The Consultant Strikes Back!

“A consultant is someone who comes in to solve a problem and stays around long enough to become part of it.”

I started with a consulting joke, because it taps into a view that many people hold about consultants. As with any stereotype there is some truth in it, but like all stereotypes it doesn’t tell you the whole story.

Just to be clear, in this post, I’m going to lump business consultants, coaches and mentors in the same boat. I’m sure this will cause each group to feel the need to fire off an email to me protesting that coaching is different to consulting or vice versa, but hear me out…I’m talking about anyone who is providing business development advice to financial advisers (and financial planners, life planners, wealth managers or whatever alternative title people choose to define the work they do).

Of course, that’s my first point made right there. What someone is called provides you with very little insight into what they actually do and, more importantly, how well they do it.

When I first arrived in the UK more than 10 years ago and decided I would start providing business consulting services to advisers, everyone without exception said I was mad. “Advisers won’t pay for consulting” I was told. I knew from my own experience as an adviser why they felt this way. It’s true, a very large proportion of the financial adviser population won’t pay for consulting support, however, I knew from personal experience that it was because the consulting services on offer were pretty ordinary. No one wants to pay a high price for an ordinary service (that’s just sensible behaviour).

My job therefore, was to convince people that I actually knew something of value and could work with them to generate results in their business. So I began writing a lot of articles (and still do), to get that message across.

The consulting process

I was listening to an interview recently with Jared Tendler, author of “The Mental Game Of Poker” and coach to many professional poker players and professional golfers. He said that if you’ve tried hard to solve a problem utilising several different approaches but have not yet resolved the issue, it’s because it is complex. With complex problems, silver-bullet-single-approach solutions just don’t work. This is where good quality consulting support can really make a difference. The issues that advisory businesses are trying to resolve can’t be done with silver bullet solutions; the issues are messy and intertwined.

Good quality consulting is not one-size-fits-all or consulting-by-numbers. However, there are good business principles that work across all businesses and all industries and sometimes these just can’t be avoided. Knowing your target market and their key concerns, or having the right people in the right roles within your business are good examples. So when you read articles about these common topics, it can come across as if a bunch of standard, off-the-shelf solutions is all a particular consultant has in their armoury. In my case that’s certainly not true.

I operate on the philosophy that every job I choose to take has to be meaningful; in that the adviser/owner(s) of the business have to want something more for themselves and their business. If they don’t want something better there is no role for me to play. My job is not to simply create a profitable functioning business, it is to allow the business owners to fulfil their potential and to live the life they have always thought was possible after they build their great enterprise. That’s my mission.

“Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man  to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” –  Proverb [click to tweet]

I believe my job is to teach people to fish. When I leave, I want them to have the skills to continue to move forward. Good consultants pass on their knowledge and experience so their clients will continue to flourish long after they are gone.

I love the work I do. If I couldn’t do this for money I’d do it for free in my spare time. Even if I won the lottery and didn’t need the money, I’d still work as I do today, helping good advisers build better businesses to fulfil their potential. Incidentally, I’d still charge for it, as anything free is never valued. The fee could be donated to charity, but the client would still have to pay, otherwise it wouldn’t work. It’s got to hurt a bit.

In my view, financial advice ‘done well’ provides a life changing service to society. Every single family helped by an adviser providing sound advice and smart strategy can live fully and pass on their approach to others within their sphere of influence. This ripple effect provides significant societal benefits in the long run. In 50 years time I expect financial advisers to be the dominant profession on the planet. There may still be some jokes on Google about the bad ones, of course, but overall I expect our collective reputation to be better than that of any other profession because of the societal benefit we provide.

The criticism

In a recent article Chris Budd said:

“It’s an old marketing approach of course. Create the impression that others are better than you, then offer the product or service that can enable you to achieve such heights yourself.

