What Is Your Firm’s Culture?

If you’re unsure, your clients will still observe enough to draw their own conclusions.

By Karen Caplan Altfest
Karen Altfest
Karen Altfest

What does culture mean to you?

Going to the ballet, opera or philharmonic? Visiting the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville? Reading great novels or comic books? Dancing a Viennese waltz or the Texas two-step?

I admit it didn’t mean much to me until a few months ago when I was asked to speak to women financial professionals about culture at a Barron’s conference. I began to think in terms of firm culture, business goals, presentation and values.

Culture refers to the personality of the firm, how you are perceived by staff and clients. When you don’t have an intentional culture, clients and staff may impose their own assumptions on your firm. It’s best to think your culture through, express it in a way that encompasses your values and come up with ways to illustrate it.

Develop a deliberate culture

Some financial planning firms have an unintentional culture. Our firm, Altfest Personal Wealth Management, has a deliberate culture, which we refer to as “our values.” We have shaped this over many years, streamlined it and taught it to our staff. They, in turn, carry out their responsibilities in a manner felt by our clients. Perhaps it is without our clients’ conscious knowledge, but they do register a sense of the message our firm conveys.

Once established, you won’t have to change your culture often if it’s a true reflection of who you are and how you work. At Altfest, we have some quotes we believe are relevant to our culture written on our walls and we have set up rooms that reflect how we work.

In creating your own culture, planning it and determining that it’s clear and easy to understand, you are making sure people know what you and your firm stand for. By having a culture that addresses your beliefs, goals and hopes for your staff and clients, you are setting a tone for your business. Will your clients recognize a like-minded firm — and leave a firm that doesn’t fit for them? You bet they will.

A lasting impression

Years ago, a colleague sent me to meet an accountant she thought highly of. I was eager to meet him because if he was as good as she thought, I would be able to refer some of my clients to him. I got to his office and there he was — sitting in a chair behind a very disorganized desk. There were two other chairs in the room, but they were filled with the debris of a busy workplace: papers and folders stacked from the chair seat almost to the ceiling. I stood in front of him and asked about his work for 45 minutes. But the office’s presentation told a more pointed story than he could. Then I left, never to think of him again. There was no way I would send my clients to his frantic office.

To me, his office said:

  1. I am messy and sloppy in my work.
  2. When you come to see me, I will start fishing for your papers, and maybe find some of them.
  3. Your work may well be delayed.
  4. There may be missed opportunities or errors due to lost or misplaced documents.
  5. Don’t count on me.

Our office, on the other hand, is very comfortable for staff and clients. Although nowadays we save everything electronically, we also have some file cabinets in the basement that allow us to pull up almost anything in minutes. We always try to deliver all work to clients in a timely fashion.

Our values reflect the way we live

Our firm values are etched on glass towers and appear on mousepads in almost every room of the office. They are well thought-out and mirror the way we live and work.

  • For example, we are value-oriented investors, and live our lives with value-oriented principles, personally as well as professionally.
  • We always put our clients first; that is the only way we could see ourselves practicing. Early on, we became fee-only planners and cherish that connection for us and for our clients.
  • Think for yourself – there’s no need to do what everyone else is doing. Be creative, think things through and be prepared to explain what you are doing and why you chose that path.
  • Respect for staff, and ultimately for clients, is a good way to treat others and show your best side. Everyone deserves to be treated with dignity. If there is a prospect whom we don’t feel we can treat respectfully, we won’t take them on as a client.
  • Communication for us is exemplified by always getting back to our clients promptly. I also suggest you listen more than you talk: What are clients asking and telling you? Speak simply and clearly, to be heard and understood, and always return calls promptly, even if you tell clients it will take a week to do what they are asking.
  • Continuous improvement is a good way to describe our firm. We are never content with the status quo and measure ourselves against our own progress in many areas: delivery of work to clients, quality of staff, client satisfaction and, of course, other metrics used by businesses.
  • Risk awareness means we pay as much attention to risk as reward. This is perhaps the hardest characteristic to explain to clients but it’s important to our own style and sensibility and, we believe, crucial to a client’s ultimate well-being.

For us, our culture is so ingrained that my son, Andrew Altfest, now president of our firm, says he learned all this as a small child. We didn’t know we were teaching these traits, but again, it’s how we live.

When you start a financial advisory business, you may not think about shaping a culture, but clients and colleagues will notice how you present yourself. Best to begin by putting thought into what you hope to accomplish and how you will do that, instead of offering a firm that tells conflicting stories about you. Be confident in expressing your most highly valued characteristics.

Use culture to attract compatible staff, clients

When job applicants come to our firm and ask what kind of atmosphere exists in our workplace, they are trying to read our culture. We believe that staff want to work with compatible people and choose a like-minded firm. We support a culture of collegiality, independence, teamwork, aid and assistance. Our clients, on the other hand, rarely ask about our culture, but that’s not the same as not noticing. They do take note of staff interactions, office setup, performance and knowledge of staff, availability and caring.

Recently, a new client came in and asked to sit in our “parlour,” which she had noticed on an earlier visit. “The Parlour” is our smallest conference room, which I designed for personal, private client conversations. It is warm and comfortable, simple, calm and appealing — and purposely tech-free. I invited her in and offered her tea. She opened up with private stories about her family situation and asked what she should do.

I am not trained in family dynamics. But when pressed, I asked her where she saw herself in five years, what she would like to change and what she would like to keep the same. She left telling me that I had brought much clarity to her situation and had given her a lot to think about. I know she felt I cared about her dilemma, and that she would come to a decision that worked for her.

Did this client notice what our firm values are? Maybe not. Did she experience what our firm values are? I believe she did.

You similarly can present as central the elements of firm culture that are important to you. If you are on-target and execute what you promote, you are likely to build trust with those who need your help. Now that is something to write on your list of values.

Karen Caplan Altfest PhD, CFP, is a principal advisor at Altfest Personal Wealth Management. She helps many of the firm’s clientswith a variety of investment and financial planning issues and specializes in helping women clients and widows. Karen’s Financially Savvy Woman programs, including the Women’s Financial $pa,TM are popular with clients. Her focus is to educate and empower women.






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