climb-wall-help

A client’s first and last impressions aren’t the only things that matter, but they do last—and they likely won’t involve you. Rather, your support staff will play an outsize role in shaping how your practice is perceived.

Positive interactions when clients call or visit the office can contribute to productive meetings, relationship development and overall client satisfaction. Whether or not assistants are licensed, they should be involved in crafting your client communications strategy.

For Susie Kaerbye, a branch office administrator at Edward Jones in Arnprior, Ont. since 2014, being unlicensed hasn’t diminished her role. That includes meeting preparation but also being aware of clients’ concerns and helping develop business strategy.

“I may not be at the meeting table, but I’m ever-present at the other side of the door,” she says. “There’s also a certain amount of time you’re taking with the client at the beginning and end of meetings, and then there are follow-ups.”

She and advisor Gabe LeClerc, a 20-year industry veteran, only have one client in the office at once in order to be attentive. Kaerbye says she gets to know clients on a personal level at least as well as advisors do, so it’s important for assistants to feel comfortable sharing what they glean with the advisor and team.

The integral role of support staff shouldn’t come as a surprise. According to a recent survey by OfficeTeam, a Menlo Park, Calif.-based company owned by HR firm Robert Half, most (75%) of the 600 senior managers in Canada and the U.S. surveyed said the responsibilities of administrative professionals have increased within the past five years.

Everyone surveyed said a good assistant is integral to success. Further, the survey found that talented assistants can free up eight hours per week, on average, for their managers (see “Qualities of good support staff,” below).

The survey also highlights the career track of professional assistants. This is a sign that the roles administrators play are expanding. Pedro Ostia-Vega, now a financial advisor associate at Raymond James in Toronto, can attest to that.

In 2009 and about six years into his career, he held a traditional front-office position at HSBC. His career changed when he started working with Darren Coleman. In 2012, he and Coleman moved Coleman Wealth to Raymond James (Coleman is senior vice-president and portfolio manager), where they continued to build a team and book.

Ostia-Vega says he feels invested in his team largely because they recognize their different but equally important roles. A large part of Coleman’s job is sourcing new business and maintaining industry relationships, while “my role is handling day-to-day operations, all the trading, all the client contacts, and implementing investment strategies,” he said.

Each person is also encouraged to figure out and share how they can help grow the business. Ostia-Vega’s taken on more responsibility over the years and become licensed in Canada and the U.S. to serve cross-border clients.

Career progression doesn’t happen for all assistants. Many firms “tend to look at the advisor because it’s their book and they’re the one growing the business; assistants do get kind of overlooked,” says Ostia-Vega. With the advisor’s reputation on the line, he or she may want work done a certain way, which can lead to micromanagement and lack of trust.

This isn’t the best approach, even with tight industry regulations that can limit the scope of support staff’s work. The risk is advisors will ignore assistants’ insights, values, ambitions and skills (e.g., technological know-how, or years of project management or client-service experience).

LeClerc prefers to involve his assistants from the beginning. He and Kaerbye have worked closely on everything from recognizing clients’ needs to creating an overall business plan.

“One of the joys of this business is when someone leaves the office very happy, and one of the greatest compliments we can get is when they comment on how well Susie and I work as a team and see we both care,” he says.

When working as a wholesaler earlier in his career, LeClerc visited teams where this wasn’t the case. “Many advisors will go through multiple associates or assistants before finding a relationship that works well to maximize the client experience,” he says.

To avoid that kind of turnover, assess the working styles of support staff from the get-go and integrate them.

How to find, and assist, assistants

Determining whether prospective assistants and junior staff members will be a good fit starts at the interview stage, when you should explain who your clients are, how you delegate tasks, how your team is structured and how regulated the industry is. A candidate’s receptiveness to, and familiarity with, these factors matters as much their work experience.

For example, working with multiple managers can be tougher than joining one unified advisor team. Nik Zabaljac, a financial advisor associate who works alongside Ostia-Vega at Raymond James, says it requires patience, the confidence to speak up and manage conflict, and the ability to adapt.

Zabaljac began his career as a customer service rep at BMO seven years ago. Before joining Coleman’s team, he worked for several advisors at once, each of whom had “different temperaments, and different ways of communicating, managing and acting.”

“Everything was top priority and everything had to be done yesterday,” he says. “How do you choose who goes first? That’s where your knowledge comes into play.”

To avoid conflict, LeClerc says to discuss your team’s values and work habits from the beginning. He made it clear early on that he expected Kaerbye to learn about the clients and, where possible, anticipate both his needs and theirs.

But LeClerc was also open to constructive criticism about his processes. He says assistants and associates should take initiative by asking what the advisor “is least competent at or what they like to do the least. If assistants can take on those tasks, that helps the relationship become cohesive.”

This discussion can be intimidating for new hires, LeClerc concedes, so the advisor should pave the way by breaking down the client appointment process: review all roles and responsibilities as a way to comfortably discuss you and your assistant’s strengths and weaknesses, how to divide tasks, and how the rest of the team fits in (if you have a larger team).

