Alas, not all employers are open to their employees being publicly quoted, and this US bank is one of them.
However the interview was so sincere, so educational, and so enjoyable, I wanted to celebrate it by publishing it anyway. Whether you are a financial planner or a salesperson who wants the best for their clients, this is a fantastically fun interview.
Jamie: What have you found most fulfilling about your career thus far?
Interviewee: We have been able to help a lot of people over the years. This is my 39th year, and we’ve helped people avoid significant mistakes, and other people we’ve seen do well over time. Some of our counselling with people, we’re able to help people enough that in at least two cases so far, we’re dealing with the 5th generation of one family. It’s rewarding to have these long periods in which you can see a ton of results and be pleased with how people have done.
Jamie: How would you describe your role at the moment?
Interviewee: I’m a financial adviser, and we help a select group of families achieve their financial goals for multiple generations.
Jamie: Would you say your current role is in sales?
Interviewee: Everything is sales. It’s more giving financial advice now, which involves a little bit of selling because sometimes, people have trouble doing the right things. Well, I have a chart in my office of 188 different cognitive biases. It’s 188 different behavioural mistakes that people often make, and it seems like most are concerning money matters. We have to coach them to help them avoid big mistakes. That’s selling.
I have a friend who’s a retired orthopaedic surgeon, and when people come to him and say that they are motorcycle riders, he didn’t try to talk them out of riding motorcycles. He would say, “I think you should continue that because our transplant doctors here are very much in favour of that.” If you care about people, you sell them on something.
Jamie: Do you go out and find new clients?
Interviewee: I don’t really go out and look for new clients much. We have enough to do with our existing clients and referrals from there.
Jamie: Was that the same earlier in your career?
Interviewee: No. We’ve done a lot of seminars, cold calling, and all of those things in the early years. Now I have a team of four, my assistant and two partners, one of whom is my daughter. She’s in her 7th year. We all work together. In the early years, we all had to work really hard on developing new clients. I understand that’s much more difficult to do in today’s market than it used to be.
Jamie: How long did it take before you got to the point where your time is saturated with existing clients?
Interviewee: It was a good long 10 years, and then we kept growing after that.
Jamie: What is the best thing about being in sales?
Interviewee: The best thing is that to the extent that I’m in sales and more, but the best thing about what I do is it gives us complete freedom over time. You get unlimited potential.
My daughter used to be in a corporate role, and that gave her perspective. She had no control over time. She had to work every holiday, every Christmas, and every Thanksgiving. She had to manage all these people, and now she comes in, she works very hard, as I do. But if either of us wants to go to her daughter’s school for a performance, we can. I’m on five different non-profit boards. Anything we want to do, as long as we’re working hard, we have complete time freedom, and we can structure our lives any way we want to. We have a lot of control over our lives.
Jamie: What skills do you believe that someone should exhibit naturally to go into sales?
Interviewee: I don’t think there is such a thing. I was a high school senior when I went into sales for the first time really, I did it because I didn’t have any skills and I was pretty shy, and I wanted to improve on those characteristics.
Jamie: What characteristics specifically did you improve on through your sales career?
Interviewee: I gained a lot of persistence. I gained a lot of discipline and the ability to be positive no matter what was going on outside of me there.
Jamie: Do you think there’s a personality type that’s more suited to sales?
Interviewee: Let me share this with you. Years ago, I sat in a room where it was all financial advisers, who at that time were mostly sales-oriented. They had done these personality tests ahead of time, and then the advisors were seated in quadrants in the room by what the personality test came out. The options were: the driver, the friendly, the analytical, and the expressive. The vast majority of the people were in either driver or expressive, and there were very few analytical. I was alone in the friendly group.
You can do well and have different characteristics because you stand out from the others if nothing else. So, you sell to a different group of people. I’ll tell you what happened. As the guy was speaking, he would tell a joke or make a comment, and just one corner of the room would laugh, or he would say something else, and three-quarters of the room would laugh and get it.
It was amazing because each quadrant of personality types was really different. I came up to the speaker at a break, and I said, “Well, I’m right on the line between the friendly and analytical in all the surveys I did.” I said, “How do I determine which one am I?” He said, “You’re analytical.” I said, “How do you know that?” He said, “Only the analytical would come up to me at the break and ask me a question!”
