Two discharges from two US military ROTC units in six months had hit me hard emotionally. But it was difficult on a logical level, too. It was April 2006, and I had less than a month and a half before I was set to graduate from The Ohio State University, but I had no job, no place to live, and no plan. I needed to do something quickly. I was a planner and not having a plan was driving me crazy.
“Parker, this year has been really tough on you,” my mom told me. “It’s ok to come home and take some time to figure it all out.”
To her it was fine, but not to me. Living at home while jobless was not an option.
About a week later, I found out about an “arts and sciences” job fair on campus and decided I’d see what I could do. I didn’t let a little fact that I was a military history major with no applicable experience to anything outside of the military stop me. Much to my benefit, I researched some the companies at the job fair and found that most didn’t specify a major for which they were looking, and that’s when I quickly realized that the job fair wasn’t about arts and sciences at all. There was no art or science. It just about sales and sales positions. As a natural extrovert and former restaurant employee, I knew I could sell, so I just needed to determine the type of sales I wanted to do. My number one target, I decided, would be Ameriprise Financial to work for them as a financial advisor.
Sure it was weird that a history major was applying to be a financial advisor. But in addition to my humanities studies, I had also been employed by Ohio State for the last two years as a tutor teaching physics, statistics, and math to other students. I was also lucky that my father taught me about investing and personal finance at an early age. I received my first investment, four shares of Nike Stock as a bar mitzvah gift. A year later, I made my first stock purchase with my own money when I gave my dad $100 to buy me two shares of Lockheed Martin stock. When I was 15, I my grandfather and I both bought stock in The North Face Inc., as the company’s signature Denali jacket was starting to be bought in large numbers. By the time I was 16, I was analyzing my grandfather’s investment portfolio. When I was 19, I opened my own Roth IRA, which I funded with my own money and got my first credit card. I opened a brokerage account when I was 20. With all of that combined, I figured I at least had a shot.
As the day of the job fair arrived, with my suit on and portfolio in hand, I walked into the auditorium and darted to the Ameriprise booth, introducing myself to a 30-something guy, who was tall, thin, and wearing glasses.
I stuck out my hand. “Hi, I’m Parker Schaffel and I’m very interested in becoming a financial advisor with Ameriprise Financial.”
“Hi Parker, I’m Marc Miller, a manager with Ameriprise.”
I told Marc about how passionate I was about personal finance and how I loved to help people.
“My ability to connect with people is one of my greatest strengths,” I said. “And I think to be successful in any job you need three things: motivation, preparation, and confidence. As a financial adviser with Ameriprise, I think I’ll have all three.”
“If offered a position, would you prefer to work in Columbus or Cleveland?” Marc asked me.
I hadn’t given it any thought, so I put the question back on him. “Where do you think I’d do better?”
“Cleveland,” he responded.
I told Marc that Cleveland sounded good to me and that I’d appreciate any opportunity regardless of the location. Marc told me some of the specific details of the position, the application process, and if I was offered a position, the several state and federal licensing exams I would need to pass. He offered me a follow-up interview, which I graciously accepted, for late April in his office in Westlake, Ohio, a western suburb of Cleveland. While I finished the day with seven other follow-up interviews scheduled with the nine companies with whom I spoke, I was most proud of my interview with Ameriprise. I was very excited to have the opportunity and I knew it would be the right job for me.
When I drove to Westlake for the interview, I noticed about eight other applicants waiting in the lobby. I didn’t know how many open positions they had, but I didn’t want to know. I was competitive, and I was going to come out number one because, as far as I could see it, this was my only option, and the clock was ticking down before graduation.
The interview consisted of three parts, an in-person interview, a phone simulation with scripts and off-the-cuff conversation, and a computer-based assessment which tested mostly basic math skills related to finance. I enjoyed the phone simulation and breezed through the computer assessment. I passed each module and was invited back for the final interview, including a direct meeting and interview with Jeremy DiTullio, the Field Vice President for the Westlake office.
When I returned to Westlake two weeks later, I was sent directly to Jeremy’s office. I walked in and saw him sitting behind his wooden desk huddled over a laptop. I knocked.
He looked up and smiled.
“Parker, come on in and have a seat,” he said, extending his hand.
