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Waiter, There’s a Fly in My Soup! Looking for Nice People

Waiter, There’s a Fly in My Soup! Looking for Nice People

00:00 01 January in Articles Written by Jon Henschen

by Jonathan Henschen, CFS and featured in Broker-Dealer Journal
January, 2007:

A functional back-office that delivers good service to advisors must be nurtured by management. No matter how much they produce, advisors who are rude and condescending to support staff should be weeded out before setting a dangerously negative tone.

Recently, I started a weekly 30-minute radio show through interviewing broker/dealers. It wasn’t long before I discovered a reoccurring pattern among my guests. When asked what kinds of advisors they target, instead of “Advisory focus,” “Big producers” or “Financial planning Approach,” as I was expecting, their first reply is usually: “We want them to be nice!”

But that focus made perfect sense the more I thought about it, since the alternative to “nice” can have dire effects on a firm’s back office, and ultimately, on it’s bottom line.

A healthy, functional back-office staff that delivers good service to advisors must be nurtured–and cherished–by management. No matter how much they produce, advisors who are rude and condescending to support staff should be weeded out before they set a negative tone with the back-office. The problem is, these advisors are usually on their best behavior during recruiting discussions. They won’t always show their true colors when visiting a broker/dealer or when speaking with you on the phone.

The “Waiter Rule” Window to the Soul

One way of spotting bad eggs in a broker/dealer is by applying the “Waiter Rule.” That is, you can tell a lot about a person by the way he or she treats waiters. In fact, it’s a magical window to the soul! Impatience, rudeness and demeaning comments directed at waiters reveal a lot about a person’s character, more so than about a person’s potential as an advisor.

The Waiter Rule is universally true, and originated with Raytheon CEO, Bill Swanson, whose booklet, Swanson’s Unwritten Rules of Management, presents 33 lessons in leadership (available free at With over 250,000 copies in distribution, the only rule of the 33 that never fails, according to Swanson, is that: “A person who is nice to you but rude to the waiter, or to others, is not a nice person.”

Swanson first noticed this in the 1970’s while dining with a man who became “completely obnoxious” with their waiter because the restaurant did not stock a particular wine. Be leery, warns Swanson, of people who seem to have situational values, but who turn the charm on and off based on the status of those they’re with.

I experienced this first hand during high school working as a caddie at a local country club. The way club members treated caddies varied widely. At one end of the spectrum were members who were kind, courteous, and generous when paying tips. At the other end of the spectrum were members who treated us as their personal doormats, complete with throwing over-the-edge fits over flapping flags, the slightest movement while they were putting, and divots not replaced to their satisfaction. One member even made caddies wade into ponds to retrieve not only his ball, but any other balls he happen to spot. It’s probably no surprise that he was also a particularly poor tipper.

Usually, when people in authority blow up at waiters, it’s a sign of out-of-control egos. What they are really saying is: “We’re better than you!” Such behavior is an accurate predictor of character because it is not easily learned or unlearned, rather it speaks to character, and how a person was raised.

Beware of “Staff Eaters”

Taking advisors to dinner during home office visits or out for a round of golf are some ways of revealing character flaws, but I’ve also found advisor interactions with the back office to be even more revealing. For example, when advisors interact with your firm’s recruiters, traders, operations and compliance people, they leave telltale footprints in much the same way as their behavior with restaurant staff. Protecting your back-office people from what I term “Staff Eaters” is a must. If allowed into your firm, they will set a negative tone that spreads like cancer, dragging once upbeat employees into a downward spiral.

Six years ago I visited a top-producer at his office to discuss changing broker dealer. In our meeting, he was rude, demeaning and overbearing, and had a “truck driver” vocabulary. I left there not only thinking what a jerk he was, but wondering how his broker-dealer’s back-office ever tolerated him? We went our separate ways, but speaking with the firm’s recruiter some time later, I asked if that advisor was still with them? The recruiter replied: “Oh, that guy? We asked him to leave over a year ago; he was terrible to our back office people.”

I had no idea where he ended up until last year, when his picture was featured in a broker/dealer’s magazine ads touting him as example of their “cream of the crop.” Over the past six months, advisors from this guy’s new broker/dealer have phoned with the same complaint: “Service has gone down hill.”

Coincidence? I don’t think so.

Doing Better

To a broker/dealer, service is a commodity even more precious than technology. If your firm offers quality service, look for ways to protect and improve it (never think you’ve arrived; strive to do better). If your service is suffering, try to spot potential “staff eaters” in your fold, and ask them to change their ways or leave, no matter how productive they may be.

In the long run you’ll come out ahead.