The ‘broker protocol’ is good for investors and needs to be strengthened

  • The protocol allows advisors to bring a limited amount of client contact information with them if they choose to change firms, ensuring service continuity.
  • Two signatory firms have pulled out, a move that is ultimately not in clients' or the industry's best interest.
  • Advisors must step away from the idea of being an industry and live up to being a profession.

I have long believed that to be a financial advisor is to serve in a noble profession.

In fact, given the impact finances can have on our lives, I consider the financial advisory profession approaching the importance of what physicians may do to positively impact patients' physical and mental well-being, or what clergy do to positively impact the spiritual well-being of people of faith. As financial advisors, we have a tremendous opportunity and, similarly, a tremendous responsibility to positively impact our clients' financial well-being.

Financial Advisor and clients
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That may seem hyperbolic or even disingenuous to those who view our profession with mistrust. And I can understand that, given the approach of some in our profession or, better said, our industry. My terminology changes to "industry" because, sadly, that's the opinion of some financial services firms: They instead consider this an industry in which you are either a manufacturer of products or a distributor of products that they or someone else manufacture.

That's not the profession as I see it. Rather, this is a profession that is about people and their financial well-being. The best advisors truly understand their clients and their financial situations, and help them make decisions to achieve their life goals.

Which is why it pains me as I witness our profession's Protocol for Broker Recruiting start to unravel. For those unfamiliar with the protocol, it is an agreement — struck more than a decade ago between most financial services firms, big and small — that allows financial advisors to bring a limited amount of client contact information with them if they choose to change firms, so they can contact their clients and continue to provide advice and service once they have joined the new firm.

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While I'd argue that the protocol doesn't go far enough, given that advisors can't explain their plans to clients ahead of time — often creating confusion when an advisor is suddenly at a new firm without warning — some firms have recently decided that the parameters of the protocol are too much. In our industry's equivalent of Brexit, two large signatories have exited the agreement.

These firms have decided to build walls around their advisors, making it harder for them to leave if they choose to do so.

Raymond James is a member of the protocol and intends to remain. We believe in freedom and the power of choice. We believe we should aspire to support our advisors so well — add so much value to how our advisors positively impact their clients' lives — that our advisors would never dream of serving their clients from another home.

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Most importantly, we believe the client relationship is first and foremost with the advisor, not the firm. This goes far beyond protocol, to what we call "book ownership." Again, protocol simply means advisors can bring a limited amount of contact information and solicit their clients, but stops well short of embracing freedom and choice of firm for advisors.

Book ownership acknowledges that the advisor, not the firm, has earned the client's trust and has built that relationship over time. So if an advisor decides a new home would better support their clients and their business, we'll help them transition. Clients should be able to choose their advisors and advisors should be able to choose their firms. These are people, not commodities.

Which brings me back to my belief that this is a noble profession. We should strive for more. In the medical profession, when patients choose to follow their physicians to a new hospital, they request that their medical records follow from the old hospital to the new one. This strikes me as commonsense, yet in our industry it doesn't happen.

"The current broker protocol is a bare minimum. Rather than abandoning it, let's strengthen it."

The best case is that both firms involved in an advisor transition are members of the protocol, so the advisor can bring client contact information and call his or her clients. If the firms are not members, clients are often left confused or angry — they don't hear from their advisor and get redirected to someone new when they call, all while the advisor is trying to slowly rebuild a contact list. This does not reflect well on any of us and contributes to the distrust that some have for our profession.

Clients expect and deserve more. We should be able to deliver. But in order to do so, we have to rethink our approach — step away from the idea of being an industry and live up to being a profession; set aside lip service about putting clients first and actually do it. That means letting clients choose their advisors. Letting advisors choose the best firms. Letting information flow securely and confidentially to a new firm at the direction of a client so the advisor can provide continuity of advice and care.

It's time for our industry — our profession — to evolve. The current broker protocol is a bare minimum. Rather than abandoning it, let's strengthen it. Let's work together to keep clients at the forefront by honoring the client-advisor relationship. Let's actively work to serve our advisors and their clients to make them want to stay. We'll all be better for it. That's good for each of our firms, for the people we serve and for our firms' shareholders.

— By Tash Elwyn, president of Raymond James & Associate Private Client Group

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