I shook his hand and sat in the chair on the right side of his desk. This was it, I thought to myself, it all comes down to this, right now. We started the conversation with small talk, discussing our backgrounds and families. Most of the questions he asked me were standard interview questions, but one that stuck out to me the most was the last one he asked.
“Parker, why should I hire you?”
I had what I thought was the perfect answer, something my grandfather told me a few weeks before when I told him I was interviewing with Ameriprise Financial.
“Parker, the great thing about you is that when you tell somebody something, people believe you.” It was a great compliment, and it meant a lot to me that my grandfather had that much confidence in me. So I relayed it to Jeremy, looking him directly in the eyes.
“Jeremy, I think you should hire me for two reasons. First, I have the motivation, preparation, and confidence to be successful in this position. Second, when I say things to people, they believe me.”
Jeremy sat back in his chair for a moment and gave a slight smile. He leaned forward and lifted up a folder which was open on his desk, exposing a sheet of paper underneath.
“Parker, I’m happy to offer you the opportunity to be a financial adviser in this office, contingent upon your passing of the licensing exams,” he said as he handed me the paper.
He smiled and put out his hand. “Congratulations.”
It was my offer letter.
“Thanks, Jeremy,” I said as I shook his hand. “I really appreciate it.”
“The thing is, Parker, because we’ve given you a commitment on the spot and are so confident in wanting you here, we feel that we should get the same from you, so we’d like an answer from you about this position within two days.”
While a completely arbitrary timeline, I agreed to it. Only later would I learn that he was playing to my emotions of the moment.
I went downstairs to the parking lot and called my parents, grandparents, and a few friends to gauge their thoughts. I went back to Jeremy’s office.
“Jeremy, I’m in.”
My new quest was set, my new path paved. Not only would I not be moving home with my parents, but I had the job I sought, in a new city, with new people to meet. It was the opportunity of a lifetime. But it was going to be tough, as I would have to pass three licensing exams as quickly as possible because, without the licenses, I couldn’t officially be hired. If I wasn’t officially hired, I wouldn’t earn a paycheck. Considering I would need to sign a lease for a new apartment, I needed the paycheck as quickly as possible.
Three Exams, Two Months, One Goal
On Monday, June 12th, 2006, the day after I graduated Magna Cum Laude from Ohio State, my dad and I drove to Westlake to move me into my new one-bedroom, one-bathroom apartment. It was the first time in my life I’d be living alone, the perfect situation for me to study day in and day out. After buying a bed, sofa, television, and dining room table, my dad flew back to Maryland on a one-way ticket.
Now, it was go time. I had to get after it. I had the study guides, I had the motivation, and I had the quiet space I needed to get this done. First up was the Series 7 exam. It was the stockbroker exam and the largest, most difficult exam I would have to take, by far. Handle the biggest stuff first, I thought. Once I knocked that out, I’d study for and take the Series 66 exam, which would allow me to make interstate transactions, and I’d finish the summer with the Ohio life and health insurance exam. My goal was to finish all three exams by the end of August and be at work by the beginning of September. The timeline was tight, but I knew I could do it. I had 10 weeks to pass the three exams. I was motivated and confident. I just needed to prepare. It was time to get after it.
There was no mandatory class or seminar for the NASD exams like there was for the insurance exam, so studying for the securities tests fell squarely on me. The study guide for the Series 7 exam was 24 chapters and filled up a two-inch binder with double-sided paper. I learned very quickly that there was a lot more to being a stockbroker than I thought. It wasn’t like in the movies: a guy sitting in a big room shouting on a phone. I had to learn about stocks, mutual funds, bonds, call and put options, retirement accounts, and real estate investment trusts, including how to process them, specifics on how to make the transactions, and accountability.
One day at a time, one section at a time, one paragraph at a time, one word at a time. A journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step, I told myself.
Every day from about 9 a.m. until at least 5 p.m., I sat at my dining room table and studied. I’d take a lunch break, and a quick break in the afternoon to exercise, which usually consisted of a run around my neighborhood. My apartment complex had a pool, but I didn’t go. I didn’t have time to relax.
Day. After day. After day. I learned more, and more, and more. As my third week of studying came to a close, I called Ameriprise to tell them that I wanted to take the Series 7 test on Friday, July 14th, which they had to schedule for me. By the time the test day came, I was as ready as I could be, armed with the knowledge I had shoveled into my brain during the past month.
