This week I had the chance to chat with Chris Benson to see how his financial advisory firm is faring since updating the company’s website with Twenty Over Ten. Chris leads the financial planning practice at L.K. Benson and Company, located in Towson, Maryland. Read on to hear Chris’ morning ritual, the unusual time he catches up on his reading, and how technology has changed the way L.K. Benson runs their business over the past 7 years.
1. How has your guiding principle, “staying on the cutting edge of new technology in our industry,” changed the way you run your practice?
When I got here 7 years ago we were still doing financial planning in spreadsheets, had no digital file managements system, every software we used was locally installed on each computer and we had a very minimal web presence. We now use MoneyGuidePro to do much more robust and collaborative financial planning with our clients. We have access to all of our documents through cloud storage. Most of our software is now cloud based. We have been blogging actively since I got here and now have a much more impressive web presence thanks to Twenty Over Ten. We still have a long way to go and are currently evaluating and making a switch to a cloud-based portfolio management software as well. Moving to the cloud has made our practice so much more efficient. I can now have a client e-mail a question about his taxes or his financial plan and instead of having to go digging through the file room I can pull it up in seconds, even if I’m out of the office! A few years ago I was in Hawaii for vacation and a client needed a copy of his return for a mortgage refinance – I sent it to him securely from the beach!
2. How does your team’s background in accounting and tax optimize your client’s experience?
Taxes are the number one expense for many of our clients. In the highest tax brackets In a high tax state, you could be paying as much as 50% of your income in taxes! Having a thorough understanding of the tax laws and how a tax return really works is a huge advantage in building a financial plan for a client. We don’t just talk about the impact taxes will have – we run the numbers and show them because we are also doing their tax returns. I have actually gone into a client’s return and run a second scenario to show a client the actual dollars they saved by some of the tax strategies we implemented for them – that’s an incredible way to show value to a client. As an added benefit we are guaranteed to know everything that is going on in our clients’ lives. We see all of their taxable accounts because they are all reported on the return. We know if they have kids or if their kids are off to college because there are tax reporting requirements related to this. You can learn so much about a client through their tax return and while we all strive to know everything about all our clients, we know that sometimes things slip through the cracks or the clients just forget to talk about them. Everyone should at least know how to read a 1040 and to interpret what they find.
3. Are there certain types of clients that you are able to help particularly well?
We don’t have a particular “niche” but many of our clients come to us as they are going through major life transitions. We also have many clients with complicated tax situations – venture capital and private equity firm owners or real estate investors. Also due to our non-AUM approach, we tend to find a lot of clients who are coming to us for the planning but maybe not the investment management. In fact, many of our clients don’t have us manage any money directly and instead look to us as the “quarterback” of their financial team. We understand all the different aspects of personal finance and how they work together and we coordinate the planning among the different professionals.
4. Do you have a daily ritual?
I just finished reading Charles Duhigg’s book “The Power of Habit” and I’m an avid listener of Tim Ferriss’ podcast so I’ve been thinking about my daily rituals and habits a lot lately. I think we all have some bad habits and some good habits and the key is to try to train ourselves to focus on the good and limit the bad. My mornings in the office typically start like many other advisors – going through e-mail, responding to clients and cleaning out junk. Then I’ll typically hop on twitter to check the latest news and if I find any interesting articles I’ll save them to the Pocket app to read later. If I don’t get lost in a twitter spiral I then sit down and list out my priorities for the day. I’ve been using an app called “One Big Thing” to keep myself focused on accomplishing my most important tasks. I find far too often I get distracted by e-mail requests and other things that are not critical or timely but I know I can get them done quickly and procrastinate on my most important things. I also typically go to the gym at lunchtime at least 3 days a week. I get through most of my Pocket articles while running on the treadmill then listen to industry podcasts (like those from Barry Ritholtz, Patrick O’Shaughnessy or Meb Faber), so I find this time both productive and refreshing. I force myself to leave in time to be home for dinner with my family every night, even if that means I sometimes need to do a little work after my kids go to bed.
Personal finance is more personal than it is finance.
5. Was there a certain message that you wanted to portray from your website?
We really wanted to get away from the technical stuff. As my friend Tim Maurer likes to say, personal finance is more personal than it is finance. We wanted to convey to clients that we are interested in working WITH them, not managing money or preparing tax returns FOR them. Our clients are like family to us and we wanted potential clients to understand that when they work with us they become part of that family. We are going to work with them to build a financial plan and we will handle all the various aspects involved in implementing that plan. Sure, we do tax returns and manage investments, but our most important role is to be a partner for our clients and to provide real objective financial advice.
6. What advice would you give to someone who is looking to redo their website?
Stop worrying about making it perfect and just make it better. And hire someone else to design it! I spent years fiddling with Squarespace and WordPress and any number of other website design tools but could never decide on the perfect template or the perfect design and wording. I probably drove the TwentyOverTen team crazy with my nitpicking and detail-oriented edits and comments, but at least when I started working with you I had someone who would push me along and make sure the website was finally done. Your website is such an integral part of your firm’s public face it is critical that it conveys the right message. When I’m referred to someone or hear of a business my FIRST instinct is always to look them up online. If their website looks old and dated or doesn’t work on my phone, I’m instantly turned off by that business. Consider that and take a look at your own site. How many people look at that and decide you might not be the firm they want to work with? Trust me it happens.
7. How do you usually find inspiration for blog posts?
I find inspiration for my blogs from a number of areas. Many times I’ll have a client ask me a question and it will be a question I know many other clients probably have as well so I’ll write a general summary of our thoughts on the topic. If a new tax law comes out or something important happens in the investment markets, I’ll often sit down and write about that. Not only does it help me to learn more about it, I am also proactively getting in front of the issue with clients. I also read a lot and I often find inspiration for new blog posts while reading someone else’s blog or an article in the paper or a book. I’m certainly not an expert writer but I love to do it and the more I do it the better I feel I become. Forcing yourself to write is a great way to learn more about yourself and to explore your beliefs.
8. What is your favorite aspect of being a financial advisor?
By far my favorite aspect of being a financial advisor is the ability to help people live a better life and to ease some of the financial stress that so many people in today’s society feel. We have so many clients tell us how much better they feel knowing they have us as a partner on their financial journey. We’ve helped many clients get to a point where they are comfortable retiring or moving to a part-time position that greatly improves their quality of life. They come into our first couple meetings obviously stressed and worried about where they stand. Even if they aren’t in great shape and still have work to do, just knowing that they are on the right path and have someone they can trust to help them down that path can make a world of difference for them.
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