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Do you know what a financial advisor actually does?

More than one-third of Americans, some 36 percent, don't have a strong understanding of what a financial advisor does, according to a recent study from financial advisory firm McAdam. This goes up to 46 percent for millennial respondents.

What are advisors doing to address this?

They need to bring the message to the people — literally, according to Phil Simonides, certified financial planner and group vice president of McAdam Financially Advanced.

Advisor
David Paul Morris | Bloomberg | Getty Images

"Part of the reason people don't understand the types of services advisors provide is that they don't have time to look into it," he said. "That's why we go to their offices and meet with them — a very short meeting."

He added, "There's no access to financial advising [for many people], because they're so busy with their jobs and lives."

In these short introductory meetings, Simonides said it's important for advisors to focus on their processes first so potential clients can feel comfortable and not overwhelmed. Models and strategies are more complex and should be explained separately.

Peter J. Creedon, a CFP and CEO of Crystal Brook Advisors, takes a similar approach. "Part of my outreach is to go where the people are, especially millennials, through social media, college alumni groups or start-up business incubators," he said. "I give an overview, showing my process and how I can help."

Continuously educating

Advisors are constantly educating existing clients and referral sources. "I spend probably half my time educating people," Creedon explained.

He and his firm provide an ongoing lunch-and-learn series for current clients on "the day in the life of a financial advisor." Topics include what the financial advisor does for the client; what comprehensive financial planning and investment management are; how the certified financial planner interacts with the client; and an explanation of products and services and how they meet client needs.

"We educate our clients so they understand our value proposition," said Kevin M. Reardon, CFP and president of Shakespeare Wealth Management.

"We use a written recommendation document that lists all the items we have accomplished in the past and items yet to address. It's an opportunity to make sure they understand everything," he said, adding, "Quite often, clients don't know the questions to ask."

"I think that our industry needs to be more clear and up-front about what how we get paid and let the consumer make their own choice." -Jonathan R. Kelley, partner at Hinds Financial Group

Another of Reardon's initiatives is educating referral sources, such as certified public accountants and attorneys, so they are able to educate their own clients.

"We use client case studies that demonstrate all of the items we provide advice on for different kinds of clients, and the net positive impact to a client's situation," he said. "We help them understand that if they include more planning, it helps with their client retention."

Educating the population at large is especially challenging, said David J. Haas, CFP and president of Cereus Financial Advisors.

What they don't hear

"It's very difficult to educate the public, because Americans are very susceptible to advertising," he said. "They believe things they hear, but what they don't hear [about choosing an advisor] is: What's the conflict of interest? What are the biases? What is their training? What are they selling? Advice? Products? What are the fees?"

People often walk into Haas' office not knowing what they're looking for, he added. "It's always a struggle to get them to pay for an unbiased financial plan, in part because they don't understand the value of making better financial decisions," Haas said. "They don't realize the thousands they could save over time in taxes, or gain through budgeting or putting assets to work."

For his part, McAdams' Simonides said the public doesn't "know if they need an advisor, they don't know how to find one, and they don't know how to evaluate one."

The industry overall needs to provide more clarity to the public, according to Jonathan R. Kelley, CFP and partner at Hinds Financial Group.

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"We should not be surprised that people have no idea what we do, [because] there are many people that are simply selling product and collecting a commission," he said. But potential clients "don't know about fee-based models, commission-based models or a combination," Kelley added. "I mean, after all, [why do] most people seek out help? They want advice.

"I think that our industry needs to be more clear and up-front about how we get paid and let the consumer make their own choice," he said.

Kelley provides a big-picture overview to clarify the profession to the public.

"For most advisors, the investment side is only part of the puzzle," he said. "For us, it is generally the idea that financial planning is achieving a balance between saving, spending and investing so that clients and their families can live an enjoyable life, pay for college and fund a dignified retirement."

— By Deborah Nason, special to CNBC.com