That Friday morning came, and I arrived at the testing center in Columbus about 30 minutes before the exam started. The registration email told me to bring snacks and food, as the testing center had none, and we couldn’t leave the premises once we started the test, a rule strictly to deter cheating. I brought with me some sandwiches, a bottle of water, and some snacks. The test would begin at 9 a.m. and consisted of two, three-hour, 125-question sections, one in the morning and one in the afternoon.
I locked my mobile phone and food in a locker, as the key and water were the only things I was allowed to take into the exam room with me. When I sat down at the desktop computer, I was provided with paper and a pencil.
The computer screen flashed on and asked me to confirm my identity. Then it began.
125 multiple choice questions in a random order. One question asked about bond values while the next would ask about real estate investment trusts. While there was no way to get my mind focused on one topic at a time, I knew deep down that every question mattered. A single question could make or break my final score. I needed 175 out of the 250 questions correct, not a question less. If I got 174, I failed. If I got 175, I passed. Failure was not an option. Success was my only choice. I knew I had studied enough. I was ready, and I knew I could do it.
The second 125 questions were no easier, and they were randomized just as the first 125. I reminded myself that every question mattered, and as long as I had time left, I could go back and double-check my answers. When I was satisfied and finished the 250th question, a screen popped up and asked me if I wanted to submit my answers. I clicked yes. My heart rate increased. This was it. Then another screen appeared. “Are you sure you want to submit your answers?” Yes. My heart beating faster.
Another screen: “Do you want to submit your answers for grading?” My heart felt like it was beating out of my chest. I must have been at 180 beats per minute.
A fourth screen: “Are you sure you want to submit your answers for grading?” I felt like I was going to have a heart attack, keel over and die before seeing if I passed the exam. And that’s what it would say on my tombstone. “Died of heart attack while never knowing his Series 7 Exam score.”
YES, SHOW ME THE DAMN ANSWERS. I clicked “Yes” for the fourth time.
The next screen appeared.
My smiled wide, leaned back in my chair, and clenched both of my fists. My heart rate began to drop. I grabbed my scratch paper and pencil and returned it to the front desk.
“You’re all set,” the woman told me. “Congratulations.”
I opened the locker, grabbed my stuff, and went to my car. My first phone call was to my parents. The second was to Jeremy.
“Jeremy, I just wanted to let you know that I passed the Series 7 today.”
“Nice job, Parker. Congratulations. One down, two to go.”
Taking a look at the printout, the national average score was a 73%. It looked like I was exactly average. But as my grandfather always said, “if the average person can do something, so can I.” And I had done it.
I went back to the books and studied for two more weeks before taking the Series 66 exam. The study guide was much smaller, and things seem to make more sense, so I was easily able to pass the exam with an 81%.
Taking no rest, I began my mandatory, five-day insurance training class the following Monday. The insurance exam was the final of the three tests I needed to pass, and the quicker I got this done, the quicker I could get to work.
Starting on a Monday morning in a large conference room on the first floor of a nondescript office building, a retired MetLife insurance salesman named Don, read us, word for word, the manual created by his company, which supposedly contained 100% of the information that would be on the insurance exam. He’d break up the monotony of the readings with personal experiences, in which he called some of his colleagues in the insurance business “jabronis.” We took breaks when we needed and asked clarifying questions. Five days later on Friday, we finished the class and I took five days to study on my own before taking the insurance license test. 150 questions later, I passed with a 75%. Again, all I needed was 70%. The testing center took my digital picture and handed me a copy of my temporary insurance certificate.
Three tests in two months. I was proud. Very proud. I had done it. I got after it. I did everything I needed to do. I studied hard. I focused. I stayed on target. Now it was time to get to work and get after it.
Success is Simple: 17 Clients in 10 Weeks, 40 in One Year
Following a conversation with Jeremy about my successful insurance test, we agreed upon a start date of Wednesday, August 30th. I took the last few days of freedom to relax, exercise, and have some fun in the Cleveland area because I knew that everything would change once I started working.
Prior to officially starting, I had met with most of the working financial advisers in the office and tried to learn what it took to be successful in the business. You didn’t need a 100% on a license exam, they told me, but you did have to be a great salesperson, marketer, and advertiser, as well as be a good, thoughtful, and thorough financial adviser who put clients’ interests first.
“But you’ve got to get the clients,” they all told me.
