The RIA business separates itself by putting people first so let's cut the corporate-speak

October 11, 2012 — 3:31 PM UTC by Brooke Southall

33 Comments

Despite what anyone says about corporations being people, they’re not.

Legalities aside, one proof of that is in the words corporate people use to describe things. They’re dull, dehumanizing, opaque and even intentionally obfuscating. We celebrate RIA firms that strive to become bigger, better corporations and the companies that serve them effectively in seeking that goal.

But I find it discouraging when people in this business use phraseology, expressions and terms that rob the RIA business of its humanity, transparency and enlightenment. (I knew it was becoming a problem when I started to give in and inject some of these wordings into conversation!) That’s why we’re all excited about this business to begin with — to create a profession where the individual investor is king and gets treated like a person, not a revenue source. See: What is the value proposition of a financial advisor — and how is a budding RIA culture upping the ante?.

Speaking like people

Over the past few months I’ve been compiling a list of words that are slipping into RIA language that I believe would best be left out or used minimally. To some extent, we are what we speak. Let’s speak like people.

Here are ones that have recently grated on me during interviews and readings.

  1. Solution: More and more, companies that sell to RIA firms say that they don’t sell service or technology per se. They sell solutions. The companies that make this claim believe they are simplifying matters. I think it tries to make a verbal silk’s purse out of a sow’s ear. Would I be helping you if I said that RIABiz was selling written solutions for the RIA business? It would make my life easier to use that word because it’s sometimes hard for me to explain what we are as a company that offers news, directory listings and a place for people to express views. But I’m not sure I’d be helping the person who wanted to understand what our value proposition or “service” is. Now I need to go to a pub for an alcohol solution.
  2. Client-centric: This is an expression that I’m hearing even from RIAs themselves — or at least the people trying to promote them. When we write about a company, we’re always trying to understand what its magic is or how its new iteration differs from its old one. More and more often I’m hearing that the firm is client-centric. Seriously, if your big pitch for differentiation is that you serve clients, I’d say you need to think things through.
  3. Excited: I recently became consciously aware of just how overused and senseless the use of this word is in this industry after asking one of our newer writers, Kelly O’Mara, what she found out after she got off the phone with a source. She’d laugh and say the source kept telling her how “excited” he or she was as a way of commenting on a happening. I don’t want to be mean, but truly it’s mostly just your mother who really cares how excited you are about anything you do. We’re trying to make a determination about whether we should be excited about it as a news-advancing or industry-advancing matter by understanding what you did, not your professed emotional state.
  4. Platform: The first image that comes to my mind when somebody says “platform” is something constructed of plywood placed in a field where a band can play for a bunch of beer-drinking 20-year-olds. Maybe, secondly, a place where somebody waits for the subway. Yet, I find everyone is falling over themselves these days to say they have created a “platform”. This is a word that seems to be so versatile that it ceases to have much meaning at all. Starbucks is a coffee platform. IBM is a technology platform. In the ’70s, some folks wore platform shoes and Lady Gaga is bringing them back in style. Lately, anyone having anything to do with putting alternative assets into people’s hands is calling it an alternative-assets platform. Even as somebody involved with writing and editing articles about them, it is getting hard to get what they do.
  5. Boutique: The first time I heard this expression was back in the ’80s when some First Boston guys became Wasserstein Perella. That was pretty cool, but I’m not sure every RIA under the sun is in a position to use the expression. It gets a bit precious and doesn’t really add any knowledge to the listener, except that the firm’s principals think quite well of it and that they charge exorbitant prices to pay for their views of Central Park. I think it’s better to confine the word’s use to a place where overpriced Italian handbags are sold.
  6. Good cultural fit: It seems that every deal involving people in the RIA business is now declared by the dealmakers to be a good cultural fit. This verbal insult to people’s intelligence is often compounded by the user explaining that it can be proven by the fact that both parties to the deal are “client-centric”. Please. My immediate thought when somebody tells me that they’re a good cultural fit is that they can’t think of any concrete reasons beyond financial engineering for why the companies belong together. Bringing the absurdity of the word to light lately was Philip Palaveev of The Ensemble Practice, who defined it as meaning what employees are doing when nobody’s looking. Notwithstanding that, I’m not sure I want to know what anyone is doing when they don’t think they’re being observed, I like this definition, and if somebody wants to use “cultural fit” as a descriptive phrasing, please include a colorful definition like that with it. Otherwise I’ll think of it as a reason we give native peoples a pass on killing whales or what makes yogurt good for your stomach.
  7. Sweet spot: Firms like to call the types of customers that they want to serve their “sweet spot”. Recently, I heard the head of an asset custodian say its sweet spot was RIAs with assets between $100 million and $1 billion. I felt like saying: So you’re basically desperate for any business you can get. The first use of the term sweet spot I heard was in the 1970s when I was taking a tennis clinic wielding a wood racquet. The instructors said that we were seeking a sweet spot on the strings and if you ever used a wood racquet you know that it’s a tiny portion of the string surface. So unless the expression is used to connote a tiny sliver, it’s disingenuous obfuscation and useless for communicating a point.
  8. Tools: Have you noticed that everything is a tool these days? In fact, what technology-related thing is not a tool? When somebody tries to explain what they are producing with this word, I can’t help but think that I’d rather be handed a screwdriver.
  9. Synergistic opportunity: You would think that with all the fun that’s been pointed at “synergy” dating back at least to the ill-conceived corporate mergers of the 1980’s and the non-words such as “strategery” that have spun off from it, it would be in the dustbin. People have not given up on this word. In fact, they may have made it worse by tacking another polysyllabic word on to it with “opportunity.”
  10. All good: Back around 2000, when I first lived in the houseboat community, my neighbor was a rock star and we walked each other’s dogs. Whenever an adverse event befell him, his response was always to punctuate the conversation by saying: “it’s all good.” I have noticed that people in our business have started to use this phrase and — just so you know — I presume that there may be a problem lurking when this expression pops into the conversation. Besides the fact that the connotation is just the opposite of what it literally means, it really is a leftover, decade-plus-old phrase that makes it seem as though we business stiffs are trying to sound like hung-over rock stars. I’m not sure how that’s going to help build a better version of an advisory profession where what’s good for a client fits through the eye of a needle.

