Sitting in a dark conference room always reminds me of the scene in Roald Dahl’s The Witches when they gather together for their annual summit. Locked inside their luxury Bournemouth hotel seminar space – large, windowless, and subterranean – the witches are finally among their own kind, free to relax and be themselves. So they take off their uncomfortable disguises removing their itchy wigs, the gloves that cover their clawed hands and the tight shoes that cover their toeless feet.
At the EICC on 16 November, 250 adviser members of the Personal Finance Society (PFS) did the equivalent. That’s not to say they removed their wigs (or what they’re in any way disguised during their day-to-day!) but it is to say that here, gathered together, they were free to unwind. With none of the usual distractions they could relax and focus on the key issues. So what did they absorb?
“We’re in a land of opportunity,” said Keith Richards of the PFS, despite the obvious uncertainties posed by the current anything-can-happen economic climate. An ageing population and the increasing complexities around tax and pensions planning mean there’s never been a better time for the profession. However, there was a note of caution about the need to improve the profession’s image – especially against the ever-present backdrop of robo-advice – and an emphasis on doing this through technology and personalisation.
“Powerful stories can change peoples’ lives.”
The theme of the conference was the story of financial planning, and why not given that it’s the 400th year of Shakespeare’s birth? And who better to discuss the power of storytelling than award-winning Shakespearean actor and business coach Ian Hughes.
“Our culture is built on stories. It’s how we remember,” he said. “Stories have the power to persuade and the ability to move people into action.”
Feelings are far more important than facts he said and he relayed Henry 5th’s ‘Once more unto the breach’ speech to show the power of motivation through drama and narrative - it was much more effective than simply saying “Let’s try again”.
He outlined the five archetypal story outlines that Shakespeare used and that are still used today in Hollywood, the five levels of memorable language (surprise, humour, aha!, kin and emotion).
He also discussed the importance of personalising story for maximum impact and listed a surprising number of words that Shakespeare invested, which include ‘restraint’, ‘negotiate’, ‘resolve’, ‘compromise’ and ‘educate’ – useful facts for any pub quiz.
“Are you really looking at the experience you’re giving your client?”
Bloomsbury Wealth founder Jason Butler challenged the audience to think about the client experience, saying that in five years’ time all content on Facebook will be videos, so why aren’t there more videos on adviser websites? “Clients are demanding a more dynamic digital interface. They’re also looking for increased transparency,” he urged.
People don’t want to buy what they think they don’t want. “They increasingly question the value of human advisers,” he said. “But it doesn’t mean they don’t want to work with them, it’s your job to fill the void and make what you do tangible to them.”
He said that next generation screen sharing technology would be a way of evolving face-to-face client meetings without losing value.
He finished by advocating engagement “Be judged by the quality of your listening”.
“The pace of change in technology is really frustrating.”
The panel session was widely praised on Twitter for featuring two women – Lisa Johnstone of VWM Wealth and Nicola Ellis of Wellington Wealth. Go girls.
Questions were wide ranging, starting with “What tech enhances the client relation the most?” (client portals, Skype) to complaints that technology isn’t yet joined up or advanced enough to carry out everything needed to really add value.
“Technology will become a vital part of what we do - but will never replace human contact,” said third panel member Nick Bamford of Informed Choice. On the direct question of robo advice, the advice was to keep calm and carry on: “There is no evidence to suggest that robo-advice is going to change things much. All of history tells us that the industry moves at a snail’s pace. We have to make the best of what we have today.”
Another interesting question was how important is education to clients?
Part of education is to make sense of the jargon, said Nick. “Clients don’t know what drawdown is but they don’t care - the main thing is to help clients learn more about themselves.” He said that after Brexit, he only received one client phone call. “A no knee-jerk reaction has paid off and they get that.” He said.
The panel also discussed how to personalise the client experience. ”Be specific about who you work with, otherwise your service isn’t going to be consistent,” warned Lisa.
Nick added “Think of basic things like dress code. Turning up to a record company wearing a suit and tie when they’re in jeans for example is doing to create a barrier you don’t need to have.”
And a final word on pricing: “It’s a red herring,” said Nick. “What matters is value.” But he admitted that articulating the value of what we do isn’t quite there yet.
“Delegation always leads to more happiness”
Just before lunch, Paulette Sopoci advocated living a smaller life to make our futures bigger. Her strategic growth programme says that growing 10 x bigger is easier than 2 x because it’s not about tweaking or increasing what you’re doing. “It’s about changing what you’re doing to allow more time to do the things you love.”
Her entrepreneurial time system recommended rethinking the traditional working week because for entrepreneurs “any day can be a work day” by replacing it with a long-term structure comprising of free days, focus days and buffer days. This can be used to “maximize productivity, preparation, and rejuvenation—and achieve greater and lasting balance.
olatile period of growth.”
Jonathan Thomas of Atlas Economics gave us whistle stop global tour of post Brexit predictions that was pretty bleak: Growth is going to slow down, inflation is going to rise. “The storm is going to come ashore in 2017. We don’t know what the damage will be, but we can guess,” he said.
“Everything tells us there’s going to be a slowdown… are households really prepared?” He also warned that the impact of rising cost of auto enrolment on employers would be huge and unavoidable.
“It’s not a question of whether we’re in or out of the EU, but whether we produce stuff that people want to buy. Unless we can increase productivity auto enrolment will have an impact on our labour market,” he said.
“We’ve never been stronger as a profession.”
Steve Gazzard of SJ Gazzard Consulting lightened the mood by saying that instead of robo-advice we should be thinking about the four ‘C’s – ‘Consumer, conflicts, culture and cooperation’ and how to improve client engagement.
He showed some dramatic statistics to make the point - 22% of people don’t know how to read their balance on a bank statement, 40% do not understand the impact of inflation on the value of real money and 50% of families don’t have life cover.
“It’s a mess,” he said. “And it’s about time people started trusting us.”
The answer? Education “Let’s get consumers empowered and engaged,” was his rallying cry.
He said the future of financial planning is eudaimonia or ‘happiness’ - coaching, planning, personalisation and fiduciary.
“Accepting responsibility is the starting point for success”
And finally David Thomas. I won’t spoil this for you in case you haven’t seen him yet. An inspirational story, a triumph against circumstances that began when he started taking responsibility for his own decisions and decided he would become the best in one particular field – memory techniques.
He shared his craft with the audience and showed how we can use our memories to create stories and business leverage.
A charismatic speaker with a powerful tale was a fitting end to a storytelling conference.