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As a business owner you would be irresponsible if you did not, on a regular basis, scan the future landscape and assess the likely opportunities and threats that your business faces. But in what seems to be an increasingly uncertain world, this look into the future is a daunting task.
So it is no surprise, that Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon, says: “I very frequently get the question: What’s going to change in the next 10 years? That’s a very interesting question.” But he points out that he almost never gets the question: “What’s not going to change in the next 10 years?” He believes the second question is more important. As he puts it, it’s impossible to imagine a future 10 years from now where a customer comes up and says, “Jeff I love Amazon, I just wish the prices were a little higher.” Or, “I love Amazon, I just wish you’d deliver a little slower.”
So if we apply Bezos’ insight to your look into the future, what things are likely not to change over the next 10 years? Now the obvious one is that your clients will probably still be coming to you wanting the highest return at the lowest risk. That’s human nature. And human nature doesn’t change. But it may be more helpful to consider, over the next 10 years, what 10 things could you invest in that are very likely to reap business rewards for you in 10 years’ time? And invest in the broadest possible terms: time, money, resources, energy and anything else you may have at your disposal.
I put it to you that you can can invest in the following ten areas of your business, over the next ten years, and no matter what the future brings, you will build material value in your business.
1. Develop a distinctive value proposition
Looking after people’s financial affairs may seem to many as a generic activity with little differentiation from one provider to the next. Having worked with many financial planning businesses for many years, anecdotal evidence is clear: those that have a distinctive value proposition have more loyal and satisfied clients and enjoy more financial success than those that don’t. The good news is, it is only the fortunate few who have taken the time and trouble to develop a distinctive value proposition. Research from the US suggests that articulating their value to clients is what financial planning businesses regard as their biggest business challenge. This challenge won’t go away, and will become increasingly important over the next ten years.
2. Make sure you have profitable clients
Peter Drucker, the father of modern management talks about the purpose of a business being to create a client. Without clients, businesses do not exist. Without a well-managed and profitable client base, a business may struggle to survive and is unlikely to thrive. Our experience on the Practice Management Programmes that we run is that whenever a financial planning business does a client value analysis, they discover, without fail, that they get 80% of their revenue from only 20% of their clients. In some cases this has even stretched to a 90:10 or 95:5 ratio. To build value in your business, you don’t just need clients. They must be profitable.
3. Implement a compelling and relevant service offer
You may have great, profitable clients. But unless you can engage them with a compelling service offer, that is relevant, your best intentions to do right by the client run the risk of falling flat. Technological innovation and consumer awareness are combining to make exceptional service a ticket to the game. For example, in the online retail space, returning goods at no cost without questions asked is becoming standard. Gone are the days of you can “exchange your unused purchase within 30 days with your receipt.” The Internet also means that there is now nowhere to hide. Bad service will go viral. And you can rate any service of any business, anywhere in the world. So any consumer, anywhere in the world can see your rating. Extraordinary service will become the new normal. Neglect this reality at your peril.
4. Build a distinctive brand
The power of brand is undeniable in all sectors of society, be it commerce, education, the non-profit sector and even when it comes to countries – witness the slowly eroding brand of the US. Yet financial planning is a profession and industry that traditionally has been built around individual personal brands. At one of our recent Programmes, a leading marketing professional observed that financial planning is an under-branded sector. This will change over the next 10 years. One reason to act quickly in this regard is that recognizable, and trusted brands like Google and Facebook could easily enter the financial services sector. You will have wanted to plant your flag in the terrain before they do.
5. Do marketing that works
In an increasingly competitive world with information available at the touch of a button, how will you make your presence felt and your message heard in this world of overwhelm, noise and seemingly endless choice? The rules of marketing are changing, but the importance of marketing has not. Relative anonymity plus the marketing and branding of product providers will no longer be an equation that provides your business with credibility or clients. Communicating effectively, consistently and regularly, to existing and potential clients about how your business can help them will become a daily function. The exciting opportunity is that effective marketing will no longer be the sole domain of those with the biggest budget.
6. Systematize, systematize and when in doubt, systematize
For many practitioners, financial planning is a business that is built on the personal touch. In many ways this is true. What could be more personal than someone talking to you about their money? But so much of what a financial planning business does is not done in front of the client. Much of this work can be systematized, and funnily enough, even the work in front of a client can be systematized. Just look over your shoulder, there is a Robo Advisor hunting you down! For any business to build value, efficiency is a non-negotiable. This comes from being systematic in all you do. So systematization is about documented processes, automated functions, and possibly even manual checklists. It sounds boring. But a systematized business will have far more chance of being creative and present, when the personal touch is needed with clients. And funnily enough, such a business will be far more valuable than one that relies on the personal touch throughout its systems and functions. After all, we all know, to be human is to err.
7. Put technology at the core
The biggest users of Facebook are over 60. Technology is disrupting every facet of life and destroying seemingly secure businesses along the way. The question to which we don’t know the answer is who will be the Uber or AirBnB of the financial planning industry? But we do know that the challenge for financial planning businesses is not whether they should or should not integrate technology into their business, but rather how. The shopping malls of the world did not see Amazon coming. You have been warned.
8. Have the right people on board
Notwithstanding the importance of technology and the integral role it undoubtedly will play in your business in 10 years’ time, the fact that people are your greatest asset in any form of business will not change. But it is likely that the type of skills and knowledge your people will need will change. The implications for whom and how you recruit people will be enormous. So too will be your ability to remunerate and retain them. Needless to say this will be an ever-evolving process, fraught with emotional ups and downs. After all, we might like to think that what makes the human unique, as a species is our rationality. The ever-expanding field of neuroscience however suggests, that most of what we do is driven by emotion. And it will be the emotional connection with clients that will be the life-blood of financial planning businesses in the future.
9. Manage your governance with enthusiasm
Governance is not just compliance. It is management too. Financial planning businesses tend to focus on compliance as the noose around their neck. Yet regulatory obligations provide as secure a moat around your business as any. New players can’t just open shop next door. In ten years’ time a compliance failure will still be as big a disaster for a business as it is today. The key will be reframing your approach to compliance so that it merely becomes integral to how you manage your business. Blockchain may become the means to do this. Which will free you up to manage your business with enthusiasm. But management will still matter. And how effective you are at this will undoubtedly influence the value of your business.
10. Culture will be your key competitive advantage
The teams with the best-paid stars make the news headlines. But the teams with the best cultures win the trophies. “Culture trumps talent” responded Bob Skinstad, a former international rugby player, when asked the question, what’s the one lesson you can take from the sports arena to business? In their book, How Google Works, Eric Schmidt and Jonathan Rosenberg talk about attracting the right type of employee, which they call the “smart creative”. And how do you do that? They say it starts with culture. And if you have the right employees, you’ll get the right clients. In 10 years’ time your culture will be the key to your competitiveness. In fact it already is.
2017 is the 10th anniversary of Apple selling phones. It feels like the iPhone has been with us forever. Time flies. Change happens quickly. We can’t predict the future. But you will be well positioned to take on the uncertainty that awaits us all by investing in these ten certainties, which are key to building value in your business. The alternative? Perhaps having a Kodak moment. Not the one with a smile. Kodak invented digital photography. They saw the future but didn’t act on it. It’s always preferable to learn from other’s mistakes.