How the Benefits of the DOL Fiduciary Rule Have Already Taken Root

How the Benefits of the DOL Fiduciary Rule Have Already Taken Root

When Linda and Bill came into my office, I could sense their hesitancy right away. And when they told me their story, I could understand why they were so apprehensive about meeting with a financial advisor. They had, quite simply, learned not to trust.

Like many people, they’d realized they needed to stop being “do-it-yourselfers” and begin working with a financial professional. What they didn’t know was how to find a good advisor whose advice was based on their needs—not the advisor’s pockets. Unfortunately, it took them many years to understand the difference. “When I retired, our advisor gave me all the reasons why I should roll over my retirement savings into an IRA, and it seemed like a good idea,” said Linda. “But what I didn’t understand was that it was probably more of a good idea for him than for me.” That understanding came when a friend pointed out the fees she’d paid—and how much her advisor had earned in commissions from the transaction. Linda handed me the article her friend had shared with her that called out the practice of advisors receiving big perks (“say, a six-day, five-night resort vacation in Maui”) for selling a particular product. Ouch. Then Bill chimed in: “When I was 68 and had been collecting Social Security for two years already, someone told me I should have waited to claim until I was 70…that it would have added 30% to my monthly check,” he said. “When I asked our advisor why he hadn’t advised me on this, he said I’d never asked. I hadn’t, but I didn’t know what I didn’t know!”

The conversation got me thinking: with news about Trump signing an executive order delaying the DOL Fiduciary Rule—and even potentially doing away with the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, investors need more education than ever. And if these regulations do fall away in the wake of the new administration, caveat emptor—or “let the buyer beware”—should be the phrase on everyone’s lips, and it should be driving every financial decision you make, from how and where to invest your hard-earned savings to whom you choose to work with to help guide your financial decisions.

The good news for consumers is that many of the anticipated benefits of the DOL Fiduciary Rule have already taken root. The media attention on the rule brought the idea of “fiduciary responsibility” into the mainstream, shining light on the difference between a fiduciary who is legally bound to act in the best interest of his or her client and ensure no conflict of interest, and a non-fiduciary advisor who is typically compensated by commission and is held only to a suitability obligation. (For more on this topic, see my blog When did it become ok to be financially illiterate?) But even with that knowledge, how do you choose an advisor who is not only working in your best interest, but is also a good fit for you?

The first step is to do your research. Get referrals from investors and other financial professionals, and be sure the advisor is a fiduciary who is, indeed, working in your best interest. When you meet face to face, here are five questions to ask to help you get the information you need to make a smart, informed choice:

  • What are your credentials? The most trusted in the industry are Certified Financial Planner®(CFP®), Personal Financial Specialist (CPA/PFS), and Chartered Financial Consultant (ChFC). This article talks about the benefits of each.
     
  • How are you compensated? Fee-only advisors minimize conflict of interest by receiving compensation only from the client. Fee-only advisors receive no commissions or other perks for the products they recommend. Other compensation models include fee-based, which is a combination of fees and commissions, and commissions only. If the advisor does earn commissions, ask if they come from product sales, from securities trading, or both, as well as specifically how much that commission is. (Yes, it’s okay to ask!)
     
  • May I see your ADV? Every Registered Investment Advisor is required to file a Form ADV with the SEC. The ADV outlines the details of the practice, including compensation, experience, service offerings, and any disciplinary history. Consider the ADV your advisor’s resume.
     
  • What services do you offer? Know what you want and, even more importantly, what you need. Investment management may be at the top of your list, but what about financial and retirement planning? Do you need a Social Security claiming strategy? Do you have the right type of insurance and the right level of coverage? What about estate planning? Understand what your advisor offers and if she has a network of trusted professionals to support the needs she doesn’t provide in-house.
     
  • How can you help me simplify and improve my personal finances? Like Linda and Bill, you may not know what you don’t know. This question can help you uncover unexpected ways the advisor can help you make changes that can lead to greater financial confidence and a better long-term financial outlook. After all, your financial success—today and far into the future—is the ultimate goal.
     

