FOLLOWING A HELLISH YEAR on Wall Street, sales assistants (SAs), or client service associates (CSAs), or whatever individual firms call them these days, have taken their share of beatings. Many firms laid off staff at individual offices, or failed to replace employees who left for other jobs. SAs are doing more with less, to say the least.

Like the advisors they work for, many SAs have taken a pay cut, or expect to, as their bonuses are often tied to advisor production and subject to the advisor's discretion. According to Registered Rep.'s Annual Sales Assistant Survey, 18 percent of respondents do not expect to receive any bonus pay in 2009, while 33 percent expect their bonus to decline versus 2008. Another 25 percent expect it will stay the same. As for overall compensation, about one third, or 32 percent, expect it to fall this year, while 36 percent expect no change.

In the meantime, SAs' responsibilities have only grown. Many SAs say the time spent hand holding clients reached new highs in the past year, and since SAs are first in the line of defense when it comes to dealing with clients, plenty of assistants had their ears chewed off by disgruntled clients. According to our survey, about 40 percent of SAs are spending a substantial amount of their time talking to worried clients today, up from 25 percent two years ago.

In addition, due to all of the consolidation among Wall Street firms, as well as the high volume of advisors switching firms, many SAs have had to learn new systems and transfer client accounts in recent months. And with margins squeezed in a down market, many more advisors have begun sharing assistants to cut costs. Others are asking their SAs to take on more responsibility and tackle increasingly complex client service tasks.

“At one point you had an administrative assistant and the advisor and that was it, but there seems to be a greater trend now toward very professional roles within the team,” says Laurie Burkhard, senior business consultant at independent b/d Securities America. For example, Burkhard says at Securities America's annual sales assistant conference this year, Professional Associates University, the b/d had to change the various tracks it offers to accommodate the wider variety of support professionals in the business. For example, some Securities America offices have created a position called the designated principal, which is essentially an OSJ in a non producing role, and another growing trend is for advisors to hire associate advisors or salaried advisors, to manage (without ownership) existing, lower tier clients. “The SA is not that administrative assistant you thought of years ago. We look at the SA as truly a professional role,” says Burkhard. “If the office is done right, when the client calls in, he should ask for the SA, not the advisor.”

In other words, many SAs now act as client specialists, working together with other support professionals. For assistants who are accustomed to handling the entire administrative scope of a single advisor's business, it can be a challenge to relinquish control to other team members. Take one of this year's Outstanding Sales Assistant's Laura Coltman, a client service specialist for the RM Compass Group, a Morgan Stanley Smith Barney team in Atlanta. Coltman says when she started in the business 24 years ago, an advisor got his own SA, who took care of everything, as soon as he hit the $1 million production mark. “Then the business turned into more of a team environment,” says Coltman. “It has been a huge challenge for me. It was hard to let my guard down and let other people help out.”

Of course, the position of sales assistant has evolved and will continue to evolve as the financial advice business gets more complex. As always, SAs deserve a lot of credit for keeping their advisors' businesses afloat through the ups and downs of the market. Robin McNally of Raymond James & Associates' Sextent Wealth Management says one of the most challenging parts of her job right now is just shepherding clients through disappointments. “In a bad market people are just not happy,“ says McNally, one of this year's Outstanding Sales Assistants. “It might not be your fault or your FAs' fault, but they're going to take it out on you, so you just try to sound uplifting on the phone and let them know, ‘We're not sinking, we're still here and its going to be okay.’” For more about this year's Outstanding Sales Assistants, turn to page 51.

HOW THIS SURVEY WAS CONDUCTED:

From the end of August through September, Penton Media's Marketing Research unit emailed, 987 Registered Rep. subscribers who had specifically indicated that their job function was sales assistant. The survey's effective response rate was 19.5 percent.