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Elmer Rich III said:

October 15, 2012 — 7:55 PM UTC

This is a healthy, long and diverse set of sharings. As marketers, we encourage our clients to do what is going on here. Look at ways they behave and talk and think critically. Thinking “critically” does not mean criticizing, but spending time talking and thinking about what it means to be an advisor.

There is no more important profession than financial advisory work. Of course, medicine is important but if the finances are troubled — so is healthcare for the individual and their family.

But it is also a very new profession. The analogy with a young child is probably useful because we are all learning to “walk” and “talk” for the first time about these important subjects. Certainly, the growth and development is fast paced.

Brooke asking “What the heck are we talking about!?” is useful — holding up a mirror (or recorder) to our everyday language.

The language can be improved, and it will be. Sales enthusiasm, as always, gets the better of all of us. Certain ideas and words get everyone excited — for the moment — then fade away as hype or a fad. That’s all normal — especially for a new and growing profession and industry.

But it is also a very healthy sign that members of the community can have an honest exchange about what’s not optimal and how to change it. That’s real maturity.

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Brooke Southall said:

October 15, 2012 — 6:10 PM UTC

Hi Maria,

More and more words for nixing are flowing in to my mailbox so I’ll have to do a sequel to this article. When I do, I’ll take a stab at saying which words should be eliminated entirely and some viable substitutes. At the risk of sounding like I’m wriggling, it depends on the descriptive circumstance.

thanks,

Brooke

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Maria Marsala said:

October 15, 2012 — 10:08 AM UTC

Hi Brooke, Really enjoyed reading this article. However, I was hoping to see what words you’d suggest we use.. as a solution :)

Maria

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Maurice said:

October 13, 2012 — 11:03 PM UTC

Dear Brooke,

This is what I needed to read, thank you for driving the point home!. Brian and Elmer, thank you for enhancing the view.