In our own Investment Policy Statement (and no matter who you choose to work with, be sure you receive and review this contract carefully!), we break down the roles and responsibilities of the three key partners in the road to financial wellness: the custodian (whose job it is to hold and protect your assets), the advisor (whose job it is to design and implement a financial and investment plan based on your needs and goals, and to regularly monitor the performance of that plan), and the investor—that’s you!—who has three key responsibilities: 1) to oversee your advisor, 2) to understand what you want to achieve and communicate those goals to your advisor even as they change over time, and 3) to carefully review your statements and be sure you understand how your money is being invested, how you are being charged, and if your plan is fulfilling your needs. If you’re clear about those roles and responsibilities and do your part, a well-chosen advisor should serve you well.

No matter how you feel about what role the government should play when it comes to protecting consumers, ultimately, you alone are responsible for managing your money. Trusting your advisor is important, but the person you really need to trust is yourself. Keep in mind the definition of caveat emptor: “the principle that the buyer alone is responsible for checking the quality and suitability of goods before a purchase is made.” And remember, it’s your money. It’s your responsibility.

Lauren Klein
Advisor
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Lauren (CFP®) (CDFA), a NAPFA Registered Financial Advisor, and a member of the Financial Planning Association (FPA), she served as a board member of the Orang ... Click for full bio

Advisors: 5 Tips for Getting a Blog Through Compliance

Advisors: 5 Tips for Getting a Blog Through Compliance

Whether they are a financial advisor at an RIA firm or a broker-dealer, the conversation always seems to go the same way. Immediately after a financial advisor agrees that writing a blog post with me would be a great way to improve branding, the next words out of their mouth are always, “But what about getting a blog through my compliance department? Such a pain in the neck and it takes forever.” Have you ever said these words, or something to that effect? As someone who has both been a financial advisor in the past — and now writes financial advisor blogs for a living– I can offer 5 painless tips for getting your financial advisor blog (and investor decks, social media postings, or any other content) through compliance.

1. Understand the Mindset of the Compliance Professional

The bell rings…ding, ding, ding…

In one corner, in the gold trunks weighing in at 180 pounds, three time Golden Glove Champion, your firm’s Chief Compliance Officer!

In the second corner, in the red and black trunks weighing in at 150 pounds, the challenger, Financial Advisor Joe!

What a battle. Sound like your situation? In my talks with financial advisors, I’ve heard the tone get downright adversarial when it comes to their experiences getting content through compliance. It doesn’t have to, and should not be, this way. Here’s why: compliance has ultimate authority over what goes through and what doesn’t. They make the decision. Fight them, and they will win. Understand their mindset and strive to cooperate as much as possible, and you’ll find that over time they’ll loosen up that tight upper lip and make things easier for you.

So let’s start by looking at what the Chief Compliance Officer at your firm thinks about as he or she is commuting to work everyday. Unlike financial advisors, they aren’t paid for productivity. They’re paid to minimize risk. Their worst nightmare is letting something slide that gets picked up by the regulators or results in a compliance breach, because that can only happen once or twice before they’re out on the street looking for a new job.

Now, whether you’re at an RIA firm or a broker dealer can be quite influential here. At an RIA firm, the CCO is often a member of the staff that has a collegial relationship with the advisor team. The advisor team also tends to be smaller at an RIA firm which means the CCO probably knows them better, which in the CCO’s mind, reduces risk and makes them feel more comfortable.

But at a broker-dealer, the compliance officer has to deal with hundreds of advisors, many of whom he or she has never met before.  There’s no relationship and no trust most of the time. Wouldn’t that make you nervous? The compliance officer has no incentive to cut you any slack because you’re just another number. And I have to admit, they aren’t always pretty; some financial advisor blogs fall into what I call the “Chaotic Picasso” category. You are not their friend, you are the enemy because you acting upon even the slightest oversight can get them canned, the slightest slip up, the most minor miscommunication. There are only two exceptions. I’ve found in my work with broker-dealer teams, the advisors who either are the top producers or have already established trust with compliance are the ones whose content gets placed at the top of the pecking order. But what do you do if you’re not one of these select few?

