The below article originally appeared in a feature by The Vanguard Group, Inc. here.
Advisor evolution: How one firm leads the way with holistic relationships
As the financial advisory industry continues to change, client relationships have stepped into the spotlight as a competitive differentiator for full-service advisors. But this is nothing new for Cooper/Haims Advisors, LLC, an independent firm in Victor, New York, with more than 200 clients and $400 million in assets under management. Holistic client relationships based on a wide range of services and deep client knowledge have been a core part of its practice for decades.
The ability to provide an uncommon array of services begins with the Cooper/Haims team. The firm consists of five senior advisors, one tax and investment specialist, one financial planner, one investment analyst, and two client service associates. The firm also taps a network of professional partners as needed.
How far beyond the norm is Cooper/Haims Advisors, LLC, willing to go? "We once helped a client purchase a new car,” managing partner Richard Bentley said. ”A few hours on a car lot was a small price compared to her lifelong loyalty to us."
The breadth of its resources allows Cooper/Haims to go beyond standard retirement planning and wealth management. For instance, each client is paired with a CPA to ensure that a thorough tax assessment is part of every client decision. The firm even helps clients prepare their tax returns.
In fact, Cooper/Haims routinely counsels clients in less conventional ways, such as by helping them understand employee benefits, access insurance options, and calculate the pros and cons of refinancing a loan. The firm also assists with legacy planning, going beyond standard investment-related advice and estate-plan execution and creating inheritance flowcharts and holding meetings with clients and heirs.
Managing partner Richard Bentley explains, "We're unusual in that way. We like to be involved in all aspects of our clients' financial lives."
How far beyond the norm is the firm willing to go? "We once helped a client purchase a new car," Bentley said. The client, who knew little about cars, was worried she'd be treated unfairly.
"A few hours on a car lot was a small price compared to her lifelong loyalty to us."
The Client Advisory Board
From the outset, founders Howard Haims and Carole Cooper-Haims strove to continually raise the bar by consistently reassessing the practice. Through these assessments, they came to realize that one of their best barometers of success was the voice of their clients. In 2001, the Cooper/Haims Client Advisory Board was born.
The board is made up of about ten client couples and meets formally once a year. Each annual meeting consists of an assessment of the previous year, an outlook for the coming year, a list of items for discussion, and an open floor for clients to raise issues they'd like to address. Meetings conclude with an appreciation dinner. In addition, the firm solicits input from board members on various topics throughout the year.
"The clients are happy to share their opinions. And they really help us key in on what's working well and what isn't," Bentley said.
Early feedback from the board revealed concerns about the firm's succession plan, when one member asked, "Can't you just clone yourselves?" While the comment indicated a high degree of satisfaction, it also conveyed a subtle anxiety that was shared by other clients. What would happen when their trusted advisors retired?
Soon thereafter, the firm began to recruit additional advisors, which gave new hires the opportunity to develop client relationships over time. When Carole Cooper-Haims retired in 2008, even clients she'd served for more than 30 years experienced a seamless transition.
Making the most of technology
"We try to spend as much of our time on value-added activities as possible," Bentley said. To that end, the firm's dedication to exploring, implementing, and reevaluating technology-based solutions gives it a significant advantage.
"We were early adopters of financial planning and aggregation software. Not many firms were doing this at the time, but it was important to us to help clients consider their complete financial picture, including accounts held elsewhere," Bentley said.
The firm has also spent considerable effort to establish a client web portal with an impressive array of capabilities. All clients have personal webpages through which they can securely access all their financial information, including assets and liabilities; investment data; and tax, estate planning, and investment documents. They can also use tools that help them evaluate various hypothetical scenarios, such as the outcomes of saving more, making a large purchase, or gifting assets to charity.
"We performed an exhaustive search for the right vendor. We looked at price, but more importantly, we wanted quality, flexibility, and something that was a good fit for us and our clients," Bentley said.
Each year, the firm conducts a formal technology review. "We look at our software, talk about best practices, and see if there might be better options," Bentley said. After one review, the firm hired a consultant to evaluate its client relationship management (CRM) system. As a result, the firm was able to build several custom processes to further streamline daily activities and help ensure that nothing falls through the cracks.
Establishing effective tech solutions has required some concerted effort, and it hasn't always gone smoothly. The Cooper/Haims team once found itself in a yearlong contract for a software system that failed to deliver as promised. Yet as with other aspects of the business, it continued to keep a positive focus and to find new ways to improve.
"It would be a lot easier in the short term to just accept whatever system we have," Bentley said, "However, that's not going to happen. We'll continue to make significant investments in what we consider to be industry-leading solutions that work for us."
Advisor teams improve accessibility and depth of service
Cooper/Haims considers a team approach to be a firm trademark. "Every client is a client of the firm," said Bentley. "They generally know and work with at least two senior advisors, and they're comfortable with any of our advisors taking their calls."
Each team's ability to stay well informed about client interactions is supported by the carefully developed CRM system. An advisor who takes a client call, for example, logs details in the system so anyone who serves the client will be on the same page.
The team approach increases accessibility to clients. Furthermore, a team's familiarity with each client, coupled with the firm's broader involvement in clients' financial needs, can help it provide more nuanced counsel.
"We may know that a client has exhausted their capital loss carryforward or that their insurance coverage has changed or that they're expecting a small inheritance," Bentley said. This level of knowledge provides an uncommonly well-rounded picture of a client's financial situation, which enables a team to more completely assess the benefits and risks of any proposed action.
The payoff? Little need to prospect for new business
When asked how much time he spends courting new business, Bentley admits, "Almost none. A majority of new business comes right from referrals, from clients' friends and family members."
This happens so consistently that the entire team spends little time prospecting and can instead spend more time on client relationships. "My time is probably divided into thirds: one-third spent on investment activities, one-third on meetings and paperwork for other services, and one-third interacting with clients," Bentley said.
While media noise about advisory fees, younger investors, and robo-competition can keep some advisors up at night, the team at Cooper/Haims sleeps soundly. That may be because personal, comprehensive services and extensive client knowledge have set a foundation for relationships that clients would be hard-pressed to find elsewhere.
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- Richard Bentley is managing partner at Cooper/Haims Advisors, LLC, a registered investment advisor in Victor, New York. The firm serves more than 200 clients and $400 million in assets under management. Bentley is not affiliated with Vanguard, and Vanguard does not make any representation regarding his views.