If you didn’t have clients, you didn’t have anyone to advise. You couldn’t do the crux of the job, you couldn’t provide the service you signed up to provide. Ameriprise Financial advisors generated clients in two ways: through generating leads through marketing and through their own personal networks. That meant no cold calls. There were no phone books. The only reason we ever called anyone is because that person gave us his or her phone number at some point. I liked that about the company, and I was lucky that I had a large network through my family, friends, and the military. While I didn’t commission, dozens of my friends did, and that meant that they were making a good salary and needed a strong financial plan. As Facebook was still in its early stages, I was able to contact ROTC friends who were all across the country and schedule appointments. This was my niche.
With about 20 meetings already set up before I started, I knew that I would have a great first, second, and third week. When August 30th came, I reported to the office in a new suit, one I had purchased for my first day, and sat at my desk, which was already set up to my liking. One of the first things I did that day was meeting with my manager, a guy named John, a former marine turned financial advisor.
“Parker, it’s great to have you here, and we’re impressed you’ve been able to schedule so many meetings already,” he told me. John then explained that every new advisor should have a goal, and strangely enough it was the same goal.
“We are here to support you in acquiring 105 clients in your first three years.” John said that the statisticians at Ameriprise Financial’s headquarters in Minneapolis had run the numbers and determined that if new advisors could acquire 105 clients in their first three years, then they were basically guaranteed to generate successful financial planning businesses that would endure the test of time.
“First year is 40 clients, second year is 35 clients, and your third year is 30 clients,” John told me. “Aim for one client a week and you’ll reach this goal.”
And lucky for us new advisors, Ameriprise had a very simple formula for helping us get there. The statisticians in Minneapolis had determined that new analysts needed to meet with, on average, three potential clients to acquire one officially. To meet three clients, advisors needed to schedule eight meetings. To schedule eight meetings, advisors needed to generate 30 leads. So that was the formula: Each week generate 30 leads to schedule eight meetings to see three potential clients and acquire one. Acquire one client a week and be a successful advisor in the long run.
I felt like I could do that, especially with my massive network. If I had a good marketing plan involved, I could overachieve. The way that Ameriprise marketed was through its “lunch and learn” program, in which an advisor would pay for the lunch of potential clients and do a small sales pitch as the food was being prepared. Each attendee filled out contact information and their areas of financial concern, then the adviser would pay the bill and the attendees could enjoy the lunch. That evening, the adviser would follow-up with a phone call and discuss the financial concerns. The lunches were advertised through fishbowls at the restaurant’s host stand that had a sign that encouraged people to drop their business cards for a chance at a free lunch for him or her and up to 10 friends. The fine print contained the disclaimer from Ameriprise Financial. Advisors called every business card, not just one, and offered a free lunch. It was quite genius. If I could find a good restaurant and put my network to use, I knew I could be very successful.
While establishing these relationships and making phone calls was a necessity, it was difficult, unnerving at times, and it was easy to lose motivation. One of the ways that Ameriprise Financial’s managers helped keep motivation high was through a weekly Monday morning meeting with the Ameriprise Group Vice President for the Cleveland/Akron/Pittsburgh region. We’d meet at 9 a.m. at his office on the east side of Cleveland. He’d tell us about tips and tricks he used to be successful, telling us stories about when he was down in the dumps and his career seemed to be floundering, but how he was able to pull himself out of it and become a Group VP and make hundreds of thousands of dollars.
He’d been in the business for some time and knew that money talked, and he put some money where his mouth was. In each meeting, he had a cash grab bag, which contained bills ranging from one to 100. In each meeting, he asked how many clients each of us had acquired in the previous week. Each new client was a shot at a dart board with a Nerf gun. The dart board had random numbers and each advisor would get pulls from the money bag corresponding to the number on the dart board. Each client meant one shot. Two new clients meant two dart shots.
“Ok, hands up! How many of you got clients this week?”
My hand shot up along with some of my colleagues and others around the room. Then it came to my turn.
“Parker, how many?”
“Six?! You acquired six clients since we last met?!”
I nodded. My colleagues backed me up.
“Wow. Ok. Six dart shots.”
My six shots earned me 13 pulls from the money bag and more than $80 in cash. I got a round of applause and returned to my seat. It felt good to be recognized in front of everyone and I was proud of how I was acquiring clients so quickly. My network had really started to pay off. No pun intended.
