Is It Time to Dump Your Financial Adviser?

Is It Time to Dump Your Financial Adviser?
Is It Time to Dump Your Financial Adviser?

Your investment adviser is an important partner in your life -- after all, who knows your intimate financial details better? It's an intensely personal, yet professional, relationship. But what happens when you discover that it's not an ideal marriage? When is it time to ask for a divorce?

It may be sooner than you think. In a recent survey by PNC Wealth Management of affluent individuals -- those with at least $500,000 in investible assets -- only 15% said their advisers, "really made a huge positive difference," or gave them an "A." Some 43% said they were looking for more attention from their financial advisers. If so many high-end clients are dissatisfied with the service they are getting, how well could advisers be treating their average Joe or Jane Investors?

Just as there are in matters of the heart, there are tell-tell signs that your adviser is "just not that into you" -- and vice versa.

• Annoyance.
"You hate when they call and feel like they are always trying to sell you something. You get annoyed every time you get something in the mail. They sound annoyed whenever you call, and are frustrated by your questions," explains Susan Hirshman, author of Does This Make My Assets Look Fat?

• We Never Talk Anymore. Maybe there was a time when you enjoyed chatting with your adviser, but now the conversation is all but dead. "Your phone calls or emails are not returned within 12 to 24 hours. You haven't had a detailed conversation about your goals and financial situation in more than a year. You haven't reviewed or discussed your tax return over the last 12 months," says certified financial planner Thomas Casey of Casey, Thomas & Associates.

If you find this happening, review your investment policy statement: What did you and your adviser agree to in terms of frequency of contact? Maybe your expectations have changed. "Make this clear to your adviser, and if necessary, update your policy statement. Communicate your concerns without being confrontational or overly emotional," advises Stephen Horan, head of professional education content and private wealth management at the CFA Institute, an association of investment professionals.

• A Sense of Selfishness. Who's getting best served in this relationship: you or your adviser? Take a good look at your account activity. "If you're paying your adviser via commissions and you are seeing a lot of activity, this may be a sign your adviser is more interested in improving their financial picture than yours," says Bonnie Kirchner, author of Who Can You Trust With Your Money? Get the Help You Need and Avoid Dishonest Advisers. On the flip side, if you're paying fees to have your assets managed and no adjustments are being made over time, you may not be getting what you are paying for.

John Graves, a financial planner with Renaissance Group, offers this simple test for when it's time to change advisers: "When he speaks more often than he listens. We often get caught up in our own importance, to our clients' disadvantage," says Graves.

• Confusion Is Rampant. Be leery if there's a lot of turnover at your adviser's office, if your adviser keeps changing firms or repeatedly makes careless mistakes like misspelling your name. This could be an indication of instability, points out Brian Patrick Kuhn, a certified financial planner with Retirement Planning Services. All this distraction could be costing you.

Confusion on the other side of the relationship is also a bad sign. If you've been with one adviser for a while, and you still don't understand your accounts or the overall plan, you should be concerned. "Sometimes people go with a planner's recommendations because it sounds good and they trust them, but they don't fully understand the recommendations," says Kuhn. "If a long period goes by and you're still unclear, the planner hasn't done their job, and the relationship can't go on forever without that clarity."

In the end, sometimes it just comes down to a personality mismatch. But while that might be tolerable, poor performance may be a deal-breaker. You should have a basic understanding of the types of investments you own, how they are tracking against the overall market and why they are under- or outperforming appropriate benchmarks, says Kirchner. If your portfolio is consistently and significantly under-performing, you may need to find someone with a better track record," she adds.

Analyze What Happened, and Move On

Much as you would try to figure out what went wrong with a marriage heading for a divorce, make sure you assess what happened in your financial relationship. "Most times it can be summed up in two words: communication and expectations," says Hirshman. "Advisers fail to communicate their process, client service model, fees and performance, clearly or accurately, for example. They don't do what they say, or they do what they say, but the client never understood it," she adds.

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Or they sell performance. "If an adviser does this, they live and die by the results of the market, and as we know, they are unpredictable, and what happened in the past does not guarantee short-term future results," says Hirshman.

Says Kelly Campbell, author of Fire Your Broker: "Many advisers simply don't have the experience. Many don't have the knowledge, and some are understaffed. Often times, they don't look at your whole financial picture."

Once you're sure the relationship is beyond repair, you can exit verbally, in writing or simply by transferring your account.

"Expressing your wishes in writing in a clear manner ensures there is no question of your intent to the end of the relationship," says Kirchner.

"Hire slow and fire fast," advises Campbell. "Find their replacement, do a lot of due diligence on them and then fire the old one."

Getting It Right the Next Time

Ask for references, and pay attention to designations. "CFP [certified financial planner], for example, is an important one," Campbell adds. Check them out via the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority or the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Narrow your list down to three advisers, and put them through a thorough interview process. "Avoid advisers who are vague about how they are compensated, are unclear about how your money will be invested or cannot provide you with adequate information on where your money will be kept and whether it will be covered by the Securities Investor Protections Corporation," says Kirchner.

Finally, says Campbell, "Think of your investments like you would a newborn baby. They need the best care you can possibly get, and you must have a complete trust in the adviser. If not, it's time for a new adviser."