Looking to the philosophies and business strategies behind successful Silicon Valley start-ups is the key to improving efficiencies – and the bottom line – in advice practices, according to Audere Coaching & Consulting founder Stewart Bell.
Bell discussed specific focal areas for owners of advice businesses – automation, outsourcing, performance “hacks” and others – during one of Netwealth’s monthly educational webinars for financial advisers.
Bell has spent over 10 years coaching 300 plus professional services businesses - including financial advice practices, accountants, risk specialists and mortgage brokers - to help them stand out from their competitors and improve efficiency. Prior to his consulting career, he held multiple roles at AMP and NAB.
Closing the gaps
Bell began the seminar by asking participants what was “dragging their business down.” Common responses included paperwork, choosing the right technology, workflow, compliance and time management.
He said that these issues in combination had a negative effect on revenue, because they were wasting time that could otherwise be spent on “helping people to achieve financial independence as soon as practical so they can live without financial stress, take care of their families and, ideally, give back to their communities.”
“What I am talking about [is] building an advice firm that smashes paradigms,” he said.
“I am talking about how to build the kind of business that doesn't have to solely rely on third parties to give you leads or a business, that doesn't have to work hard to convert suspicious prospects into clients, but instead gets them calling you: a business that doesn't have to scrabble around to deliver on promises and uses technology and people to create really significant client advocacy.”
To do this, Bell said advisers needed to think like Silicon Valley entrepreneurs. He pointed to Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg: “He doesn’t do any coding anymore - he works in a more strategic area. I want that for you, because it will help you to close these gaps.”
Bell’s strategy, he explained, hinges on three key points: automation, “plug and play” (through delegation and taking on a more strategic role) and performance “hacks” (such as outsourcing certain admin bottlenecks). The goal, ultimately, was to get advisers to move from being “air traffic controllers” to “commanders” by recognising what aspects of their work were taking up unnecessary time and money.
Of course, while technology was an important part of Bell’s message, he emphasised that too many advisers find the extra admin required to navigate the technology used in their business actually damaging to productivity. The key was to “start using technology and stop letting tech use you.”
“I can go on and on about this topic – about the way that advisors hamstring themselves day in, day out with the way we allow technology to interrupt our flow when we need to focus when solving complex financial problems,” he explained.
Learn to say no
As an example, he cited a client, Craig, who made extensive use of a virtual assistant, but found he was "spending more time organising her than the other way around. He was deep into his emails 24/7, and it was making him miserable. He was doing it all: the process, the marketing, every email."
Bell concluded that Craig was wasting too much time dictating and micromanaging every piece of work his assistant needed to do. He switched Craig over to a four-step process called "VA onboarding," which was based on defining what he needed, how he needed to be communicated to, what information he needed at particular intervals and which systems and processes he would delegate to someone else.
Craig was so used to managing the entire scope of his business that it was difficult at first to let go of certain responsibilities, but after going through this process with Lisa – she took over many email, calendar and client onboarding duties – Bell said it dramatically increased his productivity.
Another client, Geoff, was struggling with similar issues, except technology was the main bottleneck: according to Bell, Geoff "had all this technology, the CRM system to hold the data, a directory structure to hold it all, a word processor so he could type, but the tech was making it worse, not better. There is another feature of Silicon Valley I really think is worth embracing: the idea that if something is not improving the situation, if it is not adding something vital, or removing something unneeded, it doesn't have a place. Innovation is saying no to a thousand things."
Bell set out to streamline Geoff's use of technology by creating a three-step process: first, Geoff would use voice recording and transcription service Rev to make detailed financial notes. Then those recordings would be automatically uploaded to a Dropbox account, which would be immediately accessed by Rev to be processed.
"It was crazy - he delivered this form that normally would have taken him 20 minutes to do in three-and-a-half minutes,” Bell said.
“Before that, he had a backlog of advice documents and a backlog of thumbnotes, and as a result the business was kind of waiting for him to get things done. Everyone was waiting for him: he was the bottleneck.
“Technology can and will help your business and your productivity, but you have got to pick wisely and you have got to be willing to let things go; let go of things along the way. That’s the opportunity. The goal moving forward is elimination.”
That was the key lesson, Bell said, from Silicon Valley: that advice businesses aren’t necessarily improved by technology per se, but rather by finding ways to streamline and in some cases automate existing processes. In this way, advisers can focus on actually delivering value to customers.