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Professionalism in Financial Planning is More than Exams and CPD

By Martin Bamford, CFP

Professionalism is such a hot topic in the UK this year. It forms one of the three main strands of the Retail Distribution Review which is being fully implemented on 31st December, along with disclosure of status and transparent charging.

Based on the new rules by which we must abide from next year, our financial services regulator understands professionalism to involve obtaining professional qualifications, signing up to a code of ethics and carrying out a certain amount of continuing professional development activity each year.

Of course the characteristics of a professional financial planner cover much more in practice than simply exams and CPD activity. Being a professional adviser is the combination of relevant experience, relevant qualifications and an ethical standard of good behaviour. One without the others does not result in a professional adviser.

Basic Good Manners

A lot of what constitutes professional behaviour is basic good manners. Clients are more likely to view their financial planner as a professional when they offer common courtesy, including the demonstration of good timekeeping and a smart appearance. Whilst personally not an advocate of wearing a suit to the meeting, I do accept that a client is going to struggle to view me as a professional if I show up wearing ripped jeans and a scruffy t-shirt!

Keeping promises is another important characteristic of professionalism. The much encouraged approach to under-promise and over-deliver will leave a client with a good feeling, as long as what is promised is sufficient to meet their requirements and expectations.

Full Disclosure and Honesty

Understanding what you don’t know (and being prepared to admit it) is another aspect of professional behaviour. From an early stage in my career, I was taught to say “I don’t know” if I was in any way unsure of an answer to a question from a client. There is no shame in admitting you don’t know something. It is always far better, and more professional, to go away to find out the answer than to attempt to answer a question without absolute certainty in the answer.

Professional behaviour applies to more than our dealings with clients. The truly professional financial planner also behaves in a professional way when speaking to colleagues, suppliers and peers.

Professionalism in all Relationships

One of my regular frustrations is the way in which some of my peers choose to express their views, particularly in an online forum. With so much change being thrust upon the regulation of financial services in the UK this year, it is inevitable that some will feel frustrated, angry or even marginalised. The way to show these feelings online is through calm and measured debate, rather than by launching the kind of personal attacks we frequently see.

When communicating with suppliers, the only acceptable approach is to be polite, even when service standards are abysmal and clients are placing you under pressure. There is nothing wrong with expressing dissatisfaction, as long as it is done without resorting to rudeness, accepting that the person at the other end of the phone is rarely personally to blame.

There are so many benefits associated with greater levels of professional behaviour in the financial planning sector. I suspect that, in the main, the overwhelming majority of financial planners are demonstrating all of the characteristics of professional behaviour. Being forced to raise our standards of professionalism by the regulator is no bad thing, particularly when it only takes a few acting in an unprofessional way to cause serious damage to our collective reputations and levels of trust in financial planners.

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