For all those financial advisors who feel like they are struggling with their time management and productivity in the face of an increasingly complex advisory business, there’s good (or at least affirming) news: you are not alone. As the results of the latest FPA Time Management and Productivity Study show, only a mere 13% of advisors report that they feel in complete control of their time, while 3-in-4 advisors are working more than 40 hours a week, and more than 1/3rd are working 50+ hours every week!
So how can advisors regain some control of their time and productivity? The FPA’s research finds that strategies for success are focused around three broad categories: strategic focus, structural efficiency, and personal productivity. The first category is about having a clear plan for where the business is going (and what you want to get out of it personally); the second category is all about process, workflow, and team support; and the key to the last is creating structure to your daily and weekly life to regain control of your schedule. And notably, while many advisors seem to focus on the last two categories, it’s the first that may actually be the most important; in other words, just as with our own clients, it’s hard to implement effective steps to improve our (business or financial) lives if we don’t have a good (business or financial) plan to help guide us where we’re going in the first place!
Ultimately, the FPA research finds that the key to time management is not merely about spending less time in the business, but instead is about spending more time on the right tasks in the business; in fact, advisors “in control” of their time actually schedule significantly more meetings throughout the year – to the tune of another 50 client meetings, 10 prospect meetings, and 5 center-of-influence meetings – and do so by effectively focusing their business, their infrastructure and support, and their personal time, in the direction of those “highest and best use” tasks; the rest are either eliminating with business focus, delegated with team support, or managed with some structure to the day to avoid letting those necessary tasks become overwhelming. For those still struggling to figure out how to make these improvements, the FPA study provides a healthy list of tips and strategies to try to improve your situation. Overall, though, the clear theme of the research is to recognize the simple fact that for advisors, it’s “control your business, or your business will control you.”
FPA Time Management Study and the Productivity Pyramid
The 2014 FPA Time Management and Productivity Study of advisors was conducted earlier this year (in collaboration with advisor consultant Julie Littlechild of Advisor Impact), as a follow-up to last year’s inaugural 2013 Future of Practice Management study from FPA’s new Research and Practice Institute (which identified time management as a critical issue for advisors). And as the results of this 750-advisor survey confirmed, time management is indeed a real challenge for advisors, with only 13% reporting that they feel in complete control of their time. In turn, most advisors are working significant hours in their businesses, with 74% of advisors working more than 40 hours/week and 35% of working more than 50 hours/week; similarly, 88% of advisors work at least one evening, 40% work three or more evenings, and 56% occasionally or regularly work on the weekends as well. On the other hand, a key finding of the study was that those who are “in control” of their time don’t necessarily work less, per se, but are simply more focused where they need to be: working with and interacting with clients, prospects, and referral sources. Those more in control of their time reported on average doing 50 more clients meetings per year, 10 more prospect meetings, and 5 more center-of-influence meetings, compared to those who reported they were in less control of their time!
Overall, to help make sense of the results, and formulate recommendations, FPA study grouped the results into three broad categories of productivity challenges and solutions: Strategic (who you’re trying to serve and what you’re trying to accomplish professionally and personally), Structural (how you deliver to clients to achieve your strategic goals), and Personal (how you manage your day to do what you need to get done). Notably, despite the fact that a lot of advisors anecdotally seem most concerned about how tto improve their personal productivity, the FPA study makes the point that the starting base of the productivity pyramid is to get the strategic focus right, then proper structural support, and only finally built personal productivity on top of that.
The goal of the FPA study was not only to recognize that there is a time management challenge for advisors, but also what to do about it. Accordingly the results of the study focus heavily on what advisors are doing/have done to improve their productivity (at all levels of the pyramid), and also sought to determine whether there were any notable differences between those who felt “in control” of their practices versus the rest (for further insight about best practices).
One of the key takeaways of the FPA Time Management Study is the sheer importance of setting a proper strategic focus to the business. In fact, as the results showed, advisors who felt in control of their business also felt in control of their time, and those who weren’t in control of their business didn’t feel in control of their time, either. To some extent, this may be a recognition that those who aren’t in control of their time may have trouble controlling their businesses, but seems more likely that for most, if you can’t control your business, then your business controls you (and your time).
So what determines whether the advisor is in control of their business in the first place? Surprisingly, having a formal, written business plan was not as important as one might guess; in solo practices, there was no difference between those “in control” and “out of control” for their likelihood to have a written plan; in the case of multi-advisor team practices, there was a slightly greater likelihood that those “in control” had a written business plan, but even 56% of those not in control still had a written business plan (that apparently wasn’t helping much!). Instead, the greatest driving factor in whether the advisor felt in control was how well aligned the current plan was relative to the operation of the practice itself. In other words, it doesn’t matter whether the plan is written, or outlined mentally or through some other process; what matters is whether the business is being executed with the focus of sticking to the plan!
That being said, one clear theme in the “strategic productivity” category is that planning matters. The advisors most in control dedicate at least 30 minutes per week to planning their schedule and their business. Some even set concrete time blocks on their calendar, like “90 minutes of time to put thought into the business every Monday morning”, and best practices includes planning for not only business goals but personal goals as well; those in control were also more likely to report a clear plan for their own retirement, in addition to a plan for their business.