The external motivators like money were powerful, but just as powerful, perhaps more so, were the internal motivators, like not looking like a failure to my colleagues. We were all competing against one other, not for each other’s business, but to be the best in the office, the new advisor to get the most clients, bring in the most commission (ethically, of course), or generate the most leads. This competition was showcased front and center at 12 o’clock each Friday. All the new advisors, and some tenured advisors, would get together with a manager and report our numbers for the week.
Each advisor would go through the numbers John told me about in our initial meeting: leads, meetings scheduled, meetings met, clients acquired, and the commission we earned that week. The formula was simple: generate 30 leads and a get a client. Reporting zeros for anything, especially leads, was like a dagger. I could never imagine sitting there and saying that I generated zero leads for the week, which probably would lead to no meetings and no new clients. Considering how petrifying that would be to me, I never let it happen.
As I completed my meetings with my initial network, I knew that I needed to establish a relationship with a good restaurant. Before the days of Google Maps and Yelp, most of us just drove around to find any legitimate restaurants we could. I found a great opportunity at a local, privately owned Italian restaurant called Arrabiatta’s, located only a few miles away from my office. It was a good place, reasonably priced, yet still classy, open for both lunch and dinner. I met with the owners and they loved the fact that I would bring people to the restaurant on a regular basis.
“Any business card or contact information I get, they’re getting a free lunch for 10 people,” I told one of the owners. “It’s business for you and business for me.”
As September turned to October and I had been officially working for about five weeks, I realized I was getting close to another goal of mine: acquiring 17 clients. Ameriprise statisticians had shared another fact throughout the company: new advisors who acquired 17 or more clients in their first 20 weeks had a 97% chance of being successful in a financial planning career, and advisors who did so earned something called the Mercury Award. In addition to receiving the award, advisors didn’t have to work on Friday nights and could head out of the office around 5 p.m. Even better, Ameriprise had something called the Centurion Award, given to advisors who acquired more than 25 clients in their first 20 weeks.
Mercury, Centurion, Top Gun, and a $4,000 Bonus
Considering I acquired six in a two-week period, and was acquiring other clients left and right, I earned the Mercury Award in my seventh week and Centurion a few weeks later. But I was working 60 hours a week, including 12 hours a day Monday-Thursday, nine hours on Friday, and three hours, and sometimes more, on Saturday, and I knew I was getting tired. Not only was I slowing down, but so was my business. The initial rush of clients I had from my network and my early marketing opportunities had come to a lull, and I found myself in a bit of a panic.
“What happens if my business doesn’t pick back up? Why am I not getting more clients?” It had only been two weeks where things hadn’t gone well, but it was enough to shake me. To keep my mind sane, which is difficult to do when work-life balance is limited, I joined the local recreation center and made sure I exercised at least a few mornings a week, as well as making it down to Columbus for an Ohio State football game. A healthy body leads to a healthy mind, they told us in the military, and I knew that seeing my friends in Columbus for a game would help relax me.
In the next few weeks, I was able to regain my motivation, thanks to a glance at my paycheck. Not only was I the first of the new advisors to earn the Mercury and Centurion Awards, but I was also the first to receive a large bonus, a $4,000 bonus, the largest paycheck I’d ever received, by far, and I had earned because of the success I had in my first few months. My success had been rewarded, and it felt so good. A few weeks later, John, my manager, recognized me in front of my colleagues and presented me with the “Top Gun” award, something he made up for our office, which lauded my ability to “target the right prospects, pull the trigger, and close the deal,” as well as my total sales I had generated, far more than anyone else.
While other advisors would have been complacent with the bonus and the awards, I wasn’t. There was something else I wanted: an official, finance-related designation. All of the tenured advisors in my office had one or more, and some of their business cards looked like alphabet soup from all the designations they had. CLU, LUTCF, AWMA, CMFC, and CFP. The one I wanted was the CRPC, the Chartered Retirement Planning Counselor. We learned early on that the baby boomer generation was starting to retire and that meant the largest shift of assets in American history from 401(k) plans to Individual Retirement Accounts. These people needed advisors to help them make the right decisions, and I thought that if I could earn the designation as a Chartered Retirement Planning Counselor, I could really have an in with the retirees. Several of the tenured advisors in my office had the designation, but none of the new advisors. I would be the first.