Since RDR there seem to have been a plethora of consultants and firms that have sprung up to tell advisory practice owners how to run their firms. ‘Just do it like I tell you’, they imply, ‘and you too can have a business which is as successful as all our other clients.’

There seem to be so many of them now, all with secret knowledge that will save us poor IFAs from ruin and transform our practices.”

I  take Chris’ point. Not everyone marketing this way will be able to deliver on what they claim, so a certain amount of healthy scepticism is warranted when buying consulting services (or anything else for that matter).

The counterpoint that I do feel able to make, is that the knowledge possessed by a decent consultant is not usually of the ‘secret’ variety. More often it’s of the tried and tested variety and yet so many small advisory firms are not making use of it. In these cases, simply accessing and using it can unlock the potential of your advisory business.

The fact is, most advisory firms don’t make any profit after they’re paid the equivalent of a market salary. In fact many adviser/owner(s) are paid less than market rate by their business. I make no apology for saying that this is lunacy. I understand it’s not about the money for most of us. I understand there are deeper drivers within financial advisers; their desire to help people, the responsibility they feel for their clients (even the small or clearly unprofitable ones). However, it is possible to run a great business that is also fun, fulfilling and profitable without letting go of your deeply held values. ‘Good’ for the client doesn’t have to mean ‘bad’ for the adviser/owner(s) and their family. Yet, so often, it is the adviser/owner(s) and their families that pay the price in delivering ‘good’ to the firm’s clients.

There are some excellent people providing valuable assistance to financial advisers. Here are a few I recommend (in alphabetical, not preferential order):

  • Matt Anderson
  • Paul Armson
  • Phil Billingham
  • Phil Calvert
  • Mark Dennison
  • Tim Hale
  • Michelle Hoskin
  • David Shelton
  • Darren Shirlaw
  • Jim Stackpool (Australia)
  • Dan Sullivan
  • Mark Tibergien (US)
  • Tracey Underwood

I’m sure there are many I haven’t had the chance to get to know who are also great, so please don’t take this as a snub if you’re not mentioned here!

There are others, of course, who I believe talk a good game, but wouldn’t be on my list of people to work with.

The untapped potential

I examine every small advisory firm and see the potential within it. Good financial advisers do the same with the clients arriving in their offices. Often these prospective clients are poorly structured and have limited knowledge of how to make things right. I see the same in my work and I won’t apologise for my desire to do something about it. I stand behind what I do and I will always work to the best of my ability to deliver tangible results (both hard and soft) for my clients.

Financial advisers and consultants are on the same team. No one has all the answers and no one has a mortgage on good ideas.

By working together, we make a contribution toward our profession fulfilling its potential. [click to tweet]

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8 thoughts on “The Consultant Strikes Back!

  • I have to add Tim Ng and Paula White to that list.

    TBoth are brilliant!

    What I have learned about using consultants is decide what you are trying to achieve before instructing them. That way you can pick the right one for the right job…..ask them what they do.

    Reply
  • Great article Brett.

    We have used many consultants over the years, I currently use a business coach and only last year Rob Stevenson helped us with our business planning.

    As you say, ‘Good quality consulting is not one-size-fits-all or consulting-by-numbers. ‘ In my view the best consultants don’t bring the same model to each business, but spend time understanding the client before offering solutions which fit best with the long term objectives.

    A coach, on the other hand, can help the client understand what those objectives are in the first place.

    Thanks for writing this article, Brett. Would be interested in more consultants engaging in this debate so that more firms might benefit from the good quality consultancy you describe.

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  • Hi Brett,

    There is no doubt at all that the biggest problem within the adviser community is expressing what they do in a way which represents value to clients and for which they are prepared to pay.

    I have only made myself aware of the excellent work which you do and can therefore only admit to a minimal knowledge of the other listed members of the incestuous group you have listed.

    It does seem very strange that all that is on offer is advice on how to process the rewards of advice by which I mean business organisation.

