Getting Better

Is your continuous improvement stalled at the expense of the plan participant?

“If you are not getting better, you are getting left behind.” That applies in many aspects of business, but nowhere perhaps as critically as for retirement plan advisers. So, what motivates you to improve your practice on a day-to-day basis? In my encounters with advisers, the answers tend to encompass the following:

A. What?
B. Nothing
C. The industry
D. My clients
E. My own high standards (the desire to deliver a superior product)

A and B, of course, are abysmal responses that cause businesses to stall and eventually shrink. Response C is infinitesimally better, but it still stifles growth. Only responses D and E will position your firm for solid growth and success, particularly when those motives are integrated with a “continuous improvement” effort.

Serving as the adviser of a retirement plan carries with it a profound responsibility. Over the life of a plan, the retirement plan adviser is, by far, the single biggest noncash contributor to a plan participant’s account balance at retirement. Many retirement plan committees, plan sponsors, plan providers, fund managers, managers of open-architecture recordkeeping systems, and even communications specialists believe that what their group or firm delivers to the plan is paramount to everything else. I respectfully disagree.

I disagree because I have seen too many successful “broker-of-record” changes (where participation increases by more than 50% after the change) to believe that anyone is more important in helping plan participants attain financial security than the retirement plan adviser. I have seen too many fund lineups substantially improved when a new retirement plan adviser begins attending the retirement plan committee meetings. The retirement plan adviser is in a position to make a substantial difference and, because I know that the retirement plan adviser can make that difference, I again pose the question: “What drives your efforts to ‘get better’ on an ongoing basis?”

Start by approaching your best clients and asking them for feedback on what you can do better to help them, the retirement plan committee, and the plan participants. This approach has many benefits; your clients learn that you value their input, and they learn that you are open to change. Most importantly, the feedback helps you to improve, while you also solidify your relationships with your best clients.

Make an appointment specifically to discuss how you can improve your service-you may be surprised at the response you get. By making the commitment to focus on finding out how you can do a better job for your clients, you quickly will differentiate yourself from the rhetorical comment that many of us have used to close a telephone conversation, such as, “Is there anything else that I can do for you?”

Your request will let your clients know that their feedback will be incorporated in your overall “continuous improvement” effort. Advising them of the topic in advance should motivate them to share honest and meaningful content with you, and it should give them a chance to prepare thoughtful responses.

The successful retirement plan adviser knows that the only acceptable response to “How are you getting better?” requires that you take an active role in continually making your business more efficient, and then delivering those efficiencies to your clients. You owe it to plan participants and plan sponsors to force yourself, and this industry, to get better at delivering real outcome-based solutions.

Steff C Chalk is founder and president of CHALK 401(k) Advisory Board, with a client list that includes corporations, nonprofits, and governmental units. A judge for the PLANSPONSOR Retirement Plan Adviser of the Year award, and a faculty member of the PLANSPONSOR Institute, he is also the co-author of How to Build a Successful 401(k) and Retirement Plan Advisory Business.