The First to be Designated – Earning the CRPC
I researched what it would take to get the CRPC designation, which consisted of successfully passing a test provided by the College for Financial Planning. Because it was December and business naturally slowed down for the holiday season, I would have more time to study. John and Jeremy supported my plan and said that the company would reimburse me the $499 that I paid up front if I passed the test.
Considering I was still working 60 hours a week, I knew that I needed to factor in my study times into my personal schedule. As the Ohio State football season had ended (except for the bowl game) and the fact that I didn’t have any friends outside of my work colleagues, I determined that my main study times would be the downtime I had in my schedule, including Friday nights and Saturday afternoons. I knew I had to keep Sunday as a personal day to handle my other tasks and relax when possible, so I decided that I would also study in the early mornings on the days that I did not exercise at the recreation center.
The girl I was dating at the time, who saw me wake up early to study at 6 a.m. before I went to work, thought I was insane. I just thought I was motivated, much more motivated than others, perhaps. After studying through January, I scheduled the test for Monday, January 29th, at 12:30 p.m. One of our administrative personnel set me up on a laptop computer in a private office.
“You don’t have any notes or anything with you, right?” she asked, doing her job as proctor.
I shook my head.
“Ok then, good luck!” she told me as she closed the door.
I began the 100-question, multiple-choice test on everything involving retirement accounts, including investment strategies, social security benefits, health care options in retirement, income streams, and tax planning. Everything I pumped into my brain from the study materials’ nine modules was packed into 100 questions. I submitted my answers.
I received the confirmation screen that I had successfully submitted my selections, and my grade appeared below.
I smiled. It was all I needed. 70%. I passed. I ran out of the office and immediately went to Jeremy’s office.
“You’re looking at the newest Chartered Retirement Planning Counselor.”
“Nice job, man. I love it!”
Next, I stopped at our receptionist’s desk.
“Stephanie, would you mind helping me order new business cards?” I asked her. “I just passed the CRPC exam and would like to make sure the designation is on the cards when I hand them out.”
The next stop was the bullpen, my other new advisers.
“Watch out boys and girls! New CRPC comin’ in!”
I knew they were envious. And that was a good thing. It’s how the business was.
The Tide Turns in San Antonio and Washington, DC
In February, I had to get back on the client acquisition train and keep growing my business. Because I had many clients in San Antonio who were new US Air Force officers, I decided to pay a visit to The Alamo City and visit them, with the hopes of acquiring more. As most companies would pay for their employees’ work-related trips, mine did not. But it didn’t matter to me. I had to get after it. I needed more clients. I was just getting after it with my own money. $331 in airfare, $500 for a hotel room, $167 for a rental car, and hundreds more for lunches and dinners with current and prospective clients. The only reimbursement I would receive would be any business that I generated.
The money would come around, I thought, as long as got the clients. My trip was filled with lunches with current clients, but I ensured they invited friends and other coworkers, scheduling meetings with them the next day to acquire the new coworkers as clients even before I returned to Westlake. By the time the trip was over, I had bought nine different meals for clients and prospects, but acquired four new clients in the process. When I returned home and went to work the next day, I told everyone how successful the trip had been, and that I was going to start scheduling follow-up meetings with my new clients.
But as I met with each client over the phone, the meetings didn’t go as planned. Three of the four clients were in poor financial shape. One new client, who was in navigator training, had debt that equaled twice her income. Another client donated so much money to his church that he had no extra income to save for himself. The more than $1,000 I spent on the trip barely yielded me any new business, and at the rate the new clients were going, it didn’t seem like it was going to happen anytime soon. Again, I got discouraged. If these were the clients I was getting, I thought, how could my business go on?
I decided I would try another trip, this one to the DC area, which would allow me to see my family, as well as current and prospective clients in the area. But again, the trip didn’t go as well as I had hoped. When I met with one set of potential clients, who were high net worth individuals, I didn’t bring my A game, and they decided not to acquire my services. The following day, I met with another couple who decided to hire me, but when I returned to Westlake to process their paperwork, I found out that they had given me incorrect social security numbers and already had tried to make a questionable transaction in excess of $10,000. By law, I was required to report this to industry regulators to investigate as potential money laundering. Another trip and another sub par outcome.
