I started work in the Financial Services industry thirty five years ago today.  NEL (National Employers Life) was a great company based at Milton Court, a Tudor mansion just outside Dorking in Surrey.  UNUM, the eventual buyer of NEL’s PHI business are still based there. 

Pension administration work quickly turned out not to be my thing, and I was swiftly packed off to the City where I learnt my trade as a Broker Consultant – or Inspector as we called them then.

‘Training’ involved shadowing an experienced Inspector and seemed to involve mostly delivering quotations and commission cheques, picking up proposal forms, answering the occasional query, beer drinking and… well, not much else.  After a year of this ‘intense’ work I was given my own patches in and around London, and for the next eleven years at NEL I met between ten and twenty IFAs/Brokers every week.  

And the same then followed when I worked at Zurich Life, Permanent Insurance and Pioneer Friendly, albeit in more senior positions.  Good products and lots of face-to-face meetings was what brought in the the business time and time again.

When I eventually went self-employed ten years ago, I realised that I had met literally thousands of IFAs over the previous twenty five years.  I’d attended just about every industry conference, had been a speaker at many of them and seen many hundreds of IFAs come through my own seminars and workshops.  As a result I had amassed a huge collection of thousands and thousands of business cards.

Today, and for the last ten years, a big part of my relationships with IFAs has been online.  My wife Sarah and I founded IFA Life (now LifeTalk) in 2004, and since then the financial advice community has slowly but surely embraced online communication technology and Social Media.  Many are now looking at developing new online-only propositions, and it’s exciting to see IFAs’ imaginations working overtime as to the possibilities that exist in this exciting space.  Indeed some tell me that the future of financial advice is really online.  We shall see!

In the lead up to RDR, much of IFAs’ decision making processes as to new business models have been influenced by online discussions on LifeTalk, Panacea Adviser, more recently Adviser Lounge and increasingly on LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, Google+ and a seemingly never ending stream of blogs, webcasts, videos and articles aimed at financial advisers.  Never before has so much information, help and advice been available to financial advice professionals.

In the run up to RDR, many felt it was a bit over the top, but the ability for experienced financial advice professionals from around the world to share ideas and best practice has been invaluable to many UK advisers.

There’s no doubt that the Broker Consultant role has also changed and matured over the last thirty five years into a much more focused ‘consultancy-type’ role.   We also saw the introduction of telephone based Broker Consultants, who made a big impact on our sales figures when Zurich Life first introduced the concept – and in the process scaring the daylights out of many traditional face-to-face Broker Consultants who could see a potential threat to their jobs for all sorts of reasons.

But whilst IFAs have (for the most part) embraced online technology – whether to develop new online propositions or as a way to network and share best practice with other advisers – what’s very noticeable is the minimal (and in some cases non-existent) use of Social Media by larger Providers to enhance and compliment the traditional Broker Consultant or Key Account Manager role.

As a Broker Consultant I realised that there were a number of factors which would influence the number of proposal forms that I picked up from IFAs:

·        How visible I was to them – both in person or in other formats (mailings, emailings, fax shots etc).  There was a direct and proven link between the number of times I met with or contacted an IFA with the amount of business they gave us.  The more contacts I made, the more business I received.

·        Product quality and premium rates

·        My budget for lunch

To some, that might paint a slightly unflattering picture of financial advisers, but you have to remember that this was a long time ago and things have changed a lot since then.  You’ll also note that ‘commission overrides and uplifts’ tended not to be an influencing factor on business levels.  But the amount of visibility I had with IFAs was very much an influencing factor – and fortunately I realised this at an early stage in my career.  I still recall staying late in the office sending out multiple fax shots to my panel of IFAs, and the degree to which IFAs responded to them was only limited by my own imagination as to what I included in the faxes.

I would send pipeline updates, copies of articles in magazines that they might find useful, sales and marketing ideas, polls and questionnaires, answers to technical queries and much more besides.  The fax machine was my weapon of choice when I wasn’t visiting IFAs face-to-face.

And then I discovered seminars, which made things even more exciting.  I realised that seeing ten to twenty IFAs a week was a challenge, but when I started putting on seminars in the office or at local hotels, I had the potential to see between ten to twenty IFAs per day.  Not surprisingly this had a big impact on sales figures!

