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A New Way to Build Strategic Alliances

A more formal approach could work wonders.

C. Marie Swift, 04/03/2008

According to Susan Bradley, CFP and founder of the Sudden Money Institute, building strategic alliances--inter-professional marketing relationships--is a no-brainer. "Having an allied professional whose work aligns with your work, who knows the type of clients you work best with--a professional with whom you can easily collaborate--is one of the stronger legs of a business growth plan," she said.

Virtually all professionals are familiar with the business development strategy of developing referral sources. Make no mistake: That is not the model we are talking about here. In the referral model, professionals--financial advisors, attorneys, CPAs--get to know each other and find counterparts with whom they can develop a good connection. For example, a financial advisor has a client who needs an estate plan. The advisor knows a good estate-planning attorney to whom to refer the client. When these referrals are reciprocated, both professionals benefit and the client is well-served.

Here, however, we're talking about "consilience," a new paradigm in which allied professionals work more formally, as a team, on the client's behalf. In his book Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge Edward Osborne Wilson defines consilience as "the synthesis of knowledge from different specialized fields of human endeavor."

Bradley, who was a practicing financial advisor for more than 20 years, says that this type of collaboration is especially important if the client is experiencing a major financial transition--divorce, inheritance, financial windfall, etc. According to Bradley, who trains advisors and allied professionals in the art of managing client's "sudden money" events and life transitions, in these types of situations, the client is transitioning from a familiar routine to a "new normal." It is not business as usual and the client needs a team of trusted advisors who not only understand the ramifications of this type of change but can also help the client navigate through it.

This model requires a greater level of commitment on the part of the professionals, both to undertake the due diligence necessary to identify "good fit" alliance partners and to engage in effective collaboration with them. When it works, the result is true synergy.

While this is the ideal, there may be professionals whose concern is "what happens if it doesn't work; if one's client isn't well-served by the other professionals, or worse yet is hurt by them."

"The fact is, successful collaboration requires both attention and intention," Bradley said. "It's essential to have a good match with another professional, to identify people who share your values and your sense of client service and care. This may take some time and several conversations to ascertain whether there really is a match."

Bradley said that these initial conversations should be done as part of a structured discovery process. "You're learning more about them and you're also telling them what your unique abilities are, what kind of clients you work well with, what your staff is like, what your capabilities are, etc.," she said.

Questions to ask include:

* How do you ensure that you're on-track with your clients?
* Do you work in a client-centered way? What does "client-centered mean to you?
* Tell me about your structure and staff.
* How do you charge?
* How do you deliver services?
* What is your continuing education process?
* What are your personal and your business goals?

"Some of these answers will be pretty subjective, so in your conversations with them, you're looking for matches," Bradley said. "Without structure, this can be a hit and miss process and it can take a tremendous amount of your time. The other thing to be aware of is this: In the traditional reciprocity model, success is judged by how much business I gave you and you gave me. While this may line up with your business plan, it doesn't line up well with your client, whose needs are unrelated to how much reciprocal business you do with a colleague. Inter-professional collaboration generally results in a give and take flow of business, but the intention must focus on the quality of your work, the quality of the collaboration and the protocols and agreements you build."

According to Bradley, when "all of that" is working well, the business development comes naturally because both professionals are collaborating well, are doing excellent work, and are doing right by their clients. That in itself creates referrals from clients.
 
Clients in Transition: A New Dynamic
Bradley is quick to tell the advisors who come to her training programs, Webinars and workshops that the life circumstances around a transition often result in confusion, shorter attention span, new terminology, more unknowns than people are used to working with. Significant transitions also usually require a number of different types of advisors.

"In many cases, the client is also getting advice (often unsolicited) from nonprofessionals--someone is telling them to go left, the other one's telling them to go right," Bradley said. "One is telling them to lock their money up in real estate and get rental income, the other is saying go off-shore for tax purposes, and yet another is saying buy Triple A municipal bonds. Even the advice from one professional can be at odds with that of another. Without coordination and collaboration, the client is not well-served."

Effective collaboration does not happen by itself and there are some natural collision points, even when you are working with well-intentioned, like-minded professionals from other disciplines. According to Bradley, these happen around issues of information sharing, privacy, different professional codes of ethics and behavior, fees, etc. There are also logistical issues--how often will the team meet, how is the client going to participate in the meeting or be kept informed? What is the accountability that the advisors on the team agree to with the client? Who is going to be in charge of scheduling? Who's going to be the person that helps put the agenda together?