What else could I do? I needed more high net worth clients, but was struggling to find and acquire them as clients. So I went back to what I did best. In early March, I made another purchase for $687.50. It was the cost to obtain my next designation, the Accredited Wealth Management Advisor, the AWMA. It was more intense and complex than the CRPC designation, but it didn’t’ matter to me. I’d passed on the first attempt every test I had taken to that point. I was going to get it, and once I had it, I could more easily attract the type of clients I was seeking. The books came in the mail and I started studying.
The Phone Call That Changed Everything
In mid-March, my business had gotten back on track and I was proud that I had already accomplished my first-year goals of acquiring 40 clients and earning my designation as a Chartered Retirement Planning Counselor.
But then, one day at work, I got a phone call from my dad.
“Parker, there’s no easy way to say this.” He paused. “Your mother has breast cancer.” The doctors found it through a routine mammogram. It was early, but my mom required surgery, as well as chemotherapy or radiation, or possibly both. I hung up the phone and stared at my desk for a few minutes, and thought about what this meant for me and my family. My brother was only 14 years old, and my dad had a tough time handling significant emotional situations like this on his own. It was in those few moments that I had a paradigm shift unlike any other. My clients, my awards, my designation, my earnings. None of them seemed to matter in that moment. I liked my job, but my success had been waning in recent months, despite efforts to turn it back around. My work-life balance was still lopsided, and I hadn’t made any friends on the west side of Cleveland other than work colleagues. With no outside life and no friends, I realized how important my family was to me and how they meant more to me than any job. I didn’t want to leave them hanging for what would be a long medical process and months of recovery.
I assessed everything I had done since the previous August and I decided to make a change. While I had been very successful in my first year as a financial advisor, I wasn’t entirely sure if I wanted to make it a 30-year career. I had no friends outside of work, and Cleveland, at the time, was a rustbelt city only in its nascent stages of redefining itself. So I applied for a job with the federal government and was offered a position a few weeks later. I called my clients and told them I was taking the new job, explaining my reasons for leaving, and explaining to them how they would be provided the same excellent service by new advisors.
I moved back to the DC area in late May, a few days before my mom’s surgery and officially resigned from Ameriprise Financial on my 23rd birthday, June 26th, 2007, just one year and two weeks after I had moved to Westlake to begin my adventure. It was the adventure of a lifetime, and I still have disbelief when I look back and realize that I generated sound financial plans for dozens of clients in Ohio, Maryland, Virginia, Texas, South Carolina, Oklahoma, California, Florida, and Utah. I had earned an official designation, bonuses, and praise from my managers. I had earned the Mercury and Centurion Awards. And in that crazy year, I learned 10 valuable lessons, some of the most important lessons I’ve learned in life.
The 10 Most Important Lessons I Learned as a Financial Advisor
- Never be afraid to pick up the phone and call someone. If I didn’t make phone calls, I’d never schedule any appointments. If I never scheduled any appointments, I’d never acquire any clients. If I never acquired any clients, I’d never help anyone. If I didn’t help anyone, I’d never make any money. If I didn’t make any money, I’d never be able to pay my rent. Not calling was not an option. Making hundreds of phone calls in a night was the only option. Bite the bullet, dial the number, put on a smile, and make the call.
- Briefing and presentation skills can make or break your life. Once I got a client in my office, I had to be the most effective presenter out there. My financial planning business would live or die on my sales presentations. If I didn’t make the sale, I didn’t eat.
- People buy on emotion, nothing more, nothing less. I learned from the beginning that I could lay out ever logical reason why someone would need a financial plan, a healthy retirement savings, and a rainy day fund, but it never made someone take an action. It was like trying to tell a smoker to quit because he could get lung cancer. My clients knew logically that they needed financial planning, but it didn’t drive them to do it. They needed emotion. Having a client understand that they need money in retirement is a no brainer, but having them emotionally describe the type of life they wanted to live in retirement and then showing them how they weren’t on track for that type of lifestyle was much more impactful. Emotion is the heart of why people make decisions, and it’s important to remember that in business, family, and life.
- Telling is not selling. The most I spoke, the less I sold. The only thing that needed to be said was a client saying how she felt and what her concerns were. By admitting them, she admitted an emotional component necessary to drive decision making. The more I talked, the less people I helped. Asking powerful questions to drive emotion was the key factor in enabling people to open themselves to the help they needed.