    Our world has changed dramatically and whilst there are immense benefits to a properly structured and well run business they do not include actually doing the job of providing financial advice.

    In our business we have been totally and profitably reliant on recurring income for just over ten years now and given the transparency of our chosen delivery vehicle – Transact – we have had to learn face the recurring problem, each month as our clients pay us, of reinforcing the value we think we deliver.

    Segmenting , back office etc. does not help and maybe it is in this area that consultants might be of more use to advisers than in office efficiency.

    There was never any lack of advice on selling skills in the past when products were involved so why the almost complete lack of support for the task of demonstrating value.

    I hope this does not seem simply a negative comment because I do not intend it that way.

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    • Hi Phil and thanks for your comments too. If I’ve understood you correctly you are saying there is a need for more support around the job of giving advice and demonstrating the value of that advice.

      I agree and it is something FP Advance has focused on for a long time.

      I also think that what is required to improve things varies significantly from firm to firm. All of us have strengths and weaknesses based on our natural predilections and/or our experience. Going into a firm it is important to identify the areas that are going to take the business forward. Sometimes that is with things like selling skills, or demonstration of adviser value to clients. At other times it is about business organisation and efficiency. In almost all jobs I’ve been involved in personally it is usually a mixture of all the above.

      Like I said in the article, business can be messy.

      Reply
  • Thx Chris and Damian. Good to hear about other good consultants in the space.

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  • Great article Brett! so true …. “‘Good’ for the client doesn’t have to mean ‘bad’ for the adviser/owner(s) and their family. Yet, so often, it is the adviser/owner(s) and their families that pay the price in delivering ‘good’ to the firm’s clients”. The money is often not the priority but many advisers want to increase profitability and that can be hard when there are close relationships with clients are involved.

    Reply
  • I find consultants a little hard to fathom – not just because why don’t they practice themselves, but also it assumes they know better than the business owner – invariably they don’t!

    Coaches a logical hire though, their aim surely is to maximise an individual’s or firm’s potential – they do not seek to provide solutions, claim to have expertise in any profession, but can help to guide towards clarity and a ‘better place’.

    Those names above cover both categories, and I think a distinction is useful. Like the distinction between advisers/planners – it’s probably an easier sell for quick consultancy “wins”, but more rewarding for client and coach to build a long term relationship.

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  • An interesting article Brett, and I also enjoyed the original piece by Chris which sparked this debate.

    I’ve used several consultants and coaches over the years, on a personal and professional basis. Whilst I can really only talk about my own experiences, and my interpretation of what I see happening around me, I believe one of the biggest hurdles to overcome is the person being ‘coached’. They have really got to want it, and not simply be going through the motions (or even resisting it – more on that in a moment)

    I know that there have beet times when I’ve bought into a coaching model, and for whatever reason, not fully engaged with it. Sometimes it’s me, sometimes its us (bad chemistry), and sometimes it’s because the coach/consultant turns out to be lousy at their job – the latter is thankfully very rare.

    The other problem, which you cover in your article, is an expectation that the coach/consultant will deliver a silver bullet, and will do so early in the process. Sometimes they’ll say as much in their pitch. I’ve watched myself sit back, arms folded, with an attitude of ‘go on then, prove it’ rather than being fully immersed in the process or the work that needs to go into it.

    It might sound stupid to have paid a lot of money and then to kick back at the coaching and the coach, but often it’s a defensive mechanism as we confront our fears, some home truths, and the painful process of change. But until that awareness comes, and one’s guard is dropped, many coaching/consultant projects will not be effective. This I think is when coaching/consulting can get a bad name.

    There are some people who cannot be coached, and a poor coach is one that will sell their services to them. It isn’t going to work. There are times when I’ve wished coaches would have told me they don’t want to work with me because….

    So, bottom line, and this probably says more about me than about anyone else, if a coaching/consultant relationship fails, it’s probably down to the person being coached not the coach.

    Reply

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