Communication 101 for Retirement Plan Advisers

Speaking in industry jargon is fine in the office, but not when speaking to plan sponsor clients and plan participants.

Plan advisers who use industry speak can confuse and lose the interest of whomever they are talking to—even CPA partners may not understand all nuances of pension rules, noted speakers at the 2014 American Society of Pension Professionals & Actuaries (ASPPA) Annual Conference. In addition, different audiences have different needs and points of reference.

The first thing advisers should determine when communicating is the state of mind of the person or group they are communicating with, said J.J. McKinney, chief operations officer at Retirement Strategies in Augusta, Georgia. If the state of mind is negative, advisers should be sure not to match it.

The appropriate medium for communication will depend on the message and the audience, added Adam Pozek, partner and consultant at DWC ERISA Consultants in Salem, New Hampshire. Just as all participants are different, so are plan sponsors, he noted; some need or require face-to-face interactions and some are not technologically capable to communicate via email or web conference. For some messages, advisers should try more than one medium for communication. But, never share bad news in an email, he warned.

For meetings, advisers should share expectations up front, said Yannis Koumantaros, director at large, consulting shareholder and marketing director for Spectrum Pension Consultants in Tacoma, Washington. There should be no surprises; advisers should communicate the objective of the meeting and what the client should be prepared to provide in the meeting. In addition, “Proper prior planning prevents poor performance,” he said.

McKinney added that being late to a meeting shows lack of respect for the client’s time. Also, advisers should make sure the right people are included in the meeting and no one is left out of the invitation.


Advisers should be mindful of clients’ and participants’ time and workload when deciding how to communicate. For example, McKinney said, if they are busy, they are not likely to read an eBook recommended by the adviser.  Advisers should also respond to requests in a timely way, added Koumantaros. “If you can’t give them something right away, give them what you correctly can as soon as possible, even if that is a phone call saying, ‘I can’t get you that until tomorrow.’”

Communications should be deliberate. McKinney said they should be clear and structured logically. “Don’t use jargon, and don’t be condescending if the person explains something wrong,” he said. “You may have to explain something in a way that would never be acceptable in the business.” He suggested that advisers recite the communication out loud to make sure it makes sense. All relevant parties should be included in communications and follow ups, and if an adviser gets no response from a request, he or she should try a different communication medium.

But, communications do not have to be all business, Pozek noted. Advisers should get to know their clients companies and other interests; congratulate them on business accomplishments, send links to articles about them, and even send birthday cards to contacts. Don’t always rush right into business when meeting with or calling a client; small talk can help advisers get to know the client and they should make a note of personal details for future reference. However, McKinney warns that while it is good to have a relationship with a personal touch, that should not always be included in business communications.

Communication is not all talking; it also involves listening. Pozek said advisers should ask questions and confirm what the client or participant is saying or asking. Also, acknowledge the complexity of the subject or issue. “It will make them feel comfortable asking questions,” he noted. In addition, advisers should always act professional and avoid placing blame when things do not work out as a client wants.

Advisers always want to be available and helpful to clients and participants, but sometimes requests will take much time and effort or resources are not available to provide responses. “We want to say yes, but we don’t want to have to apologize later for being wrong or for not being able to deliver what we promised,” Koumantaros said. It’s good to set up expectations early; let clients know there will be a charge for a project or that an analysis or calculation will only be an estimate. If an adviser doesn’t know the answer to a client or participant’s question, it is fine to say so and offer to do some research.

To be a problem solver, sometimes it is necessary to read between the lines or ask questions to get to the heart of the problem. “Clients may not know how to say what they want, or may not realize themselves what the underlying problem is,” noted McKinney. Pozek also warned advisers not to assume they know what a client wants without asking questions. He shared the example of a time a client asked him to meet to look at plan design. He prepared as if the client wanted to cut costs, but it turned out the client wanted to enhance the plan to show appreciation for employees.


During a role play exercise, the speakers demonstrated some of the guidelines for properly communicating with clients. Pozek played an adviser who just learned that a new client failed the ADP nondiscrimination test for the year. The plan sponsor’s daughter is a highly compensated employee (HCE) by attribution, but would have otherwise been excluded as an HCE. Koumantaros played the plan sponsor.

Pozek called Koumantaros to discuss the situation, he then began using Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) code sections and what the speakers called TLAs (three-letter acronyms) to explain the situation. Koumantaros acted confused. Pozek then told Koumantaros that his daughter was the reason the plan failed the test and asked how he could fix that. Koumantaros got very defensive. The rest of the conversation was ranting by Koumantaros interspersed with Pozek trying to explain more clearly what he meant to say.

The speakers and audience discussed how the communication could have gone better. First, it would have been better to have that conversation in person, rather than over the phone. One audience member suggested that instead of saying, “You failed,” Pozek should have softened it by saying “You didn’t pass.” All agreed that Pozek’s explanation of the situation was too high-level and used way too much industry speak. It was also pointed out that the adviser could have prepared the client ahead of time for the potential of failing the test.

Pozek pointed out that instead of blaming the daughter for the tests failure, it would be better to congratulate the client on his daughter’s success and efforts to save for retirement, then say, “We may need to talk about how this affects some retirement plan tests and how we can best manage that.”

Advisers need practice and training in how to communicate with clients and participants. Natalie Wyatt, senior sales representative with Innovest, who was attending the conference discussion, suggested firms need to use mentoring; senior advisers should let juniors shadow them during such conversations.