- Competition and envy are very strong, powerful drivers. Although I have no proof, I’m confident that the selection process for becoming an Ameriprise Financial advisor involved competition because our entire new hiring class was extremely competitive. Everybody wanted the one high net worth client, the diamond in the rough. Everybody wanted the one great restaurant that would give great lunches and great leads. Everybody wanted to report the most leads, most clients, or most commission at our Friday noon meeting. Everybody wanted to be the first to do anything. The competition was important because it kept us working hard. When someone else had a big success, we weren’t jealous, but we were envious, always thinking, “He just got a great client, how can I get a client like that for myself?”
- Running your own business is exciting…and scary. John and Jeremy told me and the other advisors from the beginning that our financial planning practices were our own businesses to run ourselves. Therefore, only being 22 years old, I was fairly autonomous. I generated my own leads, did my own marketing, and met with my own clients on my own. It was exciting, but it was equally scary. If I failed, I was the only one to blame. If I was successful, I was the only one who deserved the credit.
- Confidence can lead the way, but you’ll have to prove your worthiness at some point. I knew that I had to talk the talk and look the part. If I looked disheveled with a bad suit and a car that was missing a bumper, no client was going to trust me. If I didn’t have enough money to look good and at least drive a put together car, why would a client entrust me to ensure that I could help grow their net worth? But as good as I looked, I had to back it up, and that was why I worked as hard as I could to get the Chartered Retirement Planning Counselor designation, and start the process of becoming an Accredited Wealth Management Advisor. The more designations I had, the more I knew, and the more people thought I knew.
- You must have two of these three to be happy overall: a job you like, a city/town you like living in, and having friends and family around. There was no doubt I liked my job as a financial advisor, but I didn’t like where I lived, and I didn’t have any friends or family around. I only satisfied one of the three criteria. If you are close to family and friends and like your job, you can put up with a city you don’t like. If you like your job and like where you live, you can be good without a lot of family and friends. If you’ve got friends and family around and like your city, you can put up with a job you don’t like. In my opinion, no matter who or where you are, if you only satisfy one of the three criteria, you won’t be happy. Having all three, of course, is the ultimate goal, but you’ve got to have at least two.
- Have one or more goals and lay them out in short, medium, and long-term plans. Almost from the start of my financial planning career, I knew what I wanted to do and where I wanted to go.
- In the short-term (first six months), I wanted to earn the Mercury and Centurion Awards.
- In the mid-term (six-months to five years) I wanted to earn three designations of Chartered Retirement Planning Counselor, Accredited Wealth Management Advisor, and Certified Financial Planner, as well as become a manager in the company.
- In the long-term (five years plus), I wanted to be the Field Vice President of an Ameriprise Financial office somewhere in the country. These goals kept me focused, especially when times got hard and I slipped into a lull, which can completely derail a person in a commission job. Everyone has bad days and even weeks, but I didn’t let them consume me. When I had a week or two that didn’t go as planned, I went back to my strategic plan and regained my motivation to get back up, asking myself simple questions: What can I do today? What can I do in the next hour? What can I do in the next five minutes? When I broke down my situation like that, I reminded myself that one random phone call could land an answer on the other line which generated a new lead, which could lead to a new client. When I was tired of studying, I’d take a break but remind myself of my goals: be the first new hire in the office to earn a designation. My motivation returned. I’ll never know if I would have become a Field Vice President, but I can rest knowing that, just before I left Ameriprise, the Group Vice President for my region had asked me to speak at a conference for the region’s top advisors. The topic of my presentation: how I acquired so many clients so fast.
- Get after it. Never stop. Never quit. Never give up. No matter what I did, I always had to keep driving, keep digging, keep working. I wanted to be the best, the first, and to do that required a “get after it” mentality. When I told other advisors that I was going for the CRPC designation, they looked at me and said, “we’ve only been working for four or five months and you’re doing that already?” Of course I was. I was going to get after it. When I told others that I was going to pay the way for my own business-related trip to Texas, they said, “Well I wouldn’t go unless Ameriprise paid for it.” My response was simple: “I guess you’re glad you don’t have clients in Texas.” It was my way of ensuring I stayed one step ahead.
Never stop. Never quit. Never give up. Get after it. That is the mentality I used to become the Mercury Centurion.