The answer is that you have to “sell” yourself to them. Just as you would to a prospect, build trust gradually. You wouldn’t expect to close a sale on the first phone call, would you? No. You take the time to do things like meet with the prospect, ask them questions to seek to understand their challenges and goals better, and then to set forth a plan of action that they will agree to. You see over time that this warms up even the toughest of skeptics.

That’s really critical: get their buy-in. How do you do that?

  • First of all, give compliance a long lead time when you first start to work together. Don’t make your first submission be about an event happening a week from now. Give them a ridiculous amount of lead time, as much as you can.
  • Give them a heads up. Either meet with them in person or have a phone conversation about what you want to write about, and be clear. Ask for their advice about what would make it easy to get it approved. Maybe even submit an outline of the posting before you write the content so that you don’t waste time writing on something they have to ding.
  • Make the content appealing and entertaining to read. Keep in mind they have to read a million dry, boring financial advisor blogs all day long. Using humor and other techniques that I’ll discuss later in this article might just make them enjoy reading what you write and let’s be honest that makes them feel more inclined to support what you’re trying to do.
  • Lastly, give them a break and steer clear of the problem areas. Just like that one teacher in school that everyone said was such a hard grader and would return your essay with red pen scratches everywhere, understand what it is likely to get their goat. I’ll comment more on this topic later in my article, but the list includes anything related to performance, track record, and advertising or soliciting your firm.
     

How do you make an article meaningful without discussing these topics, you may ask. Behold the answers in the next section!

2. Avoid the Landmines

Financial advisors complain that they can’t get anything meaningful through compliance. In reality, though, most advisors feel that in order to show value they need to predict the market, pitch products, boost about past trades, or their firm. In reality (and especially if you are marketing to certain generations such as Millennials) it’s all been said before and if you really want to rise above the noise you have got to come up with something different anyways.

People choose you based upon service, not product, most of the time. So serve them like clients! Give them the gift of knowledge with an intriguing, spot on, highly relevant piece. The best financial advisor blogs answer questions that people have. The way Google and the social media engines work is through relevance. For example, if you were to do some online searches and research the questions that people tend to have about mortgages, it’s not about the intricacies of the paydown schedule. People use the Internet for “social learning”, reading threaded conversations where they can learn through the experiences of other people.

If I were a financial advisor who wanted to find the buzz uttered by people who were first time home buyers, I’d visit the Quora mortgage page (“Mortgages”, n.d). The biggest question people tend to have is about the mistakes first time home buyers make. Other topics involve the actual process of working with a loan officer, PMI, ARMs, and how to work with lenders. These are examples of great financial advisor blog topics. Establishing yourself as an expert by answering questions relevant to first time home buyers will get your content liked, shared, and indexed better by Google because you are, in a sense, providing a service online to people through your content.

What prevents many people from answering questions this way is the fear of doing work for free. Nobody can argue that getting paid is the end goal for everyone in business. Yet there is some grinding that you have to do before you can earn the privilege of getting paid 100% of the time for your wisdom. Most of the really successful people will say that, online or not, they only get paid for 25% of the work they do. Show enough value, and eventually the leads will come. Talk to what people want to hear about, and eventually the paying clients will hear you.

If you want to build your cybercredibility, traffic is what matters to Google. You may get 1k views and only one lead, but in a sense the rest of the 999 people have paid you with their view. I caution my clients not to underestimate the value of being followed online. A subscriber may not have an immediate need but over time chances are that they or someone connected to them will. Herein lies the importance of the financial advisor sales funnel. Touch them once or twice a month with value rich, insightful content through newsletters, social media, and even direct visits or calls, and you’ll see them convert over time.

3. Find a Financial Copywriter

I find that many financial advisor blogs run into problems with compliance because of how they phrase things. This takes a certain degree of writing skill that may or may not be a priority for the advisor to have. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel; hire a good financial copywriter, one who is familiar with FINRA and other regulations governing the copy, can save you the headache of going back and forth with compliance ad nauseam.

Here are some examples of phrasing that can improve compliance success. In each case, I’ve presented the novice phrasing as well as the way a professional financial copywriter would phrase it.

  • Distressed debt is a great addition to any large pension portfolio who wants to outperform.
  • Distressed debt has become a popular investment choice for many of the top global pension funds such as CalPERS.
     

