Be Your Best

Success Means Solving Problems

By Tom Foster

After serving the retirement plans business for four decades, if there is anything I’ve learned from the top financial advisors in the marketplace, it’s simply this: success isn’t about selling products, it’s about solving problems.

Defined contribution retirement plans – whether they are a 401(k), 403(b), 457, profit-sharing or other type of construct -- are complex, require specialized knowledge and skills to manage, and require constant vigilance to ensure they are meeting their objectives. Invariably, employers that sponsor such plans run into obstacles or want to pursue opportunities that prompt them to reach out to someone with the ability to help. More often than not, that person is their financial advisor.

One of the attributes of advisors that retirement plan sponsors most appreciate is the ability to deliver good service, according to the 2016 MassMutual Winning Combination* study. While every sponsor defines good service a little differently, 92 percent cite the ability to resolve problems as high on their list.

Other attributes of good service identified by the study include the advisor’s ability to listen and respond, availability by phone or email when needed, and responsiveness in getting back with solutions.  Not coincidentally, all of those attributes relate to problem-solving.

When sponsors evaluated advisors on a list of separate tasks, problem-solving ranked 6th out of 14 categories. That shows there’s room for improvement and that advisors who are particularly adept at solving problems can help differentiate themselves in the marketplace.

Sponsors also say they want advisors to act as an “advocate” for their retirement plan. Again, problem-solving ranks high, finishing third on a list of 11 attributes. What are the top two? Being available by phone or email ranks first and being highly responsive ranks second. Notice a pattern?

Sponsors that rely on an advisor to support their retirement plan point to several characteristics that they believe are important for their advisor to possess. The top four are knowledge about retirement plans, honesty and trustworthiness, accessibility and responsiveness to requests, and communication.

Possessing these skills is important for solving problems but they are also important for avoiding problems. Being proactive by reviewing your clients’ retirement plans for effectiveness, that is, how well the plan is preparing employees to retire at age 65 or when they first qualify for full Social Security benefits, is critical. Knowing how well the plan is working and helping the employer make appropriate adjustments – everything from redesigning the plan to re-enrolling employees – goes a long way towards employer satisfaction.

In focus groups, advisors report that offering “good service” to sponsors means making sure everything runs smoothly and taking swift action when problems do arise. Advisors recognize that sponsors have a lot on their plate already – like running a successful business – and do not have time to worry about their retirement plan in addition to their other responsibilities.

That means they need a problem-solver to help make sure their retirement plan runs smoothly. They need you.


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Thomas Foster Jr. is Assistant Vice President, Strategic Relationships, for Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Co. (MassMutual).

*2016 Winning Combination Study, What retirement plan sponsors value most from financial advisors, January 2016

This article is for informational purposes only and should not be construed as legal, investment, and/or tax advice.  Please consult your own legal counsel and other experts regarding the specific application of the information set forth herein to your own plan and/or circumstances.