I’ve told the same story several times lately about a guy who owned a restaurant. When I was writing a story on small-business banking several years ago, I talked to people about their experiences with banks.

I walked into a restaurant in the financial district here in New York and asked the owner about his bank. As busy as his place seemed every day, he was having a hard time financially, he said.

While we were busy at the magazine writing about the spiffy new technology of the day like remote deposit or check truncation, his biggest concern was getting enough change to start the day. Since he was worried about his supply of nickels and dimes each morning, his top priority in a bank was proximity to his restaurant.

For years he had a bank branch across the street and he loved it. (If you’ve never had the pleasure of carrying a box of change, it’s very heavy.) But one day the bank was acquired, and his branch closed. Now, his bank certainly wouldn’t have declined an acquisition offer based on the needs of one customer. But from his perspective, this was simply a case of nobody understanding his needs because nobody ever asked.

How many customers in other industries feel like this? How many of your clients feel the same?

Based purely on an unscientific survey of family and friends, I suspect that a lot of clients want simplicity first and foremost in their financial lives. But even that’s hard with the selection available today. I’m all for the notion of having options, but if you look at just the ETF universe—the easiest way to simplify a portfolio—there are more than 1,000 on offer. (I keep getting emails about the latest and greatest ETFs, most of which seem reasonable enough individually, but taken as a whole they create a blur for investors.)

Similar to today’s overwhelming choice of consumer goods, the sheer choice can be so dizzying that a final decision is made from sheer frustration just to be done. Or even worse, in the financial world a decision may be made from inertia to do nothing.

As an advisor, you can’t help much with their purchases of consumer goods (they’re on their own in the soap aisle), but you can help simplify their finances.

To be sure, your well-heeled clients may not necessarily cherish simplicity above all else. But how many feel like that restaurant owner who simply was never asked? And on top of that, how many made their most recent portfolio decisions just to be done with it?

I wrote recently about the need for an advisor to be able to able to synthesize complex information for clients—to be able to take issues that are difficult and convey them in an easy-to-understand way. But you can’t stop there. In addition to conveying simplicity, you also have to be able to implement simplicity in their portfolios. And before that, you need to ask what they want from their finances.

Maybe you already do that. But bear in mind that when I wrote my story with the restaurant owner, a number of bankers insisted that they asked what their customers wanted. I caught some grief from banks for being too negative and not highlighting the positives of small-business banking.

Maybe it was a badly managed restaurant, and maybe the owner didn’t warrant a loan (he had been turned down for a loan shortly before we talked). But it still offers a lesson on the importance of really knowing what clients want.


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