Like Ahab’s white whale, the high-net-worth investor looms large in the back of advisors’ minds — seemingly just out of grasp for many of them.

A few tweaks to your business model and a couple more years of referrals and you’ll be there, you tell yourself. But if that’s really what you think, you’re probably going to be chasing that elusive whale for most of your career.

Just being competent isn’t enough to attract and keep high-net-worth clients. Most major financial institutions and advisor dealerships target these elusive clients as one of the most important drivers of future revenue. And the last five years have seen an overhaul of high-net-worth firms as they expend more resources and expand their teams to attract this lucrative clientele.

The focus is on the client experience. Wealthy people are able to command better service in everything they do, because of the money they bring to the table. While the investment or insurance services may not be that drastically different from client to client, on a nominal basis, a wealthy client — even with a conservative portfolio — is going to bring you a lot more money than middle-class clientele.

To compete, advisors must drastically ramp up the level of service and experience for these clients. You don’t offer first-class passengers foil-lined bags of nuts; you give them champagne. And many firms have taken this to heart.

While in the past you may have been able to attract some wealthy clients, rest assured if your client-facing approach hasn’t been oriented to focus purely on the needs of high-net-worth investors, there’s a good chance another firm is going to be knocking on your client’s door and taking those fee-generating assets with them.

Tom McCullough, a principal at Northwood Family Office, which specializes in serving clients with assets ranging from $10 million to $500 million, puts it succinctly, “If your business is not built around serving specific high-net-worth needs, you’re not likely to attract high-net-worth clients.

McCullough says he’s been inspired by the work of well-known management strategist Michael Porter, who believes the healthcare system would be better served with specialized institutions that comprehensively treat certain conditions rather than a system of specialists that only have the ability to focus on one specific niche.

“If you suffer from chronic headaches, you talk to your G.P. and he refers you to a bunch of specialists. Someone will tell you to go to a chiropractor, somebody else will tell you to see a nutritionist because it might be something in your diet; another person may tell you to see an oncologist because maybe it’s a tumour,” McCullough says. “That’s the way the healthcare system works in Canada. You have to self-advocate, you have to build a case using different specialists.”

Porter’s work uses the example of a German headache clinic. Patients go there because they suffer from chronic headaches. So the clinic already knows a lot about the patient because they’re a typical headache sufferer. They then deal with the patient’s individual issues, which is different from what happens if a person goes to an overly focused specialist.

McCullough adds, “We specialize with those chronic headache sufferers, which in our case are wealthy multi-generational families.”

The team approach

Probably the single most important aspect of high-net-worth advising that’s changed over the last half-decade is the rise of the team-based approach, according to Mike Scott, managing director of RBC Dominion Securities.

Investments are what his firm makes money on, but high-net-worth clients require exceptionally high levels of comprehensive financial planning given the complexity of their affairs. Scott says you cannot adequately serve this clientele without a range of professionals with different expertise at your disposal.

Over the last seven years, RBC DS has poured millions of dollars into increasing the number of value-add planning professionals who support its traditional investment advisors. One advisor no longer cuts it, Scott says, so the firm has more than 150 on-staff experts, including lawyers, accountants, actuaries and insurance specialists who offer planning advice that is apart from the revenue-generating area of investment management.

“I’ve hired will and estate lawyers, and chartered accountants who are financial planners with tax expertise. I’ve even got lawyers with corporate tax expertise on staff,” he says. “HNW advising goes far past money management. Think of money management as table stakes; you have to be able to offer the full slate.”

Additionally, Scott says, DS has hired a huge support team—close to 150 people, 100 of them high-end professionals working with investment advisors on the wealth planning needs of their clientele.

“That didn’t exist five years ago,” he adds. “To me that is the biggest change. If you’re going to sit down with high-net-worth clients, you better have a very broad range of strong technical skills to deal with them—those are never possessed by one person.” Scott says high-net-worth clients want to see a comprehensive approach, where experts in each area of financial planning are collectively overseeing their total wealth.