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A process for your practice
A process for your practice

Nov 01 2022 / Round the Table Magazine

A process for your practice

Advisors share how being process driven transformed their business.

By Mike Beirne

Topics Covered

When Jason L. Smith was diagnosed with a heart condition that required life-threatening open-heart surgery, a lot of concerns raced through his mind. One thought was, I’d better get some systems and processes in place in case something happens to me, so my business could take care of my family.

Back in 2006, the 17-year MDRT member from Westlake, Ohio, USA, was a solo practitioner with a part-time assistant. That year also was his first time attending a Top of the Table Annual Meeting where he realized that the most successful advisors in that elite tier were process driven. So, he started documenting everything he did in his practice and grouped them into tools — documents or exercises that he completes with clients or an employee — and concepts — visuals, stories and other ways to explain products and their purpose to clients. Then he grouped his tools and concepts in a sequential order and created a checklist of front-stage tasks for the advisor to complete with the client and another checklist of backstage tasks to be completed in preparation to make the client experience as successful as it can be. Both stages crossed over each other, and there was clarity as to which team member was assigned to complete each activity.

Having a process and then breaking it down into tools and then concepts makes it very easy to train advisors and the staff.

“Having a process and then breaking it down into tools and then concepts makes it very easy to train the advisors and the staff and have checklists for accountability to make sure it’s done,” Smith said.

That was his first attempt at improving the performance of his practice with a business process with help from a business strategy coach. Along the way, he delved into Michael E. Gerber’s “The E-Myth,” a business management plan based on books with the same title that professes most small businesses fail because they depend on the work of a single individual rather than on systems. That system helped him develop business principles for forecasting, goal setting and tracking cash flow among other metrics. Later, to improve retention and company culture when turnover among advisors was challenging, he latched on to the organizational health principles of Patrick Lencioni, author of “The Advantage,” who advocates that a company is healthy when it is whole, consistent and complete, and when its management, operations and culture are unified.

Today, Smith has 12 employees counting advisors and a practice that has gathered $82 million in new client assets during 2021. Now he’s implementing the Entrepreneurial Operating System (EOS) based on the book and business management plan by Gino Wickman called “Traction,” which helps business owners prioritize their challenges and provides principles to stay focused on solving them on their way to achieving big-picture goals.

Whether you call it a process, a system or a business management plan, having a road map to ensure that resources in your practice are being put to optimal use can help advisors avoid mistakes and delays and improve efficiency, productivity and client satisfaction. Yet, being process driven doesn’t necessarily require having a holistic scheme and workflows documented for every function in your practice. Some practices might be too small for such an overarching system.

A process per task

Timothy Daniel Clairmont, CFP, MSFS, a 12-year MDRT member from Lake Oswego, Oregon, USA, wanted to be more intentional about taking his center of influence (COI) relationships to the next level rather than just having lunch and dinner with people he liked spending time with. So, he categorized his contacts by occupations to see where he had a deep bench of job titles he could refer to clients and which categories were lacking. Then, inspired by the film, “The NeverEnding Story” and the visual of Bastian trying to get through the first and second gates to reach the Second Oracle, he ranked his COIs on a spreadsheet by creating gates.

The first gate was grading each COI’s product, price and quality on a scale from zero to 10, with 10 being the best. The 10s would stay in his queue of people who he might refer to his clients. The second gate is service — are they slow, are they responsive, does he have to chase them down? — also graded from zero to 10. The third gate is reciprocation; have they referred me somebody new in the past 12 months? The fourth and final gate is resonance. Does he like this person enough to want to spend an hour having a beer, coffee or a meal with them?

“Ideally, I want someone to be a 10 in every category, but that’s not realistic,” said Clairmont. “So, as you manage your spreadsheet, you rank them accordingly. Who is your No. 1, No. 2 and No. 3 if you have a deep bench. Then I take my top 10 referral partners who are No. 1 in their categories, and I try to prioritize having lunch with each of them every quarter. If you connect with those top individuals and spend an hour having coffee or lunch with them every quarter, the amount of referrals you’re going to get is huge. There’s no software, there’s no magic bullet for this stuff. It’s just thinking clearly, being a little more organized and being intentional about your process.”

Keep knowledge from walking out the door

Being intentional also can be documenting knowledge so it can be transferred to other employees and new hires.

When Amanda Cassar, MFP, AFP, was notified by her virtual assistant in the Philippines that she was leaving, the 10-year MDRT member in Burleigh Heads, Queensland, Australia, asked her to create a video procedures manual before her exit. Using Microsoft on-screen video streaming software, the assistant trained other members of the team to record screen-shares as they went through the steps for completing such tasks as data entry for software, a client’s risk profile or commission management. Eighteen months later, her practice has an online manual collection with more than 20 videos.