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Maurice said:

October 13, 2012 — 11:03 PM UTC

Dear Brooke,

This is what I needed to read, thank you for driving the point hom!. Brian and Elmer, thank you for enhancing the view.

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Elmer Rich III said:

October 13, 2012 — 10:13 PM UTC

Here’s the thing. To progress as a profession, advisors need to use a lot more data and much fewer words. How many words do doctors use? Ideas/words without proof, evidence and data are just sales pitches.

As Brooke points out, senior leaders need data, not words.

Mat is the language of the best science and evidence-based professions, eg engineering, etc. Since financial services all takes place using numbers – it is time for math and data to take a much bigger role in discussions.

We are pro marketers and communicators. We live by our words but the evidence that “word choice is an incredibly powerful..” is weakening. In terms of predicting behavior — they may have little effect. It needs to be measured and experimentally proven.

Let’s also remember that there is a “pitcher” and “catcher” in all communications. Marketers may be pitching sales words but the audience is calling the pitch, catching it and throwing it back.

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Brian Lauzon said:

October 13, 2012 — 6:55 PM UTC

A few thoughts on why this is an interesting but also important topic:

Marketing. If a firm is firing on all cylinders and bringing on clients that are profitable and meet their definition of an “ideal client”, the message is working. Otherwise, word choice is an incredibly powerful lever for improving business development efforts and standing out from the other options available to prospects.

Compliance. Thankfully there isn’t a list of approved words! As a principles-based regulator, SEC gives little more than guidance on advertising. Apart from a handful of specific prohibitions, advertisements just need to be truthful, accurate and not misleading. The only way for them to make these determinations is through examinations (remote or in person). So every firm’s list is different!

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Brooke Southall said:

October 13, 2012 — 6:50 PM UTC

Maurice,

You’re right to challenge me on this point.

I think there’s a real issue here.

I’m more sensitive to it than most because I waste hundreds of man hours every year talking to marketing folks and having who’s-on-first conversations. What do you sell? Solutions. What do they solve? Platform integration. What is that? A solution for advisors. Typically when you get higher-ups in a company on the phone, they don’t talk like this at all.

Have you ever heard Chuck Schwab or Ned Johnson using any of these malarkey terms? Generally the more knowledgeable people are, the simpler words they use to describe what they do. The substitute for many of these words like client-centric is often no word at all or something simple like — a place where phone calls get returned by people who know what they’re talking about.

Brooke

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Maurice said:

October 13, 2012 — 5:57 PM UTC

Why not an article on the words that should be used instead? Now, that’s a tuffy (that means difficult, complex, requiring special ability)! Or for those regulatory-minded folks, how about a dictionary of acceptable words to use. I don’t think sacrastic or cynical are prohibited words in this industry… are they? But, maybe sacrastic and cynical are enough to sum up the point of … don’t knock’em cause you use 'em. Is there a real issue here?

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Susan Weiner, CFA said:

October 13, 2012 — 1:36 PM UTC

Brooke,

I’m happy to find you advocating for better communications. Keep up the good work!

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Elmer Rich III said:

October 12, 2012 — 8:06 PM UTC

Let’s not forget the ever popular: game changer, transformational, revolutionary, passion, brand, social – anything, leadership, success.

Whenever I hear the word transformational — I check my wallet.

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Charlie Paikert said:

October 12, 2012 — 6:57 PM UTC

Keep 'em coming!

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Brooke Southall said:

October 12, 2012 — 6:37 PM UTC

Alan,

Strong contribution…a word with low-meaning and high-syllables.