Fast forward to 2013, and it’s very obvious when I observe conversations between IFAs in the LifeTalk forums, that many of the interactions that would in the past have been held between IFAs and Providers now don’t take place.  Those Providers who had fostered great reputations with advisers would more often than not have been regarded as the IFA’s ‘help desk’ of choice.  A quick call to their local Broker Consultant and a question relating to anything and anything would be answered.

But today, many Providers are being sidelined, as advisers can get the answers to their questions online and from each other.  Indeed, when we set up IFA Life, we did so with the intention of replicating online what IFAs enjoyed doing face-to-face – networking and helping each other out.

But what really surprises me today, is the large scale absence of online interaction between Providers and IFAs.  When I was a Broker Consultant, had it existed, I would have killed to be able to use social media to engage with IFAs – yet, although we have many Broker Consultant and Provider members on LifeTalk, they rarely communicate with the IFA members.

My sales and marketing colleagues at NEL, Zurich Life and elsewhere completely relied on the intelligence that Broker Consultants brought back into the office about what IFAs were thinking, what concerned them, what products they needed etc  etc; and whilst I know that today’s Providers do indeed use LifeTalk and other sites to gather industry intelligence, the one thing you rarely see is Providers using Social Media to genuinely and proactively interact and engage with IFAs.

We see this happening (or not happening as the case may be) every day on our site, and I’m often surprised at the opportunities that Providers are missing to build relationships with IFAs.

I’ve enjoyed my thirty five years very much, and have relished in seeing financial advisers growing and adapting their businesses to change that has been imposed upon them.  But having come from a sales background within the industry, I often think that many Providers have ‘lost their way’ in their relationships with IFAs – and I know that many IFAs agree with me.  Many Providers regularly tell me that “they want to use Social Media to engage with and add value to IFAs”, but in the next breath give a string of reasons why they can’t.

In fairness, the new breed of micro and smaller Providers are working very hard at using new technology to engage with IFAs – David Ferguson and Nucleus immediately spring to mind, and larger Providers could very much learn from them.  We also see Poviders like Aviva seeking to add value through Social Media and others like Barnett Waddingham using high value content as part of their engagement strategy with IFAs.  There’s a new breed of Paraplanners too who are embracing Google+ and Hangouts to engage – Abraham Okusanya at FinalytiQ is leading the way. 


The future

An important project for LifeTalk now is to help Providers to better understand how collaboration and sharing of best practice can be of enormous value to them – just as it is to financial advisers.  The challenge for them is whether they are indeed willing and prepared to share ideas for the benefit of each other.  And that’s why we’ve launched both a LinkedIn group for Provider/suppliers and also the Provider Mastermind group (links below).

And as for IFAs and financial planners – after a very slow start embracing the Internet and Social Media, most advisers are now using it in some shape or form in their businesses.  Many still want to learn more about using Social Media in a strategic way, and that’s a good thing because without a solid plan, Social Media will only ever be a networking tool – whereas it has real value as a strategic communication tool.

My passion for the coming years is to help advisers to ‘think outside the box’.  That sounds such a cliché expression, but is very appropriate.  The Financial Planning model seems to be a preferred route for many, but for those looking for something more – something that can open up huge new opportunities, then there is a lot of good news ahead for financial advisers.  Not least of which is creating new business models and monetising the obvious expertise and experience that so many advisers possess.  If there is one thing that the (now) profession has got right, it has been the march towards greater professionalism through qualifications and exams – but with only a handful of exceptions, the profession is not yet monetising that immense knowledge, experience and expertise in new ways that are appealing to today’s Internet-savvy consumers (of all ages).

We believe that our new Business Development Programme will fill a lot of gaps for many advisers.  Indeed, one adviser said when he signed up to the programme a few days ago that this was just what he was looking for in his business right now.

As a Broker Consultant, Key Account Manager and Head of Sales for various Providers, nothing gave me greater pleasure than giving IFAs ideas that they could take away, adapt and then use immediately for the benefit of themselves, their businesses and their clients.  Our Business Development Programme continues that idea and I’m looking forward to working with those forward-thinking advisers and financial planners who have already signed up.

Very soon we will celebrate ten years of IFA Life and LifeTalk.  Coincidentally we will also reach the 10,000 member mark around the same time.  We are incredibly proud that almost 10,000 industry professionals have each taken the trouble to sign up on the site – proving that a combination of value through relationships is a powerful influencer.

We look forward to welcoming many more financial advisers and planners to our community – and indeed Providers who are looking to maximise technology to engage with and add value to them.