Pricey Advisor Coaches and Membership Groups Are Proliferating. But Are They Worth It?

(Illustration by RIA Intel)

(Illustration by RIA Intel)

Entrepreneurs move to meet a demand.

Entrepreneurs are seizing opportunity in starting expensive membership groups for financial advisors who are looking to boost profits and hone their skills.

The value of some of these groups remains to be seen but a growing number of advisors are turning to members-only professional clubs and coaches to gain an edge. Some group founders are current or former RIAs, and financial planners. Others hail from marketing, operations, and research backgrounds. The common thread is that they offer services to assist financial professionals and the groups can be lucrative.

Across the industry, there are programs for one-on-one coaching, mentoring for women, peer groups and even a 21-day course with a daily dose of insight and motivation. While there isn’t a single solution for any RIA, organizers say most advisors who sign up are looking for support and strategies for professional growth.

But these services don’t come cheap. A professional coach can run upwards of $5,000 per year, while membership groups cost between $200 and $600 per year. Additional workshops, retreats, books and online seminars come at additional expense. However, organizers say advisors should look at these fees as an investment in their future. After all, if you gain insights that lead to $500,000 of new assets under management, any investment you’ve made will seem like a small price to pay.

Financial advisors suffer from a “self-esteem issue,” said Carl Richards, a CFP and former RIA who in October founded The Fellowship, a members-only program for financial advisors that encourages confidence and personal growth. As a former advisor, he sympathizes with the pressures facing advisors today.

“I’ve noticed advisors feeling a bit unmoored about the skillset. They say, ‘Wait, I thought I was in a spreadsheet and calculator job and now I have to give people hugs when they come into my office crying, you’re telling me I have to be a content creator and a digital marketer?’ That’s what we’re trying to solve for. The tactics to do each is easy, feeling confident enough is another,” he said.

That same notion of support and comradery motivated financial advisor and RIA co-owner Nina O’Neal last April to start a women’s-only group, the Female Advisors Network. The group has quickly grown to more than 100 women who access online learning tools and a members only social networking site. Throughout her career, O’Neal, partner and investment advisor for Archer Investment Management, said she has endured frustrating encounters with male colleagues and clients, including being excluded from social events and being misidentified as her partner’s wife or assistant.

“I have seen the difference in what women went through on the daily basis, especially with responsibility at home, how we were treated by colleagues, I had to fight a lot harder for credibility with new clients or prospective clients,” she said. “I wanted to create a community of women for women.”

Of course, the calendar is full of financial services conferences, symposiums, and conventions. However, anyone who has been to one knows that, between panels, lunches, and awards ceremonies, it’s next to impossible to have substantive conversations, let alone network.

“You exchange business cards and maybe once a year you’d try to follow up with someone,” said Shaun Kapusinski, Director of Technology and Information Sequoia Financial Group. After conferences, Kapusinski wanted to interact more with other operations executives to strategize issues from compliance to software upgrades. Peer groups and masterclass gatherings are a way to connect with like-minded individuals.

After his search for a peer advisory group came up empty, Kapusinski decided to start one himself. HIFON, short for High Impact Financial Operations Network, started with colleagues from five financial firms who participated in monthly conference calls to share best practices and crowdsource solutions. While the focus is operations, HIFON’s members include financial advisors who own RIAs and handle operations or just want to be informed.

The organization has now grown to about 230 members who are divided into discussion groups that rotate every six months to keep discussions fresh. For $600 per year, members participate in monthly conference calls and can interact on a members-only message board. “We’ve curated a place for like-minded people to go,” Kapusinski said.

For members, the benefits make the investment worthwhile. “The speed at which I can assess a situation and make changes has dramatically increased thanks to a group of people who are all in the same role I am in and can weigh in on how to react.,” said HIFON member Kara Armstrong, CEO of CapSouth Wealth Management.

Last spring, two RIAs who first connected on Twitter started their own member group, The Advisor Growth Community, offering exclusive access to webinars, workshops and online communications for $999 per year. For that fee, founders Justin Castelli and Taylor Schulte said members will get actionable methods to grow their business. “This is not just going to be a community for socializing and killing time. That’s what Twitter is for,” Castelli told RIA Intel.

While HIFON focuses on operational issues, O’Neal’s group is dedicated to women advisors to address topics from strategies to grow your business to managing maternity leave. For $199 per year, it offers a mix of professional and personal support – and where the two intersect. This fall, O’Neal hosted a weekend retreat for members and plans to offer more in-person events, and the group is adding a closed social network site for members to communicate. On the website, a marketplace offers discounts on conferences, coaching services, software and even spa services.

While running their groups, both Kapusinski and O’Neal have kept their day jobs, which helps them better represent their members. “I like being an advisor and I like being in the trenches,” she said. In a testament to O’Neal’s organizations’ rapid growth, the Female Advisor Network now has a full-time marketing and membership staffer to assist O’Neal.

For other former advisors and business vets, advising can grow into a full-time, lucrative position. While some financial advisors and RIA execs seek peer interaction, others want all the attention for themselves. That’s where executive coaches come into play. Coaching services cost upwards of $3,000 – just to get started. In return, however, you get a personalized advisory experience that can focus on your needs and objectives. Some advisors turn to coaches when they fail to grow their business through cold calls, mailers, and seminars.

