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17 Steps to Preparing the Transition of Your Advisory Firm

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Written by: Grier L. Rubeling

When it comes to advisor transitions, especially when starting or joining an RIA, there are a number of things to consider.

I recently read a great article written by an advisor that listed 26 steps taken to set up and launch an independent RIA. It was a thorough list with information concerning legal structures, compliance, websites, logos, billing options, and more. However, the author didn’t touch on the actual process of transitioning client assets.

So, it got me thinking. How many steps are involved in the actual transition? Using knowledge I’ve gained from my years of experience as a transition consultant, I decided to try and generate my own list. These steps will not apply to all situations in which an advisor is considering a change, but it’s a good starting point for understanding the amount of work that goes into the process.

I’ll start with pre-transition preparation items. Things you can do before you leave your current firm.

Pre-Transition Period

Step 1:  Research

Make sure you know the rules and regulations concerning your particular situation. Does the firm you currently work for participate in the broker protocol? That makes a huge difference, and you’ll want to know the answer to that question and how to proceed going forward. Consult an attorney or compliance expert. If you’ve already chosen your new platform or custodian, ask for recommendations and referrals. Lean on their expertise. Ask a lot of questions.

Step 2: Information Gathering

The amount of information that you’re allowed to bring with you (if any) to your new firm will depend on several different factors. Keep that in mind when reading these steps. For my purposes, I’m going to assume that you can bring basic contact information. Names, phone numbers, addresses. Stuff that you can obtain easily even if you aren’t technically allowed to take it with you.

Create a master spreadsheet with as much information as you’re allowed. Even if you can’t fill anything in yet, create a spreadsheet anyway. List the fields that you will need to populate once you do have the information. Organize it into a digestible format. Most custodians have templates you can use. Some even require them. Mainly ones that generate client account packets for you. This step will save you valuable time in the future. I will reference the master spreadsheet in many of my next steps.

Step 3: Create a Schedule

Create a schedule and make a list of tasks you need to complete. Try assigning a date of completion goal to each of the tasks. Center your schedule around your proposed resignation date. Having a running list is good practice, especially if adjustments to the timeline need to be made. If you’re starting an RIA, the account conversion process is only one step in a long list of to-dos.

Becoming an entrepreneur is a huge adjustment. You need to learn how to run a business and convince your clients to join you on your journey. I don’t need to remind you that you don’t get paid until the accounts transfer and you’re able to bill them.

Step 4: Write Out a Client Conversation Script

This step might seem trivial, but I implore you to consider it. Know what you want to say to your clients when you call them to explain your decision to move. Write it down. Even the strongest bonds can be tested by major change. Consider the fact that you’re asking clients to erase all their account history, change the website and login credentials they use to view their accounts, and learn to decipher a new statement. For some, that may not be a problem. But, how can you be sure?

List some reasons for leaving your current firm, as well as reasons for choosing your new one. Think of as many questions as you possibly can that a client might ask. Then answer all of them. The last thing you need is for a client to get spooked because you hesitated. I helped a team of advisors establish an RIA once, and one of the clients asked what would happen to her money if the building we worked in blew up and all of us died. No joke. The advisor laughed off the question, and the client sent us a hand written note a week later explaining her decision to keep her accounts with the prior firm.

Would her decision have been different if the advisor had explained that the assets were custodied at a major firm and our unfortunate deaths would have no impact on her financial situation? I have no idea, but a confident answer, instead of an awkward laugh, certainly might have come across better.

Step 5:  Create a List of Paperwork for Initial Client Mailings

You might think that transferring assets is as simple as a client signing a transfer form, but it’s not the case when doing it as part of a transition. You must open the accounts, satisfy all the paperwork requirements, submit the transfer forms, and provide any outside documentation the client is required to sign or receive. Let’s assume you’re establishing an RIA. Aside from the custodian’s paperwork, you need to provide the client with your investment advisory contract, ADV, and privacy policy. You may want to include information about the custodian or marketing materials about your own firm.

Examples of items to include in your initial mailing to clients are: a letter addressing the client, instructions for completing forms, account opening documents, a list of required outside documents, account transfer forms, investment advisory contract, financial planning contract, ADV, privacy policy, client information gathering sheet, forms for additional account features, new business cards, and marketing materials.

Step 6:  Draft a Letter of Resignation

A letter of resignation is generally required when leaving a firm. I suggest keeping it short and simple. Be polite. This document gets filed by your former firm and can be used against you. A resignation letter is not the best tool for burning bridges. Be smart.

Step 7:  Draft a Letter to Your Clients

Even if a letter will not be the first contact your client receives from you, you should still have one ready to send. The first few days after you resign from your firm can be stressful and time-consuming. Sometimes, all you have time for is a quick conversation with a client about your decision. If the client asks you how they can continue working with you, you want to be able to tell them that you’ll send them a packet explaining everything. The letter is also a good resource to have if you want to send an announcement email.