Although not specifically articulated in the study, the results overall make a very strong case for advisors having a business coach to help them actually plan for their businesses, help ensure that what they’re doing in their business is aligned with their plan, and keep them accountable to pursuing the plan and staying on track. In other words, all the key functions that planners themselves ultimately offer to their clients, are equally applicable for planners to receive help with themselves when it comes to their businesses (and perhaps their personal lives as well, as even nearly 1-in-4 advisors who did feel in control of their time and business still don’t have a clear plan for their own retirement!).
Enhancements to structural productivity are all about the structure of the firm the advisor owns (or in which the advisor works). Accordingly, the primary focus of this category was around the team that supports the advisor, along with the processes and workflows being implemented by that team (or the advisor themselves). Notably, though, advisors indicated that the best way to improve their (structural) efficiency was first by improving processes and workflows, with delegation second. Reported workflow enhancements included everything from appointing a staff member as the “process manager” whose main role is to know the status of any/all clients and work being done for them at any given time, to shifting to cloud-based platforms that allow work to be done from anywhere, to implementing a modern CRM that allows for full task and process management and can become the dashboard for the entire business.
In terms of effective team building and delegation, the results did find that team-based advisors generally felt in more control of their businesses than sole proprietors (and on average sole proprietors with at least one staff member felt more in control than those with none), and most advisors appear to first be hiring support/operational staff, then junior/associate advisors, and eventually staff managers in key areas (compliance, marketing, etc.). When drilling down to the particular kinds of tasks that are delegated, clear categories emerged of what advisors tend to delegate. From least to most likely to be delegated, the categories were:
Specific examples of advisor team delegation and support included: having a staff member sit in on all client meetings, take notes, and be responsible for follow-up; meet weekly with the team to discuss ongoing client issues, projects underway, and set goals/objectives for the week; handing over scheduling of time/tasks to a team member (and be certain that every meeting and task is scheduled); and hiring interns to take certain tasks off the hands of the advisor and the assistant.
In the realm of personal productivity, the clear and dominating trend for advisors who felt in control of their time and businesses was the structure they set to their day through scheduling and task management. Advisors “in control” (as solos or on advisor teams) were significantly more likely to have a very set schedule for meetings and tasks, and those who opted for complete flexibility of their schedule still overwhelmingly tended to have a very focused to-do list of things to be done within that flexible day; furthermore, the advisors in control tended to maintain control by rarely ever deviating from their schedules (unless there was urgency with an important client). By contrast, advisors who only loosely set schedules (e.g., for client and prospect meetings but no other business tasks), or who set schedules but deviated from them for “a wide variety of reasons”, were far more likely to feel out of control.
Notably, though, the tendency for rigidity in the schedule seems to be driven heavily by the extent to which the advisor has support staff or a team. Solo advisors were overwhelmingly likely to be flexible and meet with clients when it suits the client’s schedule (ostensibly just managing the rest of their tasks and staff management around those client meetings). By contrast, while the most common team-based advisor strategy was still to accommodate client schedules, the “in control” team advisors were significantly more likely to set either specific time blocks throughout the week for client meetings, or specific days of the week on which client meetings would consistently be held. For instance, a number of advisors reported some version of a strategy where Mondays are used to prepare (with the team) for the week, client meetings are only scheduled on Tuesday/Wednesday/Thursday, and then Friday is another “buffer” day to wrap up the week’s activity, catch up as necessary, and begin to prepare for the next week.
Overall, the study results found that the average client meeting lasts one hour, and the average prospect meeting lasts 75 minutes, though “in control” advisors were significantly more likely to schedule with some defined time (at least 15 minutes) between meetings (though some advisors specifically reported being careful not to have “too much” time wasted in between meetings). In addition, “in control” advisors were more likely to use some kind of time-tracking tools to manage their day (though still a minority of advisors overall). With respect to handling incoming client contact, “in control” team-based advisors were more likely to only respond to emails and phone calls in defined time blocks (though also still a minority of advisors in total are using this strategy); however, “in control” solo advisors were more likely to respond to client phone calls when they came in, and only respond to emails in time blocks. Strategies for email time blocks included everything from checking email at certain intervals of the day (in the morning, right after lunch, and at the end of the day), to specifically avoiding email first thing and getting other to-do tasks done first, to implementing #InboxZero strategies.
Overall, the big theme of the FPA’s Time Management study seems to be the basic principle “Control your business, or your business will control you.” Effective time management wasn’t just about spending less time in the business, but spending more time on the right tasks; as a result, advisors more “in control” of their time also reported having more time to see clients, prospects, and centers of influence. For most advisors, the key to better time management appears to be driven heavily by establishing structure and honoring it, and structural productivity strategies like improving workflows and processes and building out a support team to delegate to. Nonetheless, though, that the starting point is to get clarity on the strategic focus and goals of the business itself – and if you’re not taking time to do planning for your business (and yourself!), or getting assistance with it (just as you would encourage your clients to plan as well!), it may be almost impossible to fix the rest of the problems as well.
In the meantime, if you want further tips and ideas, be certain to check out the FPA’s full report on the Time Management And Productivity Study itself.