Okay. So, whatever, I guess the expressive were out partying in the hallway, and the drivers were calling their office on their phone. I think you could work in this profession with any personality type.
Jamie: Would you recommend that anyone goes into financial advisory sales?
Interviewee: In financial advisory, there are no shortcuts. The quick results are not long-lasting results. You can build a career, but you also need to plan for the long term.
You and I saw people selling books who had no innate sales ability, but they would just go out, work hard, and do what they were supposed to do. They did great. I think that’s what it takes.
Jamie: What are the biggest challenges of winning business as a new financial adviser?
Interviewee: If you’re young, it’s hard to convince people that you know what you’re doing. I had a beard for most of my career until I didn’t need it; when I was old enough and it turned white. That helped to some degree: people are more interested in talking to an older-looking person, and so that helps you. To some degree, when they’re dealing with something important like money or even health sometimes, they want to see a little bit of grey hair, and I think there is a little bit of an advantage there.
Jamie: How can you develop that credibility if you are younger?
Listen a lot. You have credibility when you listen instead of coming across as a salesperson. Then do what you say you’re going to do. If you say you’re going to call somebody back, do it. If you say you’re going to get them a report, you do it. Zig Ziglar had a saying about interviews, “How do you interview when you have no experience?” You say, “Look, I’ve got 25 years of experience telling the truth, 25 years of experience of doing what I said I was going to do.”
Work hard, don’t over-promise, and remember that nobody gets too much kindness. Nobody has ever listened too much, and it’s just that it’s really important to listen to people and find out what matters to them.
Jamie: Do you believe there should be a division between people who sell new business aspect and those who serve their financial needs?
Interviewee: I don’t know. There is an old saying in our business that service drives out sales and sales drives out prospecting. You spend all day long doing service things and never get around to talking to clients, you can spend all day talking to your friendly clients, and never get around to prospecting. In our case, we have to do everything, and it is better to delegate some of the service work, but not the advice work because that is the main thing we do.
Jamie: In the financial advisory industry generally, how do they treat these salespeople and consultants?
Interviewee: I think it treats them well. In any field, you find people who can complain. I think if what you want is to be taken care of, this is not the place. If you want freedom and you’re willing to deal with the ambiguity that comes with the financial markets and comes with all clients being different, then great; I like it, but I am predisposed to like things. One of the boards I’m on, served on the search committee for a new executive director.
We found a great person. But afterwards, they told me I was not of much use in the selection process. I said, “Why was I useless?” After all, I was Chairman of the Board! “You’re useless because you liked everybody.”
I liked everybody, and I liked everything that goes on. In good markets, that’s fun, and the clients are happy. In bad markets, you can find better bargains, and you’re competing with fewer people, so I can handle any of it.
Jamie: What are the biggest downsides of working in financial planning?
Interviewee: There is a lot of responsibility because you’re helping people handle the money they’re going to have for the rest of their lives, or for their children’s education, or whatever it is. One great responsibility is that you can’t take it lightly. Another downside is, if you do well, it’s easy to slip into a comfort zone, and you’ll need to fight your way out of that in order to bring on new clients. A successful financial advisor could just talk to people who like them and who are happy with them all day. But if they see their work as a mission, they need to be helping new people all the time.
You have to really be self-motivated and self-disciplined. There is regulatory oversight, but seldom will someone ask, “How are you doing?” You’re just kind of running your own day unless you’re in a team where you support each other.
You need to control your own attitude, your own activities, and your own time.
Jamie: So it’s a bit like being an entrepreneur except with a structure and products?
Interviewee: I think so.
Jamie: If I am a newly minted salesperson who really wants to get into the financial advisory industry, how do I go about it?
Interviewee: I think these days unless you come from another industry with a lot of contacts, I think one needs to work with a team. Find somebody who is maybe an older adviser who is overburdened with a lot of clients and can just say, “Can I help you work through this? We have a neighbour down the street from us who did that, and she worked for 10 years with an older financial adviser. Then he retired, and by then, his clients knew her and were comfortable with her. It was a smooth transition. It seems to me that you’d have to either be a really good marketer or you have to work along with somebody.