Use the letter to explain your decision to clients. Include all your new contact information. Express the importance of the relationship you have and remind them how well you’ve served them up to this point. Don’t use negative language about your prior firm. Remember that their assets remain there until they initiate a transfer. Chances are, someone will reach out to them and attempt to retain their business. Possibly before you’ve even had a chance to speak with them. That person may even say negative things about you. Take the high road. Most people respond better to positivity.

Step 8: Draft a Letter to Your Prior Firm

Draft a letter to your prior firm, as though it’s coming from your client. Include it in the packet for your client to sign. Include a statement that makes it clear to the firm that the client intends to transfer their accounts. Request a copy of the most recent statements. In some cases, it’s nice to have this letter to send to the contra firm if they are being hostile in any way. They are required to follow client instructions.

Step 9:  Research the Account Opening and Transfer Process of Your New Firm

In general, the account opening and transfer process is similar for most custodians in the independent space. However, there are significant differences in the details.

For example, when opening a new account at TD Ameritrade, one only needs to submit the client-signed new account form and the back office processes the request, opens the account, and provides the new account number.

At Raymond James, advisors and branch personnel are responsible for opening new accounts. However, they can do so without any paperwork or client signatures, and the system will generate the completed forms for to be signed within 30 days of account opening.

You need to know where the bulk of your time will be spent and the best way to handle the workflow. Knowing what we know about TD Ameritrade, you understand that your time will be spent filling out paperwork and sending it to clients for quick turnaround.

As for Raymond James, you understand that your time will be spent gathering client information and opening accounts. Technically, you can send transfer documents for signature (by DocuSign, if desired) before obtaining the new account forms. The differences in process determine your course of action. Know what to expect.

Step 10:  Create a Client Information Gathering Sheet

While you’re doing your research for Step 9, make a list of the information needed to open a client account. Use that information to create a Client Information Gathering Sheet. Custodian paperwork can be lengthy, confusing, and filled with pages of disclosures. By creating a streamlined, aesthetically pleasing version of the forms, you can have an easy way to gather information.

Whether you’re using it for your own purposes or sending it to a client for them to complete, it’s a great tool. You can reference it while completing the new account forms or opening the new accounts. The clients still need to sign the documents with pages of disclosures, but you will have an easier time filling them out. You can also use it to fill in the fields of your master spreadsheet, so you can keep track of your progress.

Related: Why Advisors Should be Focusing on Client Events

Step 11: Game Plan Your Client Packets

Now that you know what your workflow will consist of in terms of account opening, you can game plan the process of sending client packets. Some custodians will generate client account forms for you, but that usually results in numerous empty fields on the forms that need to be completed. Some advisors choose to send the forms to clients as is and have them fill in the missing information.

In my opinion, that approach has the highest failure rate in terms of completion. Others choose to fill in the missing information themselves and then send the forms. That option has a higher likelihood of success, but it requires a significant time commitment. If you’re in a situation in which you’re able to bring all your client information with you, there are ways to generate all the paperwork and send it completed to your clients. That’s the ideal situation. However, it’s rarely the actual situation.

Electronic signatures are another popular choice for paperwork. The process is faster and more convenient for the advisor and client. However, you must consider all the other paperwork that cannot be sent using an e-sign system like DocuSign. Most firms won’t allow you to include your investment advisory agreement on their DocuSign platform. Some will for an additional fee.

  • What about all the other paperwork I mentioned in Step 5?
  • The letter to your clients?
  • Your ADV and privacy policy?

DocuSign is a great way to get things signed quickly. It just isn’t always the best way to repaper accounts during a transition.

As a transition consultant, I’ve used many different methods for this process. One of my favorites is the remote client information gathering method. First, I create a Client Information Gathering Sheet, as I mentioned in Step 10. Then, after the advisor resigns, I have him, myself, or another staff member speak to each client over the phone and fill out the sheet. I record what types of accounts need to be opened and what paperwork is involved. Then I use that sheet to gather everything I need for the client packet. Whether I’m opening the accounts and generating the forms, filling out the forms myself, or running a program that fills the forms for me, I can do everything I need all at once.

Regardless of the method you use, make sure to lean on your master spreadsheet. Update as you go. Add columns for status updates. Insert one for tracking numbers if you’re sending packets by priority mail or overnight. Keeping up-to-date records saves you time and keeps everyone on the same page.

Transition Period

Step 12: Hand in Your Resignation Letter

I wrote briefly about this in Step 6, but I feel the need to reiterate. For the sake of your clients, try not to burn bridges. Hand in your resignation letter and leave the scene. Remember, your client accounts remain where they are until you’re able to transfer them. They will be assigned to other advisors. You have no control over who will contact them and what tactics they’ll employ to retain the business.