“We all need a procedures and policy manual, so usually you write out the steps. Who is responsible, and how long should it take? You might end up with something that looks beautiful, but it sits on the shelf collecting dust. It isn’t a living and breathing document,” Cassar said. “Today especially when you have a Gen Z workforce, they’re not going to look up a book on how to do stuff, but they can watch a two-minute video on how to do a task.”

There’s no software, there’s no magic bullet for this stuff. It’s just thinking clearly, being a little more organized and being intentional about your process.

Mark D. Olson, CFP, MSFS, a MDRT 23-year member from Austin, Texas, USA, credits two processes — one for staging retirement planning seminars and the other for financial planning — for increasing speed and accuracy for his team of 10 advisors and assistants. Part of his inspiration to be process driven came from reading “The Checklist Manifesto” by Atul Gawande, where he learned that checklists are not operating manuals but rather tools to make sure you don’t miss important steps that need to be completed for the client and for compliance.

Previously, financial planning tasks, for example, were listed on a hard-copy Excel spreadsheet that was stapled inside a file folder containing the client’s documents. When advisors and assistants wanted to look at the checklist to see what was completed and what was left to do, they had to consult an online document to learn who had custody of the physical file. That cumbersome process eventually migrated to Dropbox but was still inefficient because team members could not access and work on content simultaneously.

Over the past couple years, the team tweaked the checklists and now the seminar and financial planning processes have granular detail about every task integrated into a workflow app in the practice’s customer relationship management system (CRM). Multiple team members, who all work in different locations and create about 125 plans annually, can touch the same client’s file without duplication of effort. When one task is completed, the next step on the workflow is sent to the next person in the process chain.

“Using the workflow in the CRM, from the standpoint of processes, has had a huge impact for allowing us to get financial plans done quicker and more accurately than what we were getting before,” Olson said.

Process and culture

Olson added that the processes also help maintain a healthy office culture. As each task is completed, the workflow puts a deadline on the next task. Olson’s practice targets delivering the financial plan within three months from the first client meeting. If one step is late, rather than looking for a culprit, the team members examine the process to find an explanation for the tardiness and try to fix it. In most cases, a step is late because they’re waiting for the client to submit information.

“It helps to reduce misunderstandings among who is supposed to do what when everyone is working toward a common objective and working with the same information. A lot of misunderstandings I think come from two people having different information,” Olson said.

Voluntary turnover used to be a problem for Chee Hong Gan, ChFC, CLU, at his agency before systems and processes implemented there improved retention to a point where no one among his staff of four direct hires has left since the pandemic ensued. Gan, a 13-year MDRT member from Singapore, and his team have two systems: an advisor fronting client module and another he uses as the agency leader with advisors and staff to manage daily operations.

It helps to reduce misunderstandings among who is supposed to do what when everyone is working toward a common objective and working with the same information.

The systems were tried on several communication platforms — email chains, Slack, Microsoft Teams, Telegram, WhatsApp — before finally residing on an intranet site in SharePoint. Monthly meetings drive continuous improvement as staff provides feedback about shortcomings, such as repetitive tasks that could be automated and recommendations, like adding a template to accommodate new kinds of client requests that the system wasn’t previously handling.

Sometimes adding value-added client services requires just tweaking the system rather than expensive technology. For example, when clients resumed traveling after the pandemic shutdown, travel insurance carriers changed their benefits and some would not cover COVID-19-related costs if the illness was reported after returning from a trip, an outcome that clients would learn too late if they believed they contracted the virus during the trip but developed symptoms later. Gan’s team added a template so that when clients are buying the policy, a “welcome back” text is automatically scheduled to be dispatched on the return day and asks if they feel OK and if they need an advisor to file a claim.

“We do revenue share with the staff, and we involve staff in all the changes. Some changes involve day-to-day operations, and some are project based. So, if we introduce a pilot project and say we’re going to shift from this system to that one so that it saves time or increases interaction or maybe even revenue, they understand they’re not just doing this for the boss, but they’re doing this for the entire team and everybody’s profit,” Gan said. 

Being process driven enables advisors to look at the big picture and work on their business, not just in it. Smith has been running on EOS for almost three years and taking the helicopter view of his practice is not an overwhelming demand of his time. He attends a weekly 90-minute meeting with his team to discuss the three most pressing issues the company is facing that week and work on solutions. There are also quarterly meetings to set rocks — EOS talk for quarterly priorities — and a two-day meeting once a year to establish annual goals.

“These processes have propelled me from being a financial advisor to being a business owner,” Smith said.

Olson added that the continuous improvement driven by processes in his practice free up time for personal use and to deliver a great client experience. “It takes so much just to get a client, and we want to make sure our processes are as good as can be,” he said. “The better we can work our processes, the better we’ll be able to keep them and get better business through referrals.”