Jamie: What advice would you give to aspiring salespeople?
Interviewee: Do the hard stuff, and don’t listen to negative people. Find out your numbers: a certain number of names turn into a certain number of prospects which give you a certain number of contacts which can become a certain number of clients. If you’re looking for other books on these things, there is a great one in our profession called The Game of Numbers, by Nick Murray. It has some great stories and examples.
I don’t think there are any easy routes, and the people who get there easily at first either don’t develop the discipline to last in the long term or the things they have done to take shortcuts don’t work well over the long term.
Jamie: If you were starting your sales career again, what would you do differently?
Interviewee: I have been very fortunate. I wrote two long articles after my 33rd year about 33 things I was glad I did and 33 things I wish I’d done. The biggest one is that I just wish I’d realized the geometric value of every single person I met, every single call I made, every single appointment I had with a new client in those first few years. Many times they turned into excellent clients, friends, and were kind enough to refer others to me.
Jamie: Could you tell me about a time when you failed to make a sale, but it taught you something valuable?
Interviewee: There are many stories of people who have made serious financial mistakes because they didn’t talk to a good advisor, whether it was me or someone else. My daughter’s friend’s dad sold two successful businesses that he had built his whole life. Then he invested it in something with a distant relative and lost it all.
The father-in-law of one of my good friends had also been a successful business owner. Over the years, he began investing in a golf buddy’s invention.
He kept putting more and more money into it without his wife knowing anything about it. In the end, he lost it all.
He didn’t ask anybody else for advice, or they would have stopped him somewhere along the line. It turned out later he’d had a mild stroke, or had dementia, so he wasn’t making good decisions.
I don’t know if I’ve lost any sales, but I see, in our world, people need another person or maybe several other people to help to make sure they don’t make that one big mistake sometime in their life.
Jamie: I guess that speaks to the honesty required to go into the profession?
Interviewee: Yes, 5 years ago, I had some serious problems. I had cancer, and although I survived the cancer, I developed an infection that meant I spent a month in the hospital. My doctor says I should have died three times. People sometimes ask me how my life changed after that, and whether I came out with any new resolutions.
The only two resolutions I made were: 1. I’m going to tell my clients the hard stuff more and comfort them a little less. Even if they don’t want to hear it. I think it’s pastors or counsellors who advise, “Your job is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable!” 2. The other is that if I want to do something, to call a friend, to go hear a speaker, or take my wife to New Zealand as I did last year, I will do it. Nothing in life is guaranteed, so I wasn’t going to put things off for another time.
The thing about telling clients the hard things is important. I spend much of my time talking people out of decisions. That’s something you don’t hear in the media, how really good financial advisers will tell people not to do things if it’s not the right thing for the client. There is a lot of that because you feel some responsibility to help them make decisions to move them toward their financial goals.
Jamie: Can you tell me about a time when a sales process went really well, and it shows off the skills you’ve gained?
Interviewee: I’ll tell you one. Ten years ago, at the bottom of the market of the crash of ’08, ’09. About the month before the bottom, a friend pulled me aside and said, “I need to talk to you.”
He was about to retire from a multinational corporation and would receive an excellent retirement package. His retirement goal was to start up a non-profit to care for widows and orphans in Paraguay. As we discussed how he might invest, the stock market was hitting new lows. Investment sentiment was in the pits.
I said, “Look, if you’ll trust me, we will get into this market. It’s going to feel terrible, but you have a possibility of doing well on this.” This was February 2009, so right before the real low point of the markets. He trusted me, and it seemed, from my experience, that we were near a low point.
With the money he made in the growth of that market, he was able to fund and build a school in Paraguay. He built a feeding centre for orphans where they feed 90 street kids, three times a week. He built a church and a school, he’s doing a micro-credit for women there. He’s doing this in two other countries in South America now. That was rewarding because that was extremely tangible, and several factors had to come together. First, he had to know me. Second, he had to trust me. Third, I had to have the courage to recommend something a little bit scary for all of us. Anyway, if I didn’t do anything else in my life, it was worth the effort of my career, knowing that orphans and widows who I’ll never meet are being fed and housed.