that our client retention is over 95%. So, I believe it contributes, but so do so many other relationship activities. It’s probably easier to say that it doesn’t hinder it.


GCA: If you were to do it all over again, what would you do differently?

Joseph Sicchitano: Ironic since at our firm we are, in fact, doing it all over again. I’d rather not comment specifically on our strategy at this point, but I would say it will be consistent with my previous comments. I would also simply add that while strategically it is consistent with lessons learned over three decades, our tactical knowledge of how best to implement what works and avoid stagnant progress from things we’ve done poorly over the years will inform improvements to our tactical approach to implementation.

George Fernandez: The most important step is the vision. A firm must define what their desired client experience should be and how technology would be used with our clients (which would include how I’d want the technology to evolve). If that client experience includes technology, then the firm must define their overall technology ecosystem strategy. Without this vision, they’ll find themselves following the next shining object or technology presented.


ADVISOR PERSPECTIVE

GCA: How important is it to your practice to have financial planning software to support it, and how has it impacted your performance and your career?

Bill Newburn: I was initially hesitant to use financial planning for two reasons. First, I thought it would be tremendously labor intensive to put in all my client/prospect information. Secondly, I was unsure of how my clients were going to respond to financial planning and what benefit it would provide them. Now I see how financial planning software is critical to my practice. I’ve benefited tremendously in terms of increased revenue and deeper client relationships.

Bradford Hutchins: I look at planning as non-negotiable. I am passionate about planning. I truly believe that a plan is the foundation of success for my clients’ financial priorities and frames how we develop our strategy for each individual client and their specific needs. It is an integral part of my process that has enabled me to be more impactful and to advise clients with a deeper level of understanding of their current situation. I believe that the tool has been instrumental in my overall ability to offer the right solutions to each individual client. The tools allow me to have a clear and professional approach to how I work with my clients.