Brooke.

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Alan Moore said:

October 12, 2012 — 6:30 PM UTC

We should add “Innovative/Innovation” to the list.

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Marion Asnes said:

October 12, 2012 — 5:26 PM UTC

Ha! I’m in the soup now.

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Robert Henderson said:

October 12, 2012 — 4:51 PM UTC

Brooke, nice article. And I agree that the whole “fee-only” phrase needs its own article. I just observed a lively Twitter debate between Michael Kitces and Roger Wohlner on this very topic.

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Brooke Southall said:

October 12, 2012 — 4:46 PM UTC

Marion and Joe,

You both raise points that I’d like to think about.

Joe, there is no term that stirs people up in the business more than roll-up. It really may deserve its own column.

Marion, when I was writing the piece I thought to myself that Envestnet is one company where I have typically succumbed to the word “platform” myself. But I wonder whether I’m doing readers or you a favor, or not, considering that a very huge percentage of people, even ones familiar with your business, would mangle trying to describe what you do.

There has to be something in between “platform” and “integrated software that enables an advisor to perform various essential business and client-service functions, which are executed via the web”.

And I may add “integrated” and “essential business functions” to my next list of scornable terms perhaps invented by T.S. Eliot to describe his Wasteland!!

Brooke

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Joe Anthony said:

October 12, 2012 — 2:56 PM UTC

There certainly is a fine line for what might be an apt description and what becomes an overused buzzword.

Let’s take a look at “Roll-up” – a term applied to a wide variety of firms that have some acquisitive component to their growth strategy. Some of the businesses given the “Roll up” designation have affiliates with disparate brands, others have a single brand approach. Some firms operate under one ADV, others don’t. Some are regulated by the SEC, others by the OCC.

Again, for some firms’ approach to acquisitions, “roll up” could be an apt description but it shouldn’t be used as a one-size-fits-all moniker for growth by acquisition. Agree? Disagree?

Brooke gets at the point that it is becoming increasingly difficult to succinctly describe your business and tell your story in this highly competitive industry. As someone who has spent the last decade helping RIA firms with their PR and communications, I think readers of this piece should be compelled to think about how they are crafting their message and engaging the people that can have a positive impact on their business.

@joeanthony

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Marion Asnes said:

October 12, 2012 — 1:36 PM UTC

Very funny and all too true. You’ve left those who need these words and use them properly with a challenge, however. For instance, what single word would you use for integrated software that enables an advisor to perform various essential business and client-service functions, which are executed via the web? That really is a platform, isn’t it? Or am I on the high dive here?

Language is based on convention, and words, like all conventions, are often overused to a point that they become silly. Good to be warned—or reminded—when the meaning of your preferred words has been drained and they’ve become cliches. What a value-add…oops.

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Charlie Paikert said:

October 11, 2012 — 11:48 PM UTC

A must-read – especially for senior executives and marketing and public relations staff.

Long overdue and well-done!

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Brooke Southall said:

October 11, 2012 — 10:59 PM UTC

I’m laughing, Ken. It can be a boutique as long as it’s not a high-touch one with customized solutions.

Brooke

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Ken Weber said:

October 11, 2012 — 7:36 PM UTC

Brooke — I was loving this column (and I spoke at my son’s wedding about how the word “love” is overused) until I got to Boutique. Oops. That’s how we describe our little firm, in hopes of differentiating ourselves from the Merrills of the world. But I see your point.
Anyway, this was an awesome, um, excellent piece of writing. It’s all good.

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Brian Lauzon said:

October 11, 2012 — 7:36 PM UTC

“Solutions”—I love it. Rolls off the tongue so effortlessly when you want to distance yourself from “product” sales.

How about “customized”? Admirable goal but should probably be used more sparingly.

