When is a consultant not a consultant? Perhaps the answer, in the context of some recent announcements in the platform world, is: ‘when he’s actually a salesman in disguise’.
A lot has changed since the days of the life company ‘inspector’ and rather than waiting for 2012 more forward-thinking businesses are already positioning themselves for a world where sales and marketing strategies based on commission or allocation rates no longer feature.
In this environment a consultative distribution manager, who takes time to understand customer needs and find appropriate solutions, will play a key role as the main interface between a platform and advisers. Through this consultative approach, the manager should be as comfortable discussing business strategy with a managing director as he or she is helping to solve compliance or administration issues with back-office staff.
But true business consultancy is something different and in many cases will make the difference between success and failure. If I’ve learnt one thing over the past few years, working in the platform market, it’s that simply bolting a technology solution into an existing advice firm’s business model will not deliver on the full potential of a platform. Many of the UK’s most successful advice businesses have engaged business consultants to help re-engineer their businesses front to back, with a platform being the last piece in a much bigger jigsaw puzzle.
As Robert Louis Stevenson once said: ‘Everyone lives by selling something’ and this even – perhaps particularly – applies to consultants. But genuine consultancy considers the primary needs of the client. It is agnostic in terms of solutions and has no pre-conceived agenda. There are a number of consultancy firms now offering their services to advisers and one platform has also deemed it important enough to fund a small team of consultants, separate and independent from its sales team.
The consultative sales process, unlike genuine consultancy, is a bit like watching a film where you know the ending. If the story is well-told, you’ll be happy to engage with it, but you always have the outcome at the back of your mind. A consultative salesman is ultimately still a salesman and will always have a solution, or range of solutions, which he is working towards.
To work out which type of platform ‘consultant’ you’re dealing with, I’d suggest the following checklist of questions:
– Will you be paid based on sales from my business?
– What formal training or qualifications do you have in consultancy or business management?
– How much experience do you have in business consultancy?
– Can you provide me with examples of other firms you’ve worked with successfully?
The intent by some platforms to re-invent their sales force as a team of consultants is to be welcomed, but in order to retain the trust in this fledgling part of our industry, we must be very careful not to make false promises.
Ian Thomas is head of marketing at Axa Distribution Services, which includes the Elevate platform.