John Lefferts' Blog

Monday, February 20, 2012

The Times They Are a-Changin'

Impute. It’s a word not often used in day to day language. So when I read it as the third and final of 3 points (empathy, focus, impute) for “The Apple Marketing Philosophy” early on in the Steve Jobs book, it caused me to think about it. Most firms have mission statements with obvious and overused words like excellence, vision or quality. But impute stands out and really says it all.

The Steve Jobs book has been sitting on my night stand for several months now. I bought it obviously because I wanted to read it. But with about 600 pages looking more like “War and Peace”, it was easier to pick up the i-Pad and read current events or whatever was on my Flipboard at the time. Then in my discussions with multiple CEO’s and business leaders over the past couple months, invariably the Steve Jobs book comes in; “I’m reading the Steve Jobs book, and…” or “Have you read the Steve Jobs book?”. So on a rainy Saturday morning in Texas (no more drought!), I set the i-Pad down and began reading the book. I was captivated after the first chapter and before I knew it, the day was over and I had cruised through over 300 pages (I took my time). Steve Jobs was one weird dude, but was he ever driven and with his “reality distortion field” he set wild expectations that made what seemed impossible, possible.

“Impute” emphasized that people form opinions about a company or product based on the signal it conveys. Basically, people do judge a book by its cover.  You can have the absolute best product or service, but if it is packaged or presented poorly, that’s it. You’re done. So naturally, I began thinking about how this applies in our business today as various segments of the industry are positioning for relevance and success as regulations, consumer attitudes/behavior and the underlying economics of the business models are dislocated.

It’s no secret that the financial services industry and those in the business of giving financial advice have a public perception at all-time lows. I read where financial advisors rank lower than car salesmen in public perception while the media has continued to lock onto all of Wall Street being one in the same; crooks. With the message that we as an industry are sending out, it’s no wonder it isn’t worse.  In a Registered Rep magazine survey of financial advisors, more wirehouse advisors (84.7%) described their services as “financial planning” than RIA’s (only 73.9% of RIAs use that description). Of those who practice as RIA’s, only 30% actually merit the title “Financial Planner” since all they do is investment management. RR mag article . What we “impute” is a very confused message.

I think it comes down to this; if the only positive perceptions the public has of us are 1) that we as an industry are advising based on what is in the clients best interest (fiduciary standard) and 2) that the regulators are holding us to it (SRO), then it should be so. Whether it’s Merrill Lynch, Cetera, Mass Mutual, United Capital or the boutique RIA, we’re all in the business of selling trust. The products we use to fulfill that trust are basically commodities that our clients can get anywhere, even online. But they can only get trust in a one on one relationship with a qualified, properly trained professional who has their best interests, not that of the advisor, as front and center. I always found it odd that financial firms advertise products to the general public. My alma mater, AXA, had an ad with a gorilla to promote annuities. Complete flop. Why? It placed the focus on the wrong thing. They would have been better to advertise the professionalism and client focus of their advisors while pitching products through 3rd party channels in industry publications (which they do). But they wasted millions on an ad campaign with the wrong message.

All the special interest groups representing each faction of the industry, (NAIFA, NAPFA, FPA, FSI, SIFMA) have a competing interest to protect their existing turf without realizing that, as they say down here in Texas, “that horse is already out of the barn”. What we “impute” and what is expected in the marketplace is that we are held to a fiduciary standard and that the feds are holding us to that standard. There may be some temporary victories for some special interest groups. I still can’t understand how indexed annuities continue to be unregistered products. But in the end, I think public perception wins out regardless of current regulations or SRO’s. The heavy trend is a movement away from product push and commissions towards fees and broad based product and service offerings. It’s happening without the regulations or SRO’s forcing it. When we finally evolve and get to a point where all advice is held to the highest standard, it’s then and only then that we can rise up as a true profession and be perceived in a more positive light. It is all about what we impute…"for the times, they are a changin'”