Our current economic troubles result, in large measure, from a mass case of narcissism and excess. As producers, we've all seen consumers who thought they should have a mansion financed on bad debt, lenders who thought they deserved huge rewards for creating bad debt, bankers who thought they deserved enormous bonuses for slickly packaging bad debt, and even investors who want to be bailed out for having foolishly purchased packaged bad debt (and they want big bonuses too). Populated as it is with people, our industry is also prone to such thinking. Flip through any industry periodical and consider the focus of the producer advertising. The claims all tend to relate to building wealth, increasing production, getting the compensation you've earned and accelerating your business.
Instead, I want to make the outlandish claim that producers have a purpose much greater than what is suggested by the ads. Your overarching and overriding purpose is to serve your clients well. If you do that, the rest will take care of itself. But doing so requires an ongoing commitment to excellence, to countering the culture of narcissism that permeates so much of our lives. Excellence demands that we make some tough choices. Examples of some of these choices follow.
Cost vs. value. In a world obsessed with cutting costs and providing greater efficiencies and economies of scale, excellence requires that we focus on providing value to our clients. Providing consistent value needs to be one of your core values.
Speculation vs. investment. Many in our industry seem too interested in turning a quick buck for themselves and for their clients. Rather, the best producers look to make investments in their clients and in their businesses that will last over the long haul. If it seems too good to be true, it often is.
Complexity vs. simplicity. We live in a complex world. But complexity for its own sake or to conceal something you'd prefer not to disclose is a mistake. All other things being equal, simpler is better. Information isn't knowledge. Simple, straightforward, consistent communication is the best way to impart real knowledge to your clients.
Irrational expectations vs. reasonable expectations. The best advisors set reasonable expectations for themselves, their clients, and the people they work with. Neither irrational exuberance (in good times) nor panic (in bad times) is as sturdy and helpful as reasonableness. Suggesting that products like mutual funds and variable annuities are somehow "safe" is a mistake, as recent months have demonstrated. But suggesting that safer money vehicles like fixed and fixed index annuities should be expected to return as much as 8 percent or more is a mistake too.
Salesmanship vs. stewardship. Good salesmanship may get the business done, but good stewardship provides for the client's best, long-term interest. Make sure every sale you make provides the right solution to the problems and needs inherent to the client's individual situation.
Acquisitiveness vs. trustworthiness. Successful people tend to be competitive. We all want to be on top of the rankings and rankings tend to focus on what can readily be counted, like production. But more important than the amount of business you write is how trustworthy you are.
Charisma vs. character. Charisma is a wonderful quality in a producer. But long after the sale, when your personality has faded into the background, your character will continue to forge your reputation and determine your legacy. At your funeral, would you rather the focus be upon how many sales you made or upon the difference you made in people's lives?
Money vs. meaning. Most of us have a personal scoreboard of some sort to measure how we're doing. If your scoreboard measures how much money you've made but doesn't consider success in terms of how meaningful your life is to others -- your clients, your family, your community and your country -- you might want to rethink those priorities.
On the negative side of the ledgers described above are a number of things that aren't bad, and some that are quite good. Salesmanship isn't bad. Cutting unnecessary costs is helpful. Wealth, fairly acquired and properly managed can be a magnificent tool. But my concern relates not so much to the tools as to how those tools are used. Narcissism says, "It's all about me -- my compensation, my business, etc." It's like the Roz Chast New Yorker cartoon that suggests a line of narcissist greeting cards ("Wow! Your Birthday's Really Close to Mine!").
Instead, I suggest that you focus on your clients and their wellbeing first, foremost and always. You may not reach financial independence as fast, but you will enjoy your success more and sleep better at night. Moreover, in addition to providing a more fulfilling path, your business will be better positioned for long-term success. A true client focus will significantly reduce charge backs and other "changes of mind," will dramatically increase your retention rates, will provide more and greater cross-selling opportunities and will drastically increase the number of referrals you receive.
In these days of excess and paying the price for earlier excess, you can't have too much character. Doing the right thing for your clients ought to be sufficient reward on its own. But it's good for the health and longevity of your business, too.
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