Joe Duran on Modernizing the Client Experience

A middle-aged couple is having dinner at a restaurant. It’s been another lousy day at work for the woman, and early retirement is sounding better and better. Her husband’s idea of starting a quaint roadside coffee shop has been eating away at him for some time. It’s now or never.

After talking about it over dessert, they quickly make a video on their phone explaining their desires and concerns and send it to their financial advisor. The next morning, a detailed financial plan outlining how to achieve their goals lands in their email.

This is the type of service that Joe Duran, CEO and founder of United Capital Financial LLC, says will be the difference between winning and losing as a financial advisor in the not so distant future.

Recognizing the trajectory of the industry has helped Duran’s Newport Beach, California-based firm grow to more than 175 advisors managing over $18 billion in assets around the country in a little over a decade. The growth comes even as the number of advisors in the industry has shrunk, according to Financial Planning magazine.

“Consumers drive the market. They want what they want and they want it now,” Duran says. “The question for advisors is: Do you want to be an iPhone or a Blackberry? And there isn’t much time to decide.”

Reboot Required

According to Duran, the industry is ripe for a reboot. And he’s no stranger to reinvention himself.

Duran immigrated to America as a teenager from war-torn Zimbabwe with the dream of becoming a successful businessman. And he accomplished that dream when he built a financial services company and later sold it to General Electric. But what came next was the realization of one of the world’s oldest clichés: Money doesn’t buy happiness.

“I felt horrible, because how can you tell someone you feel dreadful after you did so well?” Duran says. “It never gave me the peace of mind that I thought it would.”

That experience changed his perspective about what a client should expect from an advisor.

“Money did nothing for me; why would it do anything for anyone else?” he says. “I learned I didn’t want to help people die rich. I want to help them live rich.”

With that in mind, he founded another firm, United Capital Financial Partners, Inc., in 2005. He studied the tactics of several innovative companies, including Amazon and Facebook, to help him create his new firm. As a result, United Capital makes great use of new technology, open floor plans, employee lounges and data-driven collaboration to benefit advisors and clients alike.

The Genius Bar, but for Personal Finance

Creating a company known for its service instead of its personalities became Duran’s primary goal.

He created a standard process that all his advisors had to adopt. It replicates the Apple store model, where customers have a consistent and interactive experience no matter where they are in the country. Duran’s advisors are basically interchangeable. They use the same company name, checklists, tools, processes and even office décor to accomplish this client experience. And that leads to a greater focus on what’s actually important: the nuts and bolts of the service the firm offers clients, he says.

“If clients are with your firm just because they like you, and they don’t actually understand the underlying value or strategy of the company, then you don’t really have a business,” Duran says. “Most of the industry runs as a cult of personality, and that’s not good enough anymore.”

Let Technology Take You Beyond Your Backyard

Technology will be key to lengthening client rosters and expanding reach, Duran says. Nearly 40% of all client meetings at Duran’s firm are via a computer or mobile device. In the next five years, Duran expects that number to jump to 80%.


“If you run your business the traditional way, you are constrained by your region and the number of friends your clients have. It’s hard to grow this way.”
Joe Duran
Joe DuranCEO, United Capital Financial LLC

That’s a far cry from business as usual for advisors who rely solely on their geography and word of mouth for referrals. But those days are dwindling fast. Duran says that having a set of universal standard processes enabled his firm to scale and establish a national presence.

“If you run your business the traditional way, you are constrained by your region and the number of friends your clients have,” he says. “It’s hard to grow this way.”

Arm Yourself With Better Data by Asking Better Questions

Advisors should focus on getting better client data analysis, which will help them adjust plans at a moment’s notice, Duran says. Goals and circumstances change, so the industry needs to rethink the traditional financial plan, which is often too rigid and inflexible to serve clients effectively.

“You get divorced, which wasn’t in the plan. Your wife gets cancer, and that wasn’t in the plan. You win the lottery, and that wasn’t in the plan,” he says. “Unless an advisor is monitoring that plan constantly and adjusting it, then he’s doing a disservice.”

Duran’s firm uses a card game, crafted by financial professionals and behavioral economists, that asks investors a number of carefully crafted questions and conversation starters. How important it is to make it home for dinner? To take vacations? Or to find job satisfaction? The system quantifies the answers, with the goal of uncovering clients’ subtle motivations, values and goals. Things they wouldn’t recognize themselves.

It may sound simple, but the system produces data that advisors can use to personalize plans and connect with clients.

“We ask our clients: What is the life you want? The number one answer is typically to spend more time with family,” he says. “If I’m telling you to work harder to retire with more, and you aren’t home with your kids, or seeing their sporting events or watching them grow up, what’s the point of the money?”

Where to Start?

Duran’s big message? Standardizing and modernizing the advisor business model and the client experience will be essential to survive and thrive in the business. In an environment of unbridled information, robo-advisors and new regulations, inertia “is a killer in this business,” he says.

Relying on technology, big data and improved processes takes imagination and investment. And above all, it will take a willingness to deviate from the norm.

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