What makes this good copy? The balanced view that it provides. While a novice writer would express a strong opinion that may be construed financial advice (which is the compliance officer’s pet peeve), a professional writer will couch this opinion in fact.

Technology is bound for a reversal and is one of the best places for your money in 2018.

When arranging a target asset allocation, investors may find it useful to consider a range of sectors where economic growth may likely be on the rebound. While the future can never be predicted, a likely source of economic growth in years to come will be the sizzling technology sector which has most likely hit rock bottom. Experts see this sector as due for a turnaround in 2018. Do you agree?

The lesson here is to ask, not advise. The language in the second statement is conditional rather than absolute, i.e. “may find”, “can never be predicted”, “most likely.” These words are soothing to the compliance officer’s ears!

  • Hedging strategies shield investors from dips in the market.
  • Hedging strategies are a form of risk management put in place when an investor wishes to obtain a way to protect the portfolio from dips in the market.
     

What makes the second example of copy easier on the compliance officer is the higher truthfulness of the second statement. While statement #1 is true is some cases, it’s not always what ends up happening. Compliance officers love it when you explain the strategy and the goal rather than making blanket statements about outcomes that may or may not apply in all situations.

Here are some tools that I myself have compiled to assist in the process of putting together financial advisor blogs.

One final caveat on hiring financial copywriters. Before you hire one, make sure that you get straight what kind of financial advisor blog content you’d like produced. Some copywriters just recycle canned content that has already been used elsewhere for other clients. You don’t want to be left holding the bag when it comes to plagiarism. Be sure to search on a few phrases by inputting them directly in Google just to make sure that what you get hasn’t been published elsewhere. Or, you can consult with one of the free plagiarism check services available through sites such as Grammarly.

4. Include Graphics

As someone who produces digital copy for a living, it’s clear to me that the best received content is visual. I don’t mean graphs and charts, I mean imagery that conveys the message you’re trying to make. For example, if you’re talking about how a particular rebalancing technique works well for pension funds, include a picture of pension fund employees sitting around a conference table looking happy instead of a boring old graph of historical performance.

You know the saying that a picture is worth a thousand words. Spice up your piece with stock photos or designed images that convey your point creatively. Compliance won’t have anything to say about it and your audience will like the article better.

By the way, for those of you who are looking to penetrate a local market, including keyword-rich labelled graphics is a great way to juice up your SEO. So are Infographics. Google loves these!

Where can you find these images? Check out stock photo websites such as Pexels or  Shutterstock. For custom designed images, you can hire resources inexpensively through freelancer sites such as Fiverr.

5. Distribute Like Crazy

Getting your content in front of a targeted audience is a great way to get views on the article without having to go to town on the content. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not saying that there is ever a good reason for weak content. I’m saying that a well targeted message put in front of the right group will go far just because you’re speaking to the right people.

If you’re a compliance officer, which article do you review first (and possibly be a tiny bit more lenient towards). One, a financial advisor blog that went on a rep’s blog and got 50 views, no comments, no leads, and net-net did not earn money for the firm? Or scenario #2, let’s say that article got picked up by CNBC and featured as syndicated content, gaining attention for both the rep and the firm, got backlinked to by several websites, earned over 1,000 views and led to several new prospects getting in touch with the rep? These #2 articles make the compliance officer look great and would motivate them to put your order first the next time around.

Related: Advisor Brand: 3 Critical Areas to Customize for Higher Online Conversions

Bonus tip: Don’t Forget LinkedIn Messaging!

LinkedIn has recently revised its platform to enable instant messaging to your contacts. This is not something to be taken lightly. Many people will engage over instant messaging just because they are online whereas if you sent an email they would never respond. As long as you are messaging one person at a time, this doesn’t count as “advertising.”  Many compliance departments will track this activity but do not require pre-approval. This is a great way to communicate freely over social media and get attention from prospects that might be in your network. Scour your contact list and see who might be a potential prospect or center of influence and then ping them.

Sara Grillo
Marketing
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In a past life, I worked in finance in a variety of sales and marketing related roles, and hence hold the CFA® designation. With a BA in English from Harvard with honors and ... Click for full bio