Making the Most of Home Office Visits
by Jonathan Henschen, CFS and featured in Broker/Dealer Journal
When financial advisors consider changing broker/dealers, they’ll often visit prospective firms to see who’s the best fit and most interested in them, and which ones can be crossed off their list. That makes planning and managing Home Office visits for advisor prospects a very big deal for a firm’s recruiting effort.
The same goes for advisors. Before booking flights all over the country, for instance, advisors should find out what production requirements broker/dealers require to cover the costs of these excursions, which can mount up in a hurry. Expense reimbursement requirements for airfare, ground transportation and hotels vary, but $150,000 in GDC (Gross Dealer Concessions) is a common figure industry-wide. This is not to discourage advisors to forget firms wanting more than that; just understand that those trips will largely be on the advisor’s dime. On the one hand, while advisors should find out what firms’ trip reimbursement policies are, and plan accordingly, on the other hand, firms seeking a more competitive position in a seller’s market may want to sweeten the pot by loosening up their expense reimbursement protocols.
Home office visits are usually overnighters. Typically, prospective advisors arrive the preceding afternoon or evening, and after a full day of meetings, leave late the next afternoon or evening. Some broker/dealers use the evenings before visiting days as an opportunity for a meet-and-greet and some dinner with the firm’s President, recruiter and other key Home Office personnel. This helps break the ice and gives you a chance to bond on a more personal basis.
The Big Day
As for the Big Day, meetings typically run from 8:30 to 3:00, following the schedule I’ve laid out below for the reasons given. None of this is carved in stone, of course, but here are two suggestions you should definitely put to the test: (1) Avoid running technology demos after lunch. I’ve seen advisors struggling to stay awake during droning technology demos served up after a heavy meal. And, while we’re on the subject of food and sleep: (2) Avoid serving turkey box lunches. Unthinking firms who do so have been known to induce triptophan comas in unsuspecting advisors, only to watch them drift off into Dreamland by mid-afternoon.
For that matter, since Home Office visits reflect as much on the firm as they do on prospective advisors, remember that expense short-cuts like box lunches, cut-rate hotels, non-direct flights, or hit-or-miss ground transport, all reflect poorly on your broker/dealer, leaving visiting advisors with the unfortunate impression that they’re on a cheap date with a firm that is (evidently) strapped for cash.
Ideally, Home Office visits should tell your firm’s story in all its glory, reflecting good things on officers and staff, and with the primary focus on the warm, healthy relationships between advisors and the firm’s various departments, and how the broker/dealer is always there ready to serve your needs, Mr. and Ms. Advisor.
A Typical Home Office Visit
Here’s a typical Home Office visit schedule, with suggested objectives for each segment. Naturally, all of this can be modified based on what you want these sessions to accomplish:
Greeting & Tour
Designate an official Guide for the Day. This is usually a recruiter or designated HR representative, who should see that the staff will be dressed professionally and all workspaces are neat and well-organized. I’ve seen visiting advisors show up in nicely tailored suits only to be greeted by staff members in blue jeans! This Casual Friday-treatment turned those advisors off so thoroughly, the firm was written off before the visit left the starting gate.
Marketing & Products
If your firm helps advisors with marketing and/or practice management, realize just how unique you are. Many broker/dealers don’t, so blow your horn if you do, and go into detail about everything you offer. As for products, you’ll field the usual questions about mutual funds and variable annuities; but alternative specialty products such REITS, Limited Partnerships, Futures Funds and Hedge Funds will be the most significant variable among most firms. And visiting advisors will not only want to know who you work with, but what products advisors can add to your current line up, if needed.
Technology & Demo
Technology sells! Detail your firm’s trading, brokerage account statements, electronic blotter, on-line paperwork and consolidated client statements. Some advisors will want to spend a lot of extra time delving into this area, so be prepared to extend the time designated for this part of the visit. Also discuss pending new technology, and how those new bells and whistles will benefit your firm’s advisors and their clients.
Broker/dealers often neglect giving visiting prospective advisors a clear breakdown of administrative costs on advisory platforms where advisors direct assets. Since marketing kits usually don’t include this information, this is a perfect opportunity to complete that part of your firm’s story. Other key topics usually include: What third-party managers you contract? May advisors maintain their own RIAs? May they work with Schwab or TD Waterhouse? And does your firm offer customized administration? You’ll soon know which questions are likely to come your way, and will be ready to field them like a pro.