I recently worked with an advisor who resigned from the RIA he’d been employed by to establish his own. The firm he left chose not to honor their own non-solicitation agreement and sent an email to all his clients and implored them to consider staying with the firm. While most of his clients dismissed the communication, his largest clients hesitated, referenced several points made in the email, and initiated an “evaluation” of their financial situation. The prior firm continued to slander the advisor, but he was eventually able to convince his clients to join him. He attributes the success to his continued professionalism and positivity throughout the process.

The way you choose to exit your current position could have a ripple effect. Consider possible legal ramifications. If you’re leaving a wirehouse, you’re dealing with entities that have deep pockets and little empathy. Tread lightly.

Step 13:  Talk to Your Clients

After you resign, immediately start communicating with your clients. Know the specific rules you need to follow. If you’re not supposed to solicit, don’t do anything that can be considered solicitation.

If you’re not able to bring client information with you, find other means of getting it. Update your social media accounts. Start spreading the word about your departure. Once your clients start asking how to join you, initiate your game plan from Step 11. Have plenty of Client Information Gathering Sheets on hand. Start filling in your master spreadsheet.

Step 14: Get into a Groove

Initiate all your game plans and start finding your groove. Process items in bulk when you can and record all details on your master spreadsheet. Mail out packets in groups. Open new accounts or submit forms in batches. Scan and upload paperwork all at once. By streamlining your processes, you can increase productivity and eliminate downtime.

Helpful Tip: Purchase and download the pro version of Adobe Acrobat. It allows you to scan large batches of paperwork and organize and split the pages as needed. It can be downloaded as an app on your phone, so you can take photos, turn them into PDFs, and upload them to the cloud so you can access them from any of your devices to submit for processing.

Step 15:  Update Your Master Spreadsheet First Thing Every Morning

Start each day by referencing and updating your master spreadsheet. Use it as your guideline. Continue updating it throughout the day as you check things off your list. Oftentimes, things fall through the cracks. Issues crop up. Paperwork gets misplaced. Transfers process overnight. Being able to check each individual account status every morning in one place allows you to have complete control over your workflow during the day.

Helpful Tip: Use conditional formatting in Excel to color code each of your accounts based on status.

Step 16: Keep a Running List of Clients Who Haven’t Returned Paperwork

Use your master spreadsheet to determine which clients haven’t returned paperwork. There’s only so much you can do once the paperwork is sent. You must rely on clients to do their part as well. They could be reluctant to rush the process because of the adjustments that will be made. By keeping a list, you can keep up constant communications. Remind them that you’re the reason they’re making the change and your relationship with them is important.

Step 17:  Send Status Updates

Transitions can be taxing for clients. The process can easily damage a relationship. The time-consuming nature of the situation puts a strain on you and causes an interruption in regular business operations and communications. Clients are often left wondering how long the transfer will take and what to expect.

By proactively providing them status updates, you can eliminate their worries. The updates also serve to keep you informed and remind you which clients are exiting the transition phase and beginning to resume regular operations.

The Takeaways

These 17 steps I came up with include a fair amount of advice and helpful tips, but I’d like to offer some additional thoughts.

Do your research.

I cannot stress this point enough. Know what you’re getting yourself into and how you’re going to handle it. Ask as many questions as possible. Seek out others who’ve recently gone through what you’re about to go through. Be as detailed as possible. Issues stemming from insufficient preparation are totally preventable.

Staff appropriately.

Trying to complete a transition on your own is ill-advised. Find out what resources your custodian or accepting firm can offer. Consider hiring a transition consultant or part-time staff member. If you’re planning to employ full-time staff, consider doing so prior to the transition. Designate someone as the “Project Manager”. Divvy up the workload based on individual strengths. Know your own limitations.

Stay organized.

Things can spiral out of control quickly when attempting to move a large group of client accounts all at once. Keep updated records of your progress. Create physical client files, as well as digital ones. Consider using a secure file-sharing tool that clients can access to upload statements and forms. Spend some extra time keeping things organized. It will end up saving you more time in the long run.

See the big picture.

Transitions take a long time, but they don’t last forever. Keep a clear head and remember that the process is temporary. After several months, you’ll begin to resume normal business operations. Hopefully, you’ll be in a better situation than you were prior to the transition and you’ll never have to worry about going through the process ever again.

Conclusion

Transitions suck. There’s no other way of putting it. Many advisors fear the process and rightfully so. It’s time-consuming, stressful and expensive.

On the other hand, a transition is the catalyst for an amazing and successful career as an entrepreneur. It can help you attain a new level of freedom and significantly increase your upside potential. The more you prepare, the easier it will be.

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