Slim down that 80-page financial plan — a New Year's resolution for advisors

A quarter of a century ago, I began my career as a financial advisor and certified financial planning practitioner, emphasizing deep analysis and technical expertise, earning designations early on and touting my team's capabilities. 

However, after my first decade in the industry I realized that very few clients cared about the intricacies of the robust 80-page reports we used to present to them, both at the onset of our relationship and throughout our time working together. Those reports were meant to instill confidence in our clients that their best interests were reflected in our research and analysis of their financial state of affairs, showcasing our understanding of their balance sheet, including summaries of data they provided, assumptions and projections going forward. 

Adam Holt of Asset-Map
H. Adam Holt, CEO and co-founder of Asset-Map

But over the years I've come to believe those reports were more about reassuring ourselves, as advisors, of our own conclusions about the financial plan we'd devised for the client. And more often than not the reports we compiled included explanatory or disclosure text that went unread — or intimidated the client into submission.

These reports are just the starting point of what a professional should be doing in the back office, but they don't necessarily facilitate effective communication with the client in the front. It's akin to saying we have 20 years of recipes for meals when the client just wants to know what's for dinner tonight. Clients aren't interested in the lengthy recipe; they want actionable steps for the present moment.

More specifically, the advisor community is witnessing a shift in high net worth client expectations from those  80-page reports to executive summaries of those reports. The popularity of the one-page financial plan (and related technological solutions that aim to facilitate quicker and more effective communication) has flourished as advisors have placed a renewed emphasis on the value of their own time. It also reflects the recognition that what most clients truly value is the trust in our competence and the ability to communicate and execute a plan when they have none.  

While I hate to admit it, clients don't have to follow a plan perfectly for it to work; typical financial planning engagements are intimidating right from the start, so let's start small. Take, as an example, a New Year's resolution to get back in shape. While the larger end goal may seem daunting, lifting weights twice a week is an effective place to begin that process. Similarly, typical financial planning engagements are intimidating right from the onset, and it's OK for individuals — and their advisors — to start small. 

This all leads me to assert that financial planning, as we once knew it, is evolving away from an annual display of technical printouts and toward advice engagement and an ongoing advisor-client conversation.

READ MORE: HNW clients want more online engagement and to leave the 'heavy lifting' to advisors

Such an evolution is overdue, and largely a product of younger generations seeking advisors who will legitimately empower them throughout their financial wellness journey. In the past, too many professionals have justified their fees by showcasing the aforementioned extensive analyses conducted in the initial months of a client relationship and have allowed the financial planning process to morph into a sales tool focused on asset gathering, insurance placements, annuity transactions and even banking and property casualty services.

The issue here isn't necessarily the financial planning software or the output it generates; it's the perception that providing a lengthy technical report is sufficient to validate the recommendations. In reality, if we're truly honest with ourselves, how many of our clients actually take the time to delve into the meticulously crafted presentations we proudly create? The ultimate point here is that clients are entitled to understand the transactions being carried out on their behalf, and financial planning isn't measured by the thickness of your reports. 

Ultimately, in today's shared experience economy, there's a heightened demand for information that is not only reliable, but also fast and easily digestible on demand. If a client isn't revisiting those voluminous reports, dusting off their covers or retrieving them from the depths of a drawer, they have no true value. 

How can you ensure that you're delivering an advice experience that truly engages, elevates financial well-being and is an experience your clients can't live without?

My firm focuses on delivering a visualization of households' current financial state, highlighting all of the people and financial decisions that exist for a particular client at any given time. This facilitates conversations about the relevancy of financial instruments and helps advisors educate their clients on the purpose and intent of them. Each of the financial planning projection tools we offer lives completely on its own as a tear sheet, limited to one page. 

More broadly, advisors must ensure the most relevant details of a client's financial situation are digestible in order to reach a consensus on the most urgent priorities. And most importantly, it's paramount that advisors be mindful of the resources they create for their clients in the attempt to lift their overall financial well-being.

If those resources don't combine empathy with technical expertise and provide clients with the confidence to understand how decisions serve their household, then you don't have a modern financial plan.

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