Retirement seminars: summit path or slippery slope? Pt. 2
By Steven McCarty
The National Ethics Association
“The Prosperity Foundation” (not its real name) claims to offer a non-profit retirement education seminar, delivered by “academic” instructors. As I explained in a previous article, TPF’s marketing brochure initially impressed my NEA colleague. But his research revealed TPF’s creator to be an FMO and its “instructors” to be financial advisors. Although the seminar curriculum sounded excellent, TPF appeared to engage in dubious marketing practices in order to generate attendees.
The first few minutes of the program confirmed that impression. The initial PPT slide identified the presenter as being with TPF and displayed a TPF email address for the person. Soon after, the advisor revealed his true identity as a local retirement planning professional and his actual email address. Charade over!
Introductions completed, the presenter got to work. To be fair, the seminar, which unfolded over three weekly sessions, was quite informative. The attendee kit had an impressive array of useful resources, and the presentation slides were engaging, though, in several instances, outdated. Regardless, the advisor really knew his stuff and handled attendee questions capably.
On the final night, the advisor offered attendees a free one-hour strategy session and invited them to complete a computerized retirement questionnaire to be reviewed in person. His attempt to generate appointments was well handled, and participant reaction was positive.
So why do I still have problems with this program? Regulators apparently haven’t raised issues (yet). Financial advisors are signing up as instructors (cough). And attendees are showing up and deriving value from the program (yay!). So if no one is screaming foul, what’s the big deal?
The problem is misrepresentation. When an advisor claims to be something he or she isn’t, either explicitly or implicitly, that’s unethical. If you’re the kind of advisor who believes a marketing practice is acceptable as long as it works, then posing as a university instructor to fill seats won’t bother you. But if you believe there’s a right way and wrong way to gain appointments, then you’ll want to be totally transparent in disclosing your true identity.
In the final part of this series, we’ll discuss the key elements of ethical (and compliant) seminars. But for now, please consider these three takeaways:
- If you’re proud of the work you do and of the accomplishments of your firm, why hide behind euphemisms? Be authentic and let positive facts speak volumes on your behalf.
- Buying pre-packaged seminars is convenient, but they might not reflect your professional values. Consider building your own program to make sure it embodies ethical best practices.
- Before purchasing a seminar package, fully vet the developer. Make sure all marketing materials and program visuals and handouts are not only current, but also fair and balanced, and that a compliance professional has approved them.
- Finally, weigh the difference between a quick ascent that can become a slippery slope and a slower, safer path to prospecting success. Avoiding misrepresentation through fully transparent marketing will always be your best bet.