12 November 2018

Can You Speak Plan Sponsor Speak?

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If last week’s column was about advisers listening to themselves, this week’s column is about plan sponsors listening to advisers.

But with a twist.

It’s clear retirement plan advisers who live and breathe all things 401(k) know the score when it comes to what a plan needs. It’s also pretty clear plan sponsors don’t. Not because they don’t want to, but because they’re too busy. If they’re smart, they’ll listen to what the professional advises (see “Must Read for the Summer: Top Fiduciary Questions 401k Plan Sponsors Must Ask (But Sometimes Don’t),” FiduciaryNews.com, June 19, 2018).

That’s the problem. Sometimes the pros – especially the very good ones – immerse themselves so deep into their area of expertise they lose touch with the laity. They may be undeniably correct in their advice, but does it matter if that advice falls on deaf ears?

So the challenge for every retirement adviser is to resist the temptation to ascend that ivy-covered tower (or descend it if you’re already up there). You must learn to speak “plan-sponsor-speak.”

What is “plan-sponsor-speak”? It’s exactly the same speak your first boss expected you to speak. It has only three requirements:

1. Avoid jargon – This is the one rule everyone already knows (and believes they’re obeying). Of course, the whole point of identifying this rule comes about because many pros don’t have the same definition of “jargon” that plan sponsors do. You shouldn’t blame the pros for this. Blame the broader community of professionals (including folks like me who write these articles). We use jargon because it allows us to communicate quicker and more clearly with our professional peers. We’ve got to be more mindful of this and tone it down.

2.  Avoid length – Keep your explanations short and to the point. Word count may matter when you’re trying to fill a column. Conversations, on the other hand, flow more smoothly when they come in small bites of sound. Sure, “sound bites” get a bad rap (mostly because the media abuses them). Again, we should give the retirement pros a bit of a pass on this. Plan sponsors usually allot a specific amount of time for meeting. Professionals often put pressure on themselves to fill this complete meeting time with content, lest they be attacked for “not providing ample service.” The problem is, verbosity tends to lead to a violation of our last rule.

3.  Avoid bull – This is one thing your first boss always hated. It comes from our combined desire to keep our compliance department happy (and an innate fear of what would happen if we didn’t). Taking longer to tell your story (see Rule #2) makes it easier to break Rule #3. Hand in hand with this is, again, thanks to our friendly neighborhood compliance department, defying Rule #1. After all, what’s “jargon” to a plan sponsor is a “legal requirement” to the compliance department.

How do retirement professionals sidestep this dilemma? Well this is the why we have marketing departments. It’s their job to convince the compliance department to “keep it real.”

Having found myself on both sides of this equation, I can speak from experience that it is possible for marketing and compliance to work successfully. I can also tell you that it may not be possible in certain business models.

Click here for the original article from Benefits Pro.

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