"Most seasoned, successful professionals have strong leadership qualities," she said. "But one of the challenges with collaboration is: If the client has trust in other people from pre-existing relationships and you're the new person on the team, you're probably not going to be the leader. As advisors, we must focus on sharpening our collaborative skills and so that we can be effective participants as well as effective leaders." PAGEBREAK

"Good collaboration is client-centered to the highest degree. Clients must feel safe and be able to trust that their wishes are the navigating points as opposed to what would be right for other people," Bradley said. "This is a challenge of the collaborative brain trust model because it inherently has a need for structure. You need structure in your exploration and discovery phase as you're finding people to work with. You need structure for organizing the team and structure for establishing the process. All of this requires agreements that can be crafted according to the circumstances. There's no one ultimate right way to do it. But these are critically important. When you have agreements in these natural collision areas, you start to find ways to build bridges and have really good collaborative relationships," she concludes.

Structuring Collaboration
Advisors who appreciate and participate in this type of collaboration know how important it is to be deliberate in developing such professional alliances. Scottsdale, Ariz., attorney Fred Goldinov, JD, LLM, CFP, principal of the law firm of Goldinov and McCauley, PLC, and cofounder of investment advisory firm Inspired Capitalworks , has been engaged in collaborative work with clients for more than 10 years. His basic approach to the process is to seek individuals who are, in his words, both "high technical" and "high human." That is, people who are excellent at their profession and are committed to a very personal, client-centered practice. They must possess excellent listening skills and be willing to approach a client with a blank slate rather than with a prepared toolbox full of solutions. "You have to be willing to go deep with a client," Goldinov said, "and put aside the ego of expertise."

Goldinov's commitment to the collaborative model has caused him to actively seek out like-minded professionals, including attorneys, financial advisors, CPAs, philanthropy consultants and others. He attends a wide range of conferences and professional gatherings, which is where he has met most of his co-collaborators. An attorney himself, Goldinov frequently attends continuing education programs in allied disciplines and deliberately looks for cross-fertilization opportunities.

"Developing a working brain trust model between yourself and other professionals takes effort, time, persistence, and consistency, but the resulting synergy for the client is incomparable," he said. "The clients get superior service from all directions. Their goals are the focus of all the advice that is given."

Both Bradley and Goldinov said that from a marketing perspective there is synergy for the advisors as well. Once the alliance is established, it develops its own momentum, enhancing business development efforts and leaving the professionals with more time to focus their attention on serving clients as a collaborative group. "It helps us in achieving what most of us desire--enough business to live our lives and run our practices the way we want, focusing our attention on serving clients and getting better and better at our craft." Goldinov said.

Bradley made another good point: While you may continue to have clients whose needs are easily met through your services alone, roughly 70% of people who engage financial advisors do so because of a triggering life event. In most instances, such clients will have a need for some combination of multiple advisors that can best serve a client if they function as a team, with a common goal and an agreement about how the team will work together. PAGEBREAK

"It is something of a marketing coup to be known in your community as someone who delivers fabulous, high quality, client-centered service to people in transition," she said. "If you are known as the transition expert, you are mostly likely a professional dealing with 'money in motion.' Clients may be inheriting, getting divorced, losing spouses, selling their businesses, and otherwise having major changes in their lives. It takes a special kind of person--and a well-rounded, collaborative team--to shepherd clients through these types of significant life transitions," she said.

Bradley said that recognizing what a client needs means paying attention and calling on your subjective skills to be able to really see what is going on in the person's life. "It is always a good idea to let clients know that you frequently collaborate with other professionals and that this type of collaboration is available to them if the need should arise. At the same time you want to make it clear that your team is not one-size-fits-all, especially if the client already has one or more advisors whom they trust," Bradley said.

Goldinov is very clear that his objective is always to do what is in the best interest of the client. Whether he has the primary relationship with the client or whether he is brought in as an additional consultant or allied professional, he takes what he describes as the Mayo Clinic approach. That is, he views himself as part of a team which has, as its sole purpose, the analysis of the client's situation, the development of an appropriate strategy and the achievement of the client's objectives.

"Each situation is different and the agreements among the team members must be flexible enough to accommodate the client's specific needs," Goldinov said. "My colleagues and I have general guidelines that we follow in terms of protocols, structure and fees, but we customize everything for the particular situation." For some clients Goldinov might be the lead advisor, for others he may be involved only on a consultative basis. When the client has pre-existing relationships with their own individual advisors, he makes it clear to those professionals that he has no interest in replacing them; he is simply there to work with them--all in the interest of serving the client.

"It is usually eye-opening for an existing advisor who is not familiar with the collaborative model," Goldinov said. "What I often hear is, 'I've worked with a lot of advisors and attorneys, but you're different.' "

That difference is precisely the objective of the new inter-professional collaborative model that Bradley supports--the ability to change the way you operate--to deepen your relationships with clients, to be proactively collaborative with other professionals and to focus on forging alliances rather than simply developing referral sources. "There is nothing off-the-shelf about this approach. But the attention and the time you put into shifting your paradigm will pay off," Bradley said.

As someone who built a successful practice bringing interrelated professionals together to work with clients moving through life's significant transitions, Bradley's advice is certainly helpful--and could be critical--for advisors serving retiring baby boomers and the following generation.

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