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Maurice said:

October 11, 2012 — 7:27 PM UTC

Ah, NO! The evolution of language should not be interfered with. Let those who lack style, intelligence, innovation or whatever continue on a path of word mediocrity. The words are representative and serve to mark the time in our industry’s evolution, they will sort themselves out in due course. Please, for the sake of our First Amendment rights – leave words alone!!!

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Michael Bilotta said:

October 11, 2012 — 6:19 PM UTC

Great piece on the 10 words/expressions that should be expunged…I had to laugh because I hear them all practically every day! I mentally whack my hand with a hammer each time I’m tempted to use value-add, synergy (or any variant recognized by Webster or not), and capacity.

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Brooke Southall said:

October 11, 2012 — 6:03 PM UTC

Bill,

I just looked Luntz up and I see he’s Ivy-educated, Oxford-educated and mostly in the political realm. How did he get on the subject of fine distinctions in the advisory industry?

And yes, software, programs, applications and utility still seem like real words to me. I’m less excited by the term “suite of software” like the server is housed on the top floor of a Vegas hotel.

Brooke

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Elmer Rich III said:

October 11, 2012 — 6:00 PM UTC

Our suggestions:

- Promise

- Guaranteed

- Risk – risk is a known probability, uncertainty is a unknown probability

- Behavioral – These ideas are way to premature to use in professional work.

- Fiduciary – Another idea that is way too complex and undeveloped to use in a professional setting.

- Client-centric – Agree on this. Think of a doctor. Of course, any doctor will be focused on getting the client better, but she also has to do what the science says is best and not what the client wants or is even comfortable with.

This kind of thought piece is very valuable for the profession. We all need to think critically of accepted wisdom, buzz terms and our presuppositions. The same as we ask our clients to do.

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Bill Winterberg said:

October 11, 2012 — 5:57 PM UTC

Yesterday, when asked, Frank Luntz said he didn’t like the phrase “fee-only.”

He literally wrote the book on Words that Work.

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Brooke Southall said:

October 11, 2012 — 5:53 PM UTC

Paul and Bill,

I’m quickly realizing that fee-only may be a rich enough topic for its own column. In a sense it speaks to the entire branding and differentiation issue between brokers and financial advisors. There’s a rock and hard place aspect.

Brooke

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Bill Mullen said:

October 11, 2012 — 5:48 PM UTC

How can an advisor who is fee only get rid of the phrase when the financial press tells the public to look for an advisor who is fee only?

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Bill Winterberg said:

October 11, 2012 — 5:29 PM UTC

Oh boy, “solution, platform, and tools.”

It’s challenging as a technology writer to address a vendor’s product or service without some reference to those words.

At least app/application, software, program, and utility didn’t make your top 10!

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Brooke Southall said:

October 11, 2012 — 5:26 PM UTC

Seriously. “Fee-only” should elicit a “perhaps thou dost protest too much.”

Nevin just emailed me to remind that I’d left off the expression that incites more frustration — usually in tech reviews — than any other: end to end solution.

It’s never clear where the end begins and where you end up. But it covers many bases — and none

Philip Palaveev sent this note in response to the article: I am very excited to present you with a new synergistic opportunity that provides a boutique, client centric solution and really hits the sweet spot by delivering an integrated platform with all the tools that clients need. I hope all’s good and I think you will agree that this is a good cultural fit.

Brooke

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Paul Hynes said:

October 11, 2012 — 5:01 PM UTC

We are better than this! Another phrase that we need to get rid of is “fee only.” Nobody else uses this phrase – not CPAs, attorneys, surgeons – and they apparently only charge fees for the services they provide. Consumers don’t understand what this means. It’s a turn off for them. “You mean you’re only going to charge me fees? Aren’t you going to do anything else for me?” We need a better way to describe the difference between types of advisors. There are brokers who sell stuff and advisors who only offer advice. The consumer can decide what they want (stuff or advice) and how they want to pay for it. Chime in with how you describe the differences.


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