Practice Management

Boosting productivity: Referrals, new assets and client anxieties

Rich Poulin shares the best ideas for managing client anxieties, asset retention and business development.
July 2020

Richard Poulin

Director, Intermediary Distribution, Niagara


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Four months into the COVID-19 pandemic, Advisors have a compelling opportunity to retool their practices to meet the challenges ahead. Having gathered valuable street intelligence from Advisors across his region, Rich Poulin, Director, Intermediary Distribution, BMO Global Asset Management shares the best ideas for managing client anxieties, asset retention and business development.

Transition from defense to offense

After a few whirlwind months, it’s clear that physical distancing has reshaped the dynamic between Advisors and clients. At the start of the quarantine everyone was busy learning to conduct virtual meetings on their Dealer-approved platform, whether that’s Zoom, WebEx or Microsoft Teams. Now the conversation has shifted from defense to offense. Rather than passively waiting for an eventual return to normalcy, some Advisors are switching gears to take the business in a different direction: up.

A good starting point is to remember how you initially grew the business; most likely you had a strategy in place for gathering the first $25 million in assets. What was it? Some Advisors preferred to build their book by cold calling a list of prospective clients, while others say they feel too uncomfortable talking to a stranger over the phone. There’s no universal formula for what works, but you can be reasonably sure that whatever succeeded in the past will likely do so again.

Of course, you may need to update old strategies to meet new challenges. If you used to give seminars with other professionals, why not transform the concept to an online webinar? The technology is easy to master, and you can enhance your relationships with centres-of-influence by having more thoughtful, intentional conversations about reciprocity. In my experience, the vast majority of Advisors believe they should be getting more referrals than they currently are, yet very few engage their COIs – or clients for that matter – with a formal, strategic ask.

A common mistake is keeping referrals as the last agenda item on your list. By the time you reach that point in the meeting, everyone is eager to wrap up.

Plant the seed for referrals

When it comes to creating a COI network, some Advisors actively track the names of other professionals in their clients’ orbit, from accountants to lawyers, mortgage brokers and real estate agents. Here, again, it’s important to be thoughtful and intentional about the objectives of the relationship. Do you want to create a two-way street that’s mutually beneficial? If so, ask them upfront about their policy, and send two to three referrals their way as a show of good faith before asking for any in return.

If the relationship requires more nurturing, feel free to offer additional context about your business. With greater information about your personal history, service model and investment philosophy, they may feel more comfortable identifying clients that would be a good fit for your practice.

By contrast, implementing a referral plan for clients is quite easy. At the start of each meeting there is usually time for unstructured conversation. The field of topics is wide open, and you can go in any direction. You can talk about markets, family, politics, sports, life – or you can spend a few minutes on your business. Think about it: If they ask how you’re doing, you can casually reply that your business has actually been growing as clients continue to recommend you to their friends and family. You can, in other words, deliberately plant the seed for more referrals by using that time more efficiently.

A common mistake is keeping referrals as the last agenda item on your list. By the time you reach that point in the meeting, everyone is eager to wrap up, so rather than waiting till the end you should mention the subject briefly at the top of the discussion and circle back afterwards. With the first pass, you’re clearly indicating that your business operates on word of mouth, and laying the groundwork for a more direct request later in the conversation.

We often forget that Canadians between the ages of 45 and 65 are also inheriting wealth from their parents.

“Ladder up” on estate planning

Another long-term opportunity to grow your business is the upcoming intergenerational wealth transfer, where $1 trillion dollars will change hands between now and 2026.1 Typically, this conversation has focused on Millennials and their importance to asset retention; however, we forget that Canadians between the ages of 45 and 65 are also inheriting wealth from their parents.

As a result, most Advisors do estate planning on a ladder-down basis. They start with 80-year-old clients and work back to where the assets are going, attempting to forge relationships with the younger heirs so that when the money in transferred it stays within their book. To me, that’s playing defense. Why not look at the demographic sweet spot of people who are in their peak earning years and ladder UP to where the assets are currently held?

Consider a highly valued client whose parents are in their early 80s: The elder generation has $750,000 in investable assets and a fully paid mortgage. Assuming they will live till 95, drawing those assets into your book NOW could add between $5,000 and $7,000 of revenue per year, instead of that money coming organically when gifted to your clients. Why wait? If they are the executor, you can make their life much simpler by replacing their parents’ Advisor as the person in charge of the estate settlement.  

While there’s no one-size fits all strategy, you should ideally segment clients based on which side of the transaction they lie. If they are bequeathing the wealth, you can be reactive – but if they are the beneficiary, as in the example above, you should proactively offer assistance to create a more efficient transfer of assets.

The million dollar question is how to segment your call list now that circumstances have shifted.

Lock-in core assets

Before delving into business development, you may want to make sure your practice feels as secure as it did before the lockdown began. The million-dollar question is how to segment your call list now that circumstances have shifted so dramatically since March. Although high-net-worth clients usually get top billing, I know multiple Advisors who have adjusted their game plan given the idiosyncrasies of this crisis. 

For instance, one Advisor dialled her oldest clients first because they are most vulnerable to the COVID-19 virus. She felt it was more important to check in on non-financial matters at the outset, even if it meant asking personal questions such as: How’s your health? Do you have someone helping you with groceries? Can you get your medication delivered? Her approach was to lead with empathy, not investments, because the recent volatility was driven by healthcare concerns rather than bad corporate earnings or some other economic data point. Simply put, she acknowledged that there’s more at stake than portfolio returns, which resonated deeply with clients who felt anxious about their safety.

Once you eventually begin discussing financial matters though, it’s important to remember that market volatility often leads into conversations about fees. Clients can have negative reactions at 10% to 15% declines on their account statement, and the best thing you can do to demonstrate your value is manage their emotions through the crisis.

Of course, this is more challenging to accomplish through virtual meetings. Typically you had a copy of Morningstar’s Andex Chart on the wall of your office to put previous market downturns in perspective. It’s a handy visual tool for demonstrating the resilience of equities, but with clients at a distance, there’s a communication gap that has been difficult to fill. To close the divide, we asked Morningstar to provide the chart as a PDF that you can send in advance of your phone and video calls. (To obtain a copy, reach out to your BMO Regional Sales Representative.)

Make it personal

When drafting an email, try to front-load the message with a funny story or comment from your own life. Whether it’s about your kids, house or need for a haircut, I have found that personal anecdotes are a hook that motivates people to read all the way through to the bottom. With widespread isolation, it can be a relief to hear that you’re not the only one disinfecting groceries, planning homeschool lessons and discovering new parts of your neighbourhood. We are all in the same boat, coping with the same issues, and letting that humanity show through is a strength that will resonate with clients.

For example, I recently mentioned in an email that Amazon packages were being delivered to my house between 10 to 15 times per day. With the doorbell ringing, dogs barking and children playing, it was a chaotic scene that many people could relate to – and within days, I received multiple replies that in turn led to deeper conversations about how we can work as partners to weather this crisis together. 


For more valuable ideas on soliciting referrals, unpacking client anxieties and improving productivity, please contact your BMO Regional Sales Representative.

Additional Resources: 3 practical tips for managing clients during a crisis >

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1 David Reeve, “Preparing for the intergenerational wealth transfer,” Investment Executive, May 24, 2019.

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