Financial Planners And The Art Of Shell Cracking

Yesterday my boss asked me a question out of the blue. 

“Didn’t you used to sell stocks?”

“A long time ago,” I said.

And with that, he began to tell me the story of an orphan IRA he had that had been floating around the ether of the financial services world for over twenty years, shuffled from place to place by both voluntary transfers and later on by a spate of corporate mergers.

It turned out that the original account had been opened by an American Express Financial Planner. Twenty years ago, before I moved to Atlanta and became a stockbroker, I had been a part of the American Express subsidiary in Minneapolis known as IDS Financial Services, which at the time was one of the leading financial planning companies in the country oriented towards middle America. It was during my mercifully brief tenure as a personal financial planner that Jeff Stiefler, the president of IDS, announced our name change as a part of the final steps to fully align the Midwestern business unit with the American Express corporate identity.

The conversation brought to mind a short story called "Shell Crackers" I wrote a few years ago:

Our in-home appointment spiel was memorized—twenty nine minutes of verbiage, timed and syncopated down to our last utterance before we extended the application for the client’s John Hancock. The Script interjected the pauses after you rang the doorbell, instructed you on whom to compliment first, and told you, in minute detail, how to summarize the shell cracking technique you were going to use to Mr. & Mrs. Prospect before you started gathering their personal information.

They termed it a “Financial Reform” exercise. To me, it looked more like an “Assume the Position” questionnaire.  

Qualify your appointments. Just Do It. Don’t set an appointment unless both husband and wife can be there. Just Do It. Build rapport with your prospects. Just Do It. Always ask for referrals. Just Do It.

Just Do It? I unzipped my leather appointment organizer the Company provided, lifted the notepad up, and read the tag underneath.

“The CrossTasker - Manufactured by Nike

Excerpted from “Shell Crackers”   Daddymomma and Other Stories

My boss thought I was joking when I told him that we had memorized a thirty minute script, until I started reciting the bits and pieces I still remembered. His eyebrows raised as he recognized the spiel.

“I thought they were pretty sharp for telling me how much my fun was costing me,” he said when I described the way we were trained to gather detailed information about our prospect's expenditures and point out any aberrations from the norm. 

“How else were they going to get you to believe that a twenty something year old could actually give you good financial advice?” I said. “It’s really an art to get people to trust you with their money.”

I started calling my mentor Bennie “Fourbutton” after noticing that all of his suits had…well…four buttons. The suits themselves were stylish, but at five foot eight, Bennie looked more like a bellman at the Swisshôtel than a financial professional.

He came down to my cubicle later that day to fill me in on his plan to guide me through the intricacies of the Company. Double-O Soul was at lunch. Bennie plopped down in his chair and swiveled around to face me. “Anything you want to ask me?”

“Once you get to know your client’s risk tolerances,” I said to Bennie, “how do you decide what to recommend so you can help them reach their investment goals?”


“I said how do you help your clients attain their goals?”

“Kid, you got a lot to learn.”

I didn’t like the tone in his voice. “I know that. I’m just trying to figure out where to start.” I fingered my Product Manual. “There are forty different investment categories in this book. And each category has at least ten different products. So how do you figure out which ones to use?”

Bennie took the two inch thick binder, pulled out the page showing the commission grid in the back, the one that listed from highest to lowest the amount of commissions a planner could earn from each type of product, and dropped the rest of the manual in the trash can by my desk. He ran his finger down to the tenth item on the list. “It’s simple. They can have anything above this.”

Excerpted from “Shell Crackers”   Daddymomma and Other Stories

The 80/20 rule—20 percent of the people in a given field are more productive than the other 80 percent—would probably be the 90/10 rule if it was applied to financial services. In an industry rife with turnover, there are only a handful of my old co-workers who were able to stay in the business long enough to begin generating those all important referral clients. The best planner in my old office back in South Carolina, a former school teacher, kept her clients happy by offering healthy doses of basic, common sense investing advice instead of relying solely on the planning software and its often arcane methodology. Twenty years later, she’s still in the business.  

By this point, my boss was more than a little pensive, as if he were being reminded yet again that most of the decks in life were stacked against him. His orphan account, the one that had been opened with such painstaking care years ago, was now being handled by someone who worked in a call center full of telemarketers whose voices he could hear in the background.

So I gave him the best financial advice an ex-financial planner and ex-stockbroker could. I told him to go to one of the no frills storefront financial services offices in his area, open an account, and ask for an account transfer form.

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