They must often change, who would be constant in happiness or wisdom.  —Confucius

Much has happened in the bank channel over the past 20 years, and even the past five years. Many banks have come and gone—either absorbed by bigger banks or faded out of existence. Some have grown to asset sizes never imagined.

And while banks have endured both good times and bad, their investment programs have been evolving from mostly reactive programs offering a limited menu of "conservative" products and services to existing customers to highly professional and complex financial solutions that rival those offered by the traditional Wall Street firms.

Customers also have changed, becoming far more savvy and knowledgeable about investment choices, risk and global economics.

And of course, bank financial advisors have adapted over the years too. Without sounding too nostalgic, it was in fact, a simpler time when bank advisors could do very well with what today seems like a very short list of skills.

Not that long ago "sales ability" was the single most important skill a successful financial advisor could have. Yes, advisors also needed to be team players, provide great customer service, and know their products. But it was sales skills that managers looked for in new recruits, and it's what drove training—how to prospect, qualify, and overcome objections and close. And while being able to sell is still important, it's definitely only one of many critical skills that bank advisors must have to survive and thrive today.

I spoke with six top bank program managers and asked them to talk about the list of skills top FAs need today compared to 10 or 20 years ago.

Without exception, each one talked about the necessity of FAs being far more adept and comfortable with technology than ever before. Not that long ago, an FA only needed to be comfortable with Word and perhaps ACT or some other customer information system.

Not today. FAs need far more skill (and training) just to navigate and fully utilize all that's available to them on their firms' own systems. From client information, order tracking, portfolio optimization, product information, training and compliance modules and productivity suites, the amount of technology FAs use everyday has exploded.

From giving FAs laptops so they can work on the go to adding new apps on their smart phones, the need to understand and utilize technology will continue to grow. And with social networking becoming more and more important, there's no doubt that FAs will continue to need not just technology competence, but expertise and constant training.

The old thinking on product offerings at bank programs was to provide a few solid mutual fund families and a few good fixed and variable annuities.

Today, managers speak of the need for their FAs to have a much broader product menu and extensive knowledge on how best to use these products to help clients achieve their goals. As one manager put it, "my FAs have to know their core products inside out."

Indeed, they have to know the basics of everything from REITs to structured notes to ETFs, the manager said. Even if they don't sell them, their clients have heard about them or already own them. "The public has become far more knowledgeable and to stay competitive and professional, my FAs have to know more about both the products they sell and the entire investment universe. It's not uncommon for one of our FAs to be asked how the Italian bond is doing today. That was unheard of not that long ago."

Make no mistake—sales ability is still a very important skill. But it has changed with time. One manager told me: "It used to be that banks tried to differentiate themselves from the Wall Street firms by saying 'We're not 'salesy' because we just 'offer' investment products and services to our customers.' Well today, we sell, and not just to our existing customers."

Managers said that their FAs' selling skills have improved in several different ways.

They've become far better at attracting new relationships to the investment program from outside the bank. They've improved their prospecting skills, targeting non-bank clients, high-net-worth customers and even small businesses. And their presentation skills have improved, both in one-on-one meetings using PowerPoint or other visual aids, and in seminars. All agreed that FAs' communications skills, a critical component of sales, have improved, becoming more professional, sophisticated and polished.

Perhaps the biggest change in FAs is the change in their mind-set. Every manager spoke about today's FAs being the "CEOs of their business." As one manager put it, "FAs today aren't one-man bands like they used to be. Not that long ago, FAs did the prospecting, closing, and investment selection. They developed their own marketing plans. They did everything themselves."

Today, there's an entire team working with them supporting their businesses. They work with the marketing departments on business building strategies, they monitor performance of asset managers, they manage an assistant. They do the same things that the owner of a small business would do.

There's no doubt that the skills essential to be a successful financial advisor have changed significantly over the years.

As the world has grown more interconnected, volatile and complicated, and the "low hanging fruit" of the bank's existing customer base has disappeared, bank investment programs have evolved to become far more competitive with traditional Wall Street firms. And bank advisors have learned that to be successful, they need a different set of skills to meet the goals of their banks' investment program and the goals of their clients. In short, they have become more professional and more knowledgeable.

From deeper and broader product knowledge to sophisticated uses of technology to improved productivity, and performance, bank advisors are better today then ever.

Paul Werlin is the president of Human Capital Resources Inc.


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