We're better than this: The 10 words and expressions that should be expunged from the RIA business
The RIA business separates itself by putting people first so let's cut the corporate-speak
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.
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.
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!
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?
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.
Yesterday, when asked, Frank Luntz said he didn’t like the phrase “fee-only.”
He literally wrote the book on Words that Work.
Elmer Rich III
- 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.
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.
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.
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!!!
“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.
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.
I’m laughing, Ken. It can be a boutique as long as it’s not a high-touch one with customized solutions.
A must-read – especially for senior executives and marketing and public relations staff.
Long overdue and well-done!
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.
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.
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, 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.
Ha! I’m in the soup now.
We should add “Innovative/Innovation” to the list.
Strong contribution…a word with low-meaning and high-syllables.
Keep 'em coming!
Elmer Rich III
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.
Susan Weiner, CFA
I’m happy to find you advocating for better communications. Keep up the good work!
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?
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.
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!
Elmer Rich III
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.
This is what I needed to read, thank you for driving the point hom!. Brian and Elmer, thank you for enhancing the view.
This is what I needed to read, thank you for driving the point home!. Brian and Elmer, thank you for enhancing the view.
Hi Brooke, Really enjoyed reading this article. However, I was hoping to see what words you’d suggest we use.. as a solution :)
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.
Elmer Rich III
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.