Every financial planner delivering advice to clients must, at some point, help the client interact with and implement advice with a financial service or product provider at some point. Depending on the planner's business model, the implementation of the advice may or may not directly command a commission, but even a fee-only planner ultimately recommends financial products and services. After all, you can't investment in an IRA without an IRA custodian, you can't buy mutual funds or ETFs inside the account without interacting with mutual fund and ETF product providers, and you can't buy insurance without an insurance company as part of the transaction. In fact, implementation of the advice IS the 5th step of the financial planning process. Which raises the question: given the reliance of financial planning on implementation using financial services and products, why do so many financial planners try so hard to avoid the conference exhibit hall? Are we shirking our professional due diligence obligations, or is there another issue at hand?
The inspiration for today's blog post comes from some conversations I had recently with another planner about the recent Business and Wealth Management conference in Chicago, hosted by Bob Veres and the team that puts together the T3 (technology) conference. The planner had asked whether the event was weak because of the noticeable number of conference sessions delivered by sponsors/exhibitors of the event - implicitly suggesting that sponsor-delivered content is substandard.
To be fair, I can't entirely blame my planning friend for his assumption. Virtually any and every planner who's ever been to a conference has experienced the exhibitor-delivered session that was a total bomb; at best, it was a thinly veiled sales pitch for the company's products (sometimes not even veiled), or at worst it was just so completely irrelevant and oblivious of the audience that it still wasn't clear what the sale could be even after the fact! Similarly, most planners tend to avoid the exhibit hall of a conference at all costs, again perhaps because they fear the discomfort of just being pitched at and sold to as they walk through the aisles, fending off aggressive wholesalers left and right. Or worse, they get stuck in a discussion with a product representative who has no understanding of their business or how they serve clients, awkwardly trying to figure out how to extract themselves from the conversation.
Yet at the same time, I still can't get rid of this nagging feeling: but don't we actually implement these kinds of products with our clients? And if so, shouldn't we cherish our time with exhibitors as an opportunity to do due diligence on the product and service providers we work with, and learn about new products and services that might be even better for our clients?
So what's the problem? What's missing? Why is the conference hall experience so awkward, if we theoretically should want and need to be there, meeting the exhibitors? Ultimately, I think there are three problems that detract from our effective use of exhibitors at conferences:
1) Wrong exhibitors. Sometimes, I think the problem is as simple as this: we have the wrong exhibitors at our conferences. The companies exhibiting do not have the products or services that are actually relevant or of interest to planners. I still remember the first time I went to the T3 technology conference several years ago; the organizers hand-picked the exhibitors to ensure that their products and services were relevant to the attendees. The end result: one of the biggest complaints I heard from attendees at the end of the conference was that there were so many sessions, there was not enough time to be in the exhibit hall! And the second most common complaint: the exhibitors have so much to share, can't we just have them present a session so they can explain what they do for everyone at once and we can all hear the questions, rather than one at a time in the exhibit hall? In other words, when you get the right exhibitors at the conference that are really relevant to the attendees, we actually want to meet them in the exhibit hall, and hear them present to talk about their products and services. After all, if you found a company that truly had a financial product or service that was relevant to you, your business, and your clients, that would improve their lives and the success of their plans, wouldn't you want to hear more about them, too?
2) Bad Salesman. In other situations, the problem is not the wrong exhibitor, but the wrong salesperson handling the booth. Unfortunately, in my experience this situation is all too common. These are the scenarios where the conference really has brought in the right exhibitor with the right product or service that the attendee needs, but the person you actually have to talk to in order to learn about the product is ineffective. Maybe the wholesaler doesn't actually understand his own product. Maybe he understand the product, but not enough about you and your business to understand how it would apply, forcing you to painfully extract what you need to know to make a decision not because of the salesperson's assistance, but despite the lack thereof.
3) Bad apples ruined our attitude. The third problem of the exhibit hall is the sad reality that some really bad apples over time have done a lot to ruin our attitude for everyone. In other words, we're often unwilling to enter the exhibit hall with an open mind, because of a number of bad experiences with bad exhibitors with poor products and terrible salespeople. Simply put, we're a bit jaded. And with good reason.
So how does the conference experience improve? It's up to the conferences to step up and do a better job with #1 - and I think for the most part, the Veres Business and Wealth Management conference did. As a result, I saw people flocking to the exhibit hall, and most of the exhibitor-delivered sessions were well attended and well received, because they had products, services, and/or content that really was relevant for the audience (although even with the organizers' efforts, there were still a few unfortunate flops).
But it's also up to us as financial planners to address the problem, particularly regarding #2 and #3 above. No, we can't turn a bad salesperson into a good one, but we can be proactive in trying to learn about new products and services, despite the occasional bad salesperson, to understand whether it may be effective for our practice or for our clients. And we can try to enter the exhibit hall with an open mind, leaving the jaded attitude at the door. After all, Diligence (including due diligence of the products and services we recommend to clients) is one of the seven ethical principles for CFP certificants; we owe it to ourselves and our clients.
So what do you think? If a conference was willing to really step up and better vet their sponsors (both as exhibitors in the hall and even as speakers on the podium) to better ensure they're an appropriate fit for you and your practice, would you be more willing to walk the exhibit hall or listen to them present? Is meeting with exhibitors and sponsors at a conference part of your due diligence process for evaluating existing providers you work with? For potential new providers as well? Should it be? What product and service providers do you wish you could see at conferences but feel like you never do?