Some of the best bonding is done over food and conversation. Since many reps are motivated by trips and awards or are looking for networking opportunities to rub elbows with like-minded advisors, the casual lunch setting is an ideal time to discuss conferences, regional meetings and top-producer trips.
Here is how, with attention to detail and some groundwork, you can transform visiting advisor lunches from ordinary meals into the most valuable part of the visit:
Choose a nearby middle-to-upscale eatery as the “official” restaurant for visitors to your firm.
Meet with the owner or manager; let them know that from time to time, you’ll be bringing prospective advisors and others for lunch at their establishment. This will be a feather in their caps and guarantee better service.
Ask what the restaurant can do to help you make a good impression on your guests, review menu selections and specials (keep it simple; hold the turkey sandwiches).
Give the owner/manager a heads-up before each of these occasions, with plenty of time to have your table ready and waiting when your party arrives. Let the waiter know the check goes to you or bill your office. Tip well.
Invite your firm’s president to attend, along key staff, such as the heads of Operations, Advisory and Compliance, schedules permitting. Remember, this is a great time for informal discussions of family and personal matters that otherwise might be awkward during more formal settings.
A well-briefed and motivated restaurant staff can make business lunches run like clockwork, and leave a terrific impression on visiting advisors.
Sometime after each lunch, privately let the restaurant owner/manager know how his people did, and where improvements are in order (you should never be disappointed in the services provided).
Understand that visiting advisors will have their antennas up for this meeting, intent on seeing if your firm’s Compliance department is going to hinder or help them. Attitude is everything in this part of the meeting. Be sure Compliance knows to voice Company policy, not offer personal opinions.
I once had a discussion with the principal of a group who’d visited a firm who well-remembered his conversation with the Compliance people. The first words out of the Compliance officer’s mouth were: “You know, I’m not a very big fan of qualified money in variable annuities.” As it happens, though, the principal’s group had significant assets in variable annuities, much of that in 401(k) rollovers. So needless to say, based on that information alone, the firm was dropped from the principal’s list like a hot rock. Later, however, I learned the fatal remark was the Compliance officer’s personal opinion, and in no way represented Company policy!
Meet the President
It is key for prospective new advisors to meet your firm’s President whenever possible. In fact, this is an ideal opportunity for him or her to tell the firm’s story and discuss where the business is headed in the future. Personal anecdotes about the firm’s history can have a big impact on advisors. But it’s smart to review this information with the President in advance so you’ll be able to relate it to visiting advisors in case the firm’s President is unable to attend this meeting.
Detail your firm’s paperwork flow and protocols. Visiting advisors will usually want to look over your Client Information Sheet and Mutual Fund/Variable Annuity Switch Form. Other topics typically of interest are client costs, ticket charges and, of course, payroll and commission tracking. Your Operations and Transfer departments may be combined; if so, be sure to close with specific information about how your firm handles book transfers.
Speaking of which, make time to address advisors’ greatest fears in moving their books: “How long will it take to make the move?” and “What retention of clients will I have?” Be clear about how proactive your firm is in helping experienced advisors transfer their books. It’s a major hurdle and, unless well-managed, can cause great concern among advisors who’ve had bad experiences with previous moves.
Getting Your Act Together
Evaluate your overall Home Office platform at least twice a year. Know what information you want prospective advisors to take away from Home Office visits, the kinds of things that can sour visiting advisors from the get-go, and which things are sure winners every time.
Be certain everyone at your firm who interacts with visiting advisors is communicating a consistent message every time. Different people giving advisors different answers to the same set of questions creates confusion, disharmony and distrust. Consistency is a winner, but it only takes one weak link in the chain to undercut your very best recruiting efforts.
As you know, the advisors you’re trying to recruit won’t always give you objective feedback. A conversation with an advisor whom I’d recently placed revealed he’d chosen his new firm based on its “personal family feel”; another confessed that he went with his new firm because his wife “liked the people there”!
You can never tell what will make or break a Home Office visit, so plan and manage them all accordingly. It’s important to focus these high-stakes recruiting opportunities on relationship-building, consistency, and conveying a positive image of your firm working for the benefit of its advisors. And since you only get once chance at making a good impression, make each one count. Good hunting.