Some financial advisors find they need a more personalized – and personal – experience. While cost is an important consideration in deciding between a peer group or a private coach, that’s not the only determining factor. Some financial advisors want a person in their corner. “The coach becomes a virtual member of their team. Everything is personalized to their needs,” said Matt Oechsli, founder of The Oechsli Institute, which offers executive coaching, weekly online video chats with other financial advisors and even social media management.

Coaching options range from large shops, such as Oechsli’s and The Carson Group, which says it has worked with more than 12,000 advisors, to boutique firms including Productivity Uncorked, which has a niche with female advisors.

Even advisor coaches have developed niches. A veteran marketing executive, executive coach and founder of The Advisor Group, Pollard now focuses on marketing projects rather than professional coaching. He says many of his clients have tried unsuccessfully to market and grow their business. Along with improving marketing and enlisting data, he also encourages advisors to personalize their marketing, including emails and social media.

“Clients want someone they can relate to, someone who can ease their anxiety and direct them, and is a relatable human being,” he said.

Similarly, the Oechsli Institute focuses on social development. Oechsli said he encourages financial advisors and RIAs to tap into their social network to grow business but keep work out of the conversation. Just one social lunch a week can lead to new clients, he said.

In addition to private coaching, many firms offer a la carte services, such as seminars and online learning. For those who aren’t to pony up for hefty coaching fees, some firms offer free content and inexpensive online learning, like Oechsli’s online courses, videos and quizzes, while Pollard offers a $20 rookie advisor program. These offerings can be an entrée to more expensive personal coaching and typically make more sense for younger advisors.

“We had an advisor who used the Learning Center and he brought in nine new clients and $30 million in new assets in 10 months. Now, he wants a coach,” Oechsli recalled.

Coaches and advisors-turned-consultants can enhance their earnings – and their client roster – by publishing books, hosting seminars, and booking public speaking engagements. Productivity Uncorked, for instance, offers small group coaching and how-to books such as “A Women’s Way.” Richards, for his part, pens a column for The New York Times, speaks at events around the world and has written two books.

For some veteran advisors and RIA execs, a combination of coaching and member groups can satisfy different needs. Kelly Shikany, a CFP and CDFA with Lakeside Wealth Management, participates in Richards’ program and has worked with executive coaches and participates in mastermind groups with female financial advisors, including a group that specializes in divorce planning.

Shikany says each one of these feeds a different aspect of her professional growth and development. “Once you get to a certain level in this arena, you have to find ways to keep elevating your game,” Shikany noted. “A coach is tailored to what is going on with Kelly, The Fellowship is more about the advisory industry in general.”

For her, working with consultants with an RIA background is essential. “I want someone who knows the space, knows clients and challenges.”

For his part, Richards’ used to charge $3,000 for instructional workshops, but has since changed his approach from tactical work to more “transformational” experiences. “People loved it, they raved about it, but they didn’t do anything. Knowing is not the trick, doing is the trick,” he said.

At $500, Richards’ new program, The Fellowship, is more affordable and focused on individual development. Members receive 21 days of insights and motivation sent via email that they can read and react to on their own schedule. A promotional email for the Fellowship says that onboarding includes “an introduction, your t-shirt order, cool stickers, etc.”

While executive coaching and professional organizations have been around for decades, digital media makes it easier for advisors to discover them and helps proprietors market their services. Thanks to social media, particularly LinkedIn, Twitter, and YouTube, both groups and coaches can spread the word about their services for free.

Social media also helps coaches and advisors-turned-gurus burnish their reputations while breaking down geographic boundaries. Executive coach Tony Vidler, a self-described “advisor to advisors,” is active on Twitter and lives in New Zealand. Richards, who likewise is active on social media and lives in New Zealand, offers members a sense that he is down the hall.

Email newsletters are another powerful marketing tool. Pollard and Richards said they are critical for personalized communication and establishing one-on-one dialogues. The Female Advisor Network doesn’t have a dedicated marketing budget, but rather relies on an active social media presence and regular emails to about 10,000 female financial advisors.

These groups are growing at a time when online payment and crowdfunding make it easier than ever to launch a venture. Crowdfunding platform Patreon allows subscribers to become paid members of an organization and receive exclusive content in exchange. The ease of paying via PayPal or Venmo makes signing up, buying a book or taking an online class easier than ever, and contacting coaches and facilitators only takes a few clicks. (Pollard charges $1,000 for a 30-minute call, but you have to pay upfront online.)

In financial services – and just about any industry -- professionals who join mastermind groups and member associations may worry that about competitors copying their strategies, using their documents and even poaching clients. However, founders and participants said that the benefits of exchanging ideas, sharing documents, and giving insights on technology and tactics far outweigh any competitive concerns.

HIFON’s Kapusinski said his members are usually too entrenched in their own business to go out and steal work from their competitors. Plus, most members work in different markets, so they aren’t in direct competition. Information exchange, he contends, builds business, rather than taking it down. “Another firm can’t drop everything and do what we’re doing,” he said.

Shikany agrees that rewards outweigh risks. “You need people to bounce ideas off of, great to get ways to market, how to bring people in and to discuss when you have challenges,” she said.

However, while this niche is growing, member groups and coaches are not a panacea, experts caution. “When people see a coach, they think coach will give me magic pixie dust. We are people who solve problems,” Pollard said.

The real work begins when RIAs and advisors take their skills and knowledge to market. Fortunately for the people behind them, ambitious coaches and advisors will be there to give them the information and support they are seeking.