From there, LeClerc and Kaerbye say reviewing or building a business plan should include everyone on the team. Kaerbye describes a “branch business plan” that outlines the branch’s goals and strategies, which is reviewed monthly. The plan helps her understand how her role connects with LeClerc’s.

Taking these steps fosters an open office environment where assistants and associates can ask questions and, more importantly, make and learn from mistakes.

“Nobody can sit there and tell you they’ve never made a mistake,” says Zabaljac, who’s not afraid to ask for help from his team to amend or review an error, especially where it may impact a client.

He recalls one instance where he forgot to get a signature from a Canadian client who lived in Europe. “On the U.S. side it’s a lot easier because it can just be a scanned copy for any signature, whereas on the Canadian side it’s all got to be wet ink. I asked, ‘What do I do now? I need a signature to make sure their tax reporting is actually proper.’”

He realized his mistake soon after the client left the office and admitted it right away. Being proactive made the solution easy, he says. Fortunately, the client wasn’t headed straight to the airport. Zabaljac was able to email the documents and have a courier pick them up the next day. “If I had dragged that on, who knows what would have happened?” he says.

It’s also important to get to know assistants and junior team members on a personal level, says Zabaljac. Along with another colleague, he and Ostia-Vega make a point of getting together outside of the office every few months.

As a result, “we’re not just colleagues anymore; it’s almost like family,” he says. “It can’t be easy to go to work every single day and not [know or] like the guy sitting next to you.” Some advisor teams simply go for dinner, while others plan larger retreats or other team- building events.

As the advisor-assistant relationship grows, advisors should keep tabs on the long-term goals of support staff, says LeClerc. “Where do they want to be? What do they aspire to do?” he asks. “If you understand that, then it really creates an environment where we all care about where we’re going. We all have professional goals.”

Tips for long-term development

If an assistant or associate wants to take on more responsibility or a new role, mentorship is only one part of the process. Both Kaerbye and Linson Chen, advisor and associate portfolio manager at RGF Integrated Wealth Management in Vancouver, say additional and dedicated training resources are a must.

For Kaerbye, who is happy in her current role, there’s a support line that Edward Jones offers all advisor branches. “If you come across any challenges or are having difficulty with something, you can pick up the phone and have somebody who can assist you,” she says. This helps employees develop their skills, given they can ask about anything from how to handle financial transfers to how to deal with complex estate planning, she says.

Chen started at his firm as part of a more thorough articling program, which spans three years and is designed for advisors-in-training. While completing their daily work and educational requirements, which include getting a CFP and CLU designation, trainees also meet with a mentor, attend conferences and sit in on client meetings to learn about the business. They also get a chance to work on skills such as public speaking and putting together financial plans.

If you arm support staff with the knowledge to help clients, Chen says, it prepares them to deal with ambiguity about when and how they can answer clients’ questions, which lightens the advisor’s workload.

Says Chen: “Assistants are gatekeepers. By knowing [a client’s] history, you can answer their questions rather than leave a message for the advisor.”

Support staff can also find new ways to connect with clients, such as through social media and other technology, or more traditional means.

Understanding, training and appreciating support staff “will pay off later on, with a more streamlined business” in tune with clients, says Chen.

In LeClerc’s view, advisors and support staff are a team in every sense, with each person fully responsible for business goals. Their branch has a weekly goal for how many times they need to connect with clients to, for instance, provide portfolio-related reviews and notifications, offer market updates and book meetings. He and Kaerbye take responsibility for reaching out, dividing the outreach at the start of every week, with LeClerc taking on tasks that require licensing.

Once they’ve updated individual client notes and confirmed all connections were made, they review their accomplishments and challenges. “We make adjustments to our weekly goals based on the end results,” Kaerbye says.

In the end, and despite their different roles and titles, “when we talk about the client, it doesn’t matter who did what, but that we did it as an office. We’re both dedicated to the client.”

Qualities of good support staff

“What it means to be an administrative professional has changed dramatically,” says Katherine Vaillancourt, national director of the Canadian-chartered Association of Administrative Professionals (AAP), and an executive assistant in the manufacturing sector.

The association, which sponsors the program through which the Canadian Certified Administrative Professional (CCAP) designation is awarded, finds today’s assistants are specializing in more areas.

“Almost every executive assistant I have met has a specific skill set,” Vaillancourt says, which is why the list of elective courses that prospective CCAP holders can take has grown. In addition to compulsory courses on management, communications and organizational behavioural, there are now courses on everything from social media and computer technology to niche areas like psychology and economics.

Many AAP members have additional licensing, including those who work with advisors, says Vaillancourt.

However, even administrative professionals with multiple designations should know they can’t do it all, she says. “It’s OK to ask for help and, in fact, it takes a better professional to know when to ask for help.”

Vaillancourt finds it typically takes about six months for assistants to know whether they’re with a supportive team. “By six months, if trust isn’t formed, it won’t happen,” she says. “I have left jobs because the trust wasn’t there, in terms of being able to understand where the supervisor is coming from and knowing how to help.”