Profile: ‘Clients are the most valuable thing on your balance sheet’

Bull Ferguson goes beyond clients’ financial needs to meaningful discussions about their lives and aspirations

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Oct 31, 2019
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When something is valuable, you need to look after it. Treating it carelessly or neglecting it means that expensive watch or cherished relationship will probably not be yours for long.

So, when it comes to clients, a bit of effort beyond normal expectations goes a long way. You could even help yourself to help them by gaining an understanding of why they make the decisions they do. That is something that Bull Ferguson director Barnaby Geib does with his clients and he finds it fascinating.

“Behavioural science is an interesting issue. It’s about looking at why people think and behave the way they do. That has huge ramifications if it can help people understand their behaviour in relation to money,” he says.

Losing the baggage

Geib says most clients do not understand that how they were brought up and past experiences might affect their natural decision making now. As a life planner, Geib wants to unpick all that so the baggage and biases – conscious or otherwise – do not impact on their financial futures. He acknowledges this is a departure from the perception that many people have about financial advisers or planners.

"If anybody called us, at any time of the day, we’d pick up and do what we could to help"

“The traditional role has clients turn up to talk about their needs and objectives. Then advisers say: ‘You’re at point A and we need to get you to point B, so this is how much you need and this how your investments need to be managed.’ Then clients change their behaviour to get to point B. But it doesn’t work like that [in practice]. There are internal issues,” he says.

“Clients are the most valuable thing on your balance sheet so you have to put time in. We have to understand more about their behaviour so we can help them to make automatic qualitative and rational decisions. If you open up the thinking process, clients can reach different conclusions.”

One example Geib gives is the way that the link between work and money goes beyond the obvious fact that you have to earn money to live. For clients who have retired, or are about to retire, there can be all sorts of issues going on, for instance, understanding what work brought to their lives aside from money, such as having purpose. These issues are connected to assumptions we make about certain things, embedded in everyday conversations.

“When discussions with clients turn to the kids and they say they are doing well, it’s in the context of what they are earning. The meaning of the situation is money, but that is not what drives wellbeing,” says Geib.

“A lot of people don’t realise what they get out of work, other than money. I hear about long-term ideas of stopping work at 65 and sitting on a beach all day, but most clients want more. They still want purpose. I help them use their money to realise that purpose – and to do that you have to change the terms of working.”

In practical terms, this means a client who experiences a short-term high after selling their business at retirement needs help redefining work as something to do because they want to, rather than needing money to support their family.

“These people have a lot to give and a lot of knowledge, and they need a context to retrain for the love of it, not for money,” he says.

Five questions

What is the best bit of advice you’ve received in your career?

To actively listen. The least we can do for clients is listen and not carry the baggage of our day.

What keeps you awake at night?

New ideas – I have to write them down.

What has had the most significant impact on financial advice in the last year?

The way constant information we get through technology plays to people’s biases. If Neil Woodford’s problems had happened 20 year ago, the impact would have been nothing like it is now.

If I was in charge of the FCA for a day I would…

…call the education secretary to get financial education in schools and universities.

Any advice for new advisers?

Never stop learning, and treat failure as a point of learning.

Geib’s interest in human behaviour was sparked at university, where he studied behaviour of organisations as part of a management course. He also studied Japanese and thought he would be able to use his language skills when he applied for a City job.

“But it was not like that. I joined City Financial Partners in 1998 but it was nothing like I expected. They used to take on graduates every two weeks but, because it was such a tough environment, people used to leave,” he says. “I did cold-calling and I was there for 14 months – by then there were only two people from my intake left.”

Professionalism and service

Geib says the industry has changed since then. “That’s where you see the benefit of regulation pushing the tide of professionalism,” he says.

Geib then moved to boutique IFA Alexander Hall. “It was advice, not financial planning, but it was nice to work for at the time. It was the start of professionalism,” he says.

CV

2003-present: Director, Bull Ferguson

2002-03: Mortgage adviser, Towry Law

1999-2001: IFA, Alexander Hall

1998-99: Graduate trainee, City Financial Partners

After a couple of years there, Geib was approached by Towry Law mortgage services, in which he had a small equity stake. However, it recruited people who wanted to take the business in a different direction so Geib and business partner Campbell Grafton decided to set up on their own in 2003, with a focus on responsive service.

“If anybody called us, at any time of the day, we’d pick up and do what we could to help. That’s what helped to build our client base,” says Geib.

They decided to join St James’s Place, but left after four years and are now with Openwork.

“As a small business, finding time and resources for making asset allocation decisions, risk profiling and reporting to the regulator was challenging. That led us to work with SJP as that was dealt with by them. It allowed us to develop the business.”

As a former SJP adviser, how does Geib feel about the firm, given the recent headlines about its charges and adviser incentives?

“We didn’t stay because we had a strong opinion of how financial services were changing and how we could help consumers in future. It relied on the expanded service model over the traditional model and we didn’t see that as something we could do at SJP,” he says.

“Some of the established big businesses see financial services as a product distribution environment, but that world is closing up.”


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