2015 was a very somber year for me.
A series of events that happened reshaped the way I view my career in the financial services industry. Within a short span of two months, three of my clients, all in their mid 30s, passed away one after another.
For the first client, he was simply walking to the carpark after work one day when he suddenly passed out. Although he was rushed to the A&E after a passerby called the ambulance, he was diagnosed with intracranial hemorrhage and remained in a state of coma before passing on days later.
The second client felt extreme physical discomfort while he was having a holiday in Sarawak. When he returned to Singapore, the pain worsened and he decided to check himself into A&E. After being diagnosed with advanced stage stomach cancer, he too fell into a state of coma and was admitted into the ICU before passing on exactly 28 days later. I visited him on several occasions in the ICU and that was where I witnessed the heart wrenching scenes of many family members, relatives and friends of my client, all sobbing and praying the most sincere and desperate prayers.
The third client was a Dutch national working in Singapore. I met him for lunch to catch up one day and sensed that he was not emotionally right. I soon found out that he had left his job as he found it hard to function and was struggling to cope at work after losing his dad to old age. He had tremendous love for his father and was unable to accept that his father would no longer be around. A week later, I received a phone call filled with ear piercing wails in between stuttering and broken words informing me the death of this client. Quite naturally, that left me in a state of shock. To cut the story short, my client decided to commit suicide in Bangkok, Thailand.
I spent the next couple of weeks ensuring the administrative works for all three death claims were properly sorted out and ensured that the payouts were swiftly processed and received by the respective beneficiaries. My only consolation was that the work that I had done years before, at the very least, gave financial relief to the family members of the deceased. It was only when the dust had settled that I did some reflections, and realized the weight and importance of providing good wealth advice – recommending suitable financial products and how the words of an adviser can make or break a family when things go wrong.
The truth, however, was that I did not enter the financial services industry because I was passionate about helping families. After completing my National Service, my parents sat me down and asked if I was keen to study in Australia. Back then, I really wanted to experience entrepreneurship and start having an income as early as possible. Furthering my studies overseas did not appeal to me at all at that point. I thought why not explore working in a sales position first and if I really wanted to, I could still go back to studying. Coincidentally, my family’s insurance agent gave my mum a routine call and for some reason, they started chatting about me. My mum told our agent that I was exploring a sales job and shortly after, our agent gave me a call to share with me about starting a career in the insurance industry.
After some consideration and with nothing to lose, I jumped into the industry with the aim of making good income. My career started off on quite a different note as compared to other practitioners. I did not approach my family, friends, or relatives. For the first couple of years, I cold-called, did street canvasing, participated in numerous road shows, and during the weekends, I scoured uncountable HDB flats. As the landscape evolves, I transited to SMS marketing, social media advertisements and even set up a call center with an automated voice calling system. As you may have already observed, a huge portion of my time was spent on contacting more people, with the aim of bringing in more sales. I also spent a considerable amount of time brainstorming with my colleagues on sales concepts and sharpening our salesmanship. The efforts did pay off eventually. We were rewarded very generously and went on multiple all-expense paid incentive trips yearly.
It was on one occasion when I was researching on CPF schemes when I chanced upon a video featuring Providend’s CEO, Mr. Christopher Tan. He spoke about the inherent conflict of interest in the commission-based insurance industry and the reason why he left the insurance industry to set up Providend. I was deeply inspired by his conviction and belief that a fee-only structure is probably the best way to eliminate the financial conflict of interest between a client and adviser. That really struck me. He also mentioned that it is impossible for one person to be multi-disciplinary – an expert in investment, insurance, Wills and Trust all at the same time. That is so true!
Hence, I began to follow Providend closely, researching more about the work they do and the things they say. I was intrigued and decided to reach out to Chris with the intention to find out more about the fee-only structure as I really hoped to implement a similar model for my own practice. I was perplexed as to how to charge, no idea whether my clients or the general population would be receptive towards a fee-only model and totally clueless if my competence allows me to charge a fee.
In my conversation with Chris, he shared honestly that the odds are really against me because I was in a commission-based environment where everyone is rewarded and recognised based on the revenue we bring in. Moreover, we must be able to provide competent advice holistically to be fee-only and it is just not possible for one person to be an expert in every area. Chris went on to share that the Providend team is currently hiring and if I need a community of like-minded individuals, I can always explore the job opportunity further with him.
At the back of my mind, while I felt really motivated to offer fee-only advice, I struggled with the following thoughts:
- Firstly, what is going to happen to all my existing clients when I leave?
- Secondly, I was bonded to the insurer I was working with and breaking the bond just did not make financial sense.
- Thirdly, if things do not work out for me in Providend, it will mean a restart in my career. The stakes were very high for me.
Nonetheless, after much deliberation, I decided to take the leap of faith and joined Providend as a Client Adviser.
What I had experienced in Providend the past year was completely different from what I was familiar with. The people at Providend spend hours discussing how to refine a simple risk profiling questionnaire. It is not uncommon to wake up to long threads of WhatsApp conversations that go on through the wee hours, discussing and debating on the best wealth planning methodologies for our clients in the right posture. The advisers at Providend spend a great deal of time educating and equipping ourselves with the necessary skills set to deliver good advice. Earlier this year, we also went on a company retreat to Sydney, Australia visiting other fee-only firms to learn from them. Client centricity is core here and an adviser would pass on a client to another adviser just because we truly think that he or she is more suited and can better serve the client’s needs.
The greatest difference, however, is that I used to spend a lot of time keeping a lookout for potential business and sharpening my salesmanship but right now, I spend most of my time understanding, analysing, planning for clients, improving my advisory skills, my knowledge and just focusing on being a competent adviser.
This is an original article written by Toh Zhi Han, Client Adviser at Providend, the first fee-only wealth advisory firm in Southeast Asia and a leading wealth advisory firm in Asia.
For more related resources, check out:
1. Are You Getting Value From Your Wealth Adviser?
2. To Live the Good Life, Make Life Decision First Before Wealth Decisions
3. The Confession of a Financial Adviser
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