When I started my career almost 40 years ago the term financial planning was not a common term in the public domain. It was often used to “dress up” the sale of financial products such as life insurance, and expensive mutual funds, structured as contractual plans with first year commissions as high as 20%. Those early days could be likened to the early days of the medical profession that was made of barbers who practiced blood letting or traveling hucksters selling patent medicines out of the back or a wagon.
Today the medical field has professionalized dramatically with credentialed practitioners, accepted processes and research-backed ways to treat and cure patients. The vast majority of the medical field studies hard, works long hours and care that they deliver effective treatments and health care advice to their patients. Yet at the same time there continues to be those hawking miracle treatments promising weight loss or cures of horrible diseases in exchange for your cash.
For those seeking financial advice, there has been a growing and serious minded segment of the financial services world that, in many ways, parallels the medical profession. There still are the “wolf is sheep’s clothing” types that are, for the most part, more interested in selling a financial product or gaining assets under management than delivering objective financial advice. Just like the medical practitioner who needs to be aware of the “patent medicine hucksters” the more professional, advice based financial advisors are in competition with those who purport to provide great advice while at the same time have other objectives in mind.
So how can the consumer, the one seeking professional financial advice, separate the sheep from the goats? White Oaks Wealth Advisors, Inc. believes there are four key criteria to be asked about and evaluated for consideration. They are credentials, compensation, experience and process.
A good friend of mine once remarked, “A Certified Financial Planner designation is the outward manifestation of someone’s seriousness about providing advice to the public”. While not so true 20 years ago, there is little reason not to seek out someone who has demonstrated “their seriousness” about what they do.
The CFP designation requires a course of study in the following areas:
General principles of Financial Planning
Income tax planning
Professional conduct and fiduciary responsibility
Financial plan development
In addition, an applicant for the CFP designation must have earned a Bachelors degree from an accredited instituting, passed a comprehensive exam on the areas of study, experience of 6,000 qualifying hours of hands on experience, agree to and complete ongoing continuing education of 15 hours per year and agree to the CFP Boards Standards of Professional Conduct. The CFP Board details background checks on all candidates.
While there are MANY smart people who have skills the CFP designation has the demonstrated educational experience and professional standards that are key to the financial planning process.
As described above the giving of financial advice, like other professions, has a colorful past with many stories of bad products being “sold” to consumers. Upon further evaluation, in way too many cases, there existed a direct, adverse correlation between the amount of commissions and the quality of the advice. As all professions have progressed, so has the compensation issue in the delivery of financial advice. The introduction of “advice for a fee” came about 25 years ago and the concept was quite simple. Pay for the advice and implement the most effective way possible. Cost of implementation would be lower and the advisor would not be tempted to offer a product that maximized their paycheck.
Like most really good ideas the idea has drawn a lot of imitators using the term “fee based”. While sounding like fee-only it is very different in its application. A “fee based” firm/organization has other sources of compensation, as well as, from the client. These compensation sources include underwriting income, finder’s fees, due diligence fees, 12-B1 fees (annual marketing or distribution fees) and many others. These additional compensation sources have the opportunity to present “additional considerations” to the question of which products to implement. There are many ethical, client-centered advisors who receive these forms of compensation but the additional conflicts can, and do, exist. That’s the reason White Oaks went Fee-Only in 1997. It was an interesting challenge to be an early adopter in this “new idea”. Yet, it was the best thing for our clients as it simplified our marketing message and made our internal decision making process clearer and focused.
The only ones who seem to dismiss experience are those who don’t have it. As a young advisor I needed to “borrow” the experience of the large firm I was then associated with to obfuscate my youth and inexperience. I worked sometime. Now having worked in this field for nearly 40 years and lived through many a bull, bear and lack luster market I clearly see the world of delivering financial advice differently than my early years.
At the same time my experience, though I believe to be valuable, pales in comparison to a team of professionals that have interesting and varied experience to offer. For that reason we developed a team approach at White Oaks. Each financial strategy that is presented is worked on and reviewed by, not one CFP but, our team of three CFP’s and our CPA. Our CPA is also working on his CFP as well.
This team experience totals over 80 years of combined experience and is not dependent on any one individual for its continuity.
Often a prospective client will call and want an answer to a specific question that’s pressing them and their decision-making. Sometimes the answer is obvious but, in many situations, the answer may depend on a number of inter-related issues that need to be considered to offer the “best” advice. The medical profession has a phrase” prescription before diagnosis is malpractice”. Giving advice prior to a complete understanding of the goals objectives and overall financial makeup is seldom a good idea.
For that reason a solid process that everyone is clear on is the best way to imagine, develop and put a good plan into place. As the financial planning profession has grown and developed six specific, and distinct, steps have emerged to provide a solid foundation to build a solid plan.
Establishing and defining the client planner relationship.
Gathering client data and goals
Analyzing and evaluating current financial status
Developing and presenting financial planning recommendations and alternatives
Implementing the financial planning recommendations
Monitoring the financial planning recommendations.
How does one know if they are getting a plan that is practical and will fit their needs? A planner/planning firm needs to articulate the process they follow and how the outcome of that specific process will lead to a reasonable outcome. Spewing out random ideas and advice may indicate that the advisor knows some concepts and potential solutions but, it does not reliably lead to a solid plan that will be acted upon.
The development of a financial strategy that will fit a family’s or individual’s needs, and be acted upon, is a highly personal process. Personal chemistry between the advisor and you as the client is certainly a big part to building a level of trust appropriate to implement and make part of your daily lives. Demonstrable evidence of competence via credentials is a key component but without the experience and process may leave one short of the desired outcomes. Objectivity is also measured by experience but, when combined with client centered compensation strategies, the confidence should build in reaching a desired level of satisfaction with the end work product.
Ultimately the accomplishment and realization of accomplishing your life’s goals and dreams brings the highest level of personal satisfaction. By developing and following solid, well thought out strategies can bring your dreams into reality. The probability of a successful outcome is greatly enhanced with a thoughtful and diligent process powered by credentialed, experienced, process-oriented team whose compensation aligns with your interests as a partner. The puzzle pieces to a great outcome are identified and putting them in place with a great team will complete the picture.