You want to trust your financial advisor. Of course you do. We all do. The real question is should you? Ideally, the answer is yes. In reality, maybe not.
Boo! That's pretty scary stuff, I know, but I've seen the financial services industry from the inside. I know what we're up against. But I also know that when it comes to your financial future, taking the reigns can be as simple as asking the right questions.
That's why I left "the business" years ago and became a Fool. That's why I started my Rule Your Retirement newsletter service. Not to scare you but to help you become a better investor and make the best decisions about your taxes, estate planning, and health care. Sadly, there's some really scary stuff out there.
Question No. 1: What is your advisor doing?
When he's not talking with clients? Perhaps you imagine him poring over SEC filings to find the best investments or reading over the latest economic news. Maybe. Just as likely, he's honing his pitch, paying thousands of dollars for the latest guerrilla sales tactics.
Think boiler rooms are just for guys pitching penny stocks as the next Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT ) or Dell (Nasdaq: DELL ) ? Think again. I receive dozens of emails and mass-mailings targeted toward people working in the financial services industry. These come-ons pitch the latest system guaranteed to teach me the magic words or generate that one dazzling report that will get people to hand over their life savings.
I get a ton of this junk from one guy in particular. I won't give him the free publicity of naming him, but get a load of this:
I've finally put together the marketing course that fills a huge void most agents and advisors struggle in. I affectionately call it, "Kick-Butt Marketing Secrets of a Million-Dollar Producer." And it's the mega-producer "tell all" guide I wish was around when I was starting out -- an honest, "straight from the trenches" gold mine of information, tactics, tricks and insight you won't find anywhere else.
The saddest thing is that this guy makes money. Either because his tactics work or more likely -- and much worse -- because there are legions of budding "financial advisors" that believe they do. Worse still, they are eager to test them out on unsuspecting investors.
Is your advisor one of these guys?
Question #2: What is your advisor selling?
Scary as it is to imagine, there is a sprawling cottage industry of consultants and gurus absolutely begging to turn you -- well, your financial advisor, actually -- into the next "million-dollar producer rich clients flock to... like he's a movie star."
(Did you know your advisor is a "producer"? That's what they call themselves, especially the ones who are really just salesmen. They produce sales, commissions, and clients. By the way, in this scenario, you're the product.)
Wannabe financial swindlers can also learn "How to read retirees' tax returns and uncover all the assets" and "How to build bullet-proof retirement portfolios that would make any plaintiff's attorney drop his case." Now that's customer service!
It gets worse. One such program from this same guy can even ...
... make you a walking, talking retiree financial expert and marketing ninja in three days. This is the essential training of your career to master America's wealthiest market.
Three days? By the way, Merriam-Webster's defines a ninja as someone "employed especially for espionage and assassinations." Your portfolio wouldn't have a chance.
Let's talk about you
A true professional -- and an advisor who cares -- will want to know all about you. A true professional will be much less intent upon getting hold of your assets and much more interested in helping you reach your life goals.
Most advisors today are really salespeople -- the folks at conglomerates such as American Express (NYSE: AXP ) and General Electric (NYSE: GE ) , for example, and at banks such as Bank of America (NYSE: BAC ) or Citigroup (NYSE: C ) . Some of them are decent. But they are selling goods -- not advice -- first and foremost. They have no incentive to provide advice that doesn't result in a commission, even if it's the best advice for the client.
But whatever the name on the building, you -- not selling you -- should be an advisor's top priority. Insist upon it. After all, they don't teach that in ninja training.
Question #3: You talkin' to my heart or my head?
Use your head. Why? Because that's the last thing a financial predator wants you to do. I especially love this from a book review in the Journal of Financial Planning -- a book by this same sales guru about marketing to senior citizens of all things:
Don't use reason, use emotion, the author encourages. ... encourages the reader to make the most of seniors' strong feelings like "a need to be wanted," "fear," "desires for security," "guilt" and "greed."
And I swear I don't make this stuff up:
... the salesperson sits at right angles to the customer, rather than across the table or beside him or her. Supposedly this increases the chances of "having the prospect turn money over to the advisor."
This one should be easy. If a prospective advisor plays on your emotions -- especially feelings of guilt or fear -- or wants you to sign the dotted line today, put down the pen and back slowly away from the desk. Your investment decisions should never be emotional.
One last Halloween trick
Not convinced that it's as bad out there as I say it is? Then let's part today with this jaw-dropper. That especially egregious "consultant" I mentioned earlier? This guy actually offers a service to make you "a financial 'author' overnight."
How, you ask? A book-writing service. That's right, for a measly $2,495, this fellow will write a book and slap your name and picture on the cover. And don't worry:
Less than 5% of the people who receive your book will read it. They will look at the front cover see your name ... and form a mental impression that you are an expert in retirement investing issues. They will then put it aside and either call you or respond very favorably when you call, because you have instant and unparalleled credibility -- you are an author! So, the content of the book is largely irrelevant, its value is the perception created that brings in business. Remember, for the prospect, perception = reality.
Is this the kind of person you'd want in charge of your life savings?
Advice isn't free
Listen, I know financial advisors have to get paid. And most professionals have to market their services; we do it here at the Fool every day. But the devil is in the motive: Does the person want to provide you with the best objective, impartial advice -- or sell a product that will generate the biggest commission?
You want an advisor who belongs to that first group.
In future columns, we'll look closely at questions you should ask even an upstanding financial planner or advisor -- questions that will make you a better client and a more informed investor. And you can even do it yourself. Find out how many savvy investors are doing just that by taking a 30-day free trial of Rule Your Retirement.
Robert Brokamp is a real author (The Motley Fool's Guide to Paying for School, The Motley Fool Personal Finance Workbook, as well as articles in Better Investing and Newsweek) and the editor of theMotley Fool Rule Your Retirementnewsletter service. For a no-risk 30-day free trial, click here.