After speaking with scores and scores of licensed sales assistants, and the advisors they support in the wirehouse, independent and RIA channels, Registered Rep. has a pretty good idea of what would happen to advisors if their sales assistants unexpectedly failed to show up for work one day:

THEY WOULD PROBABLY GO MAD.

For starters, that lunch the advisor had scheduled with a wealthy prospect would be out of the question. On a busy day, he would spend at least three hours on the phone, fielding the 50 odd calls that come in from clients. A number of these clients — terrified by recent swings in the market — would want reassurance, or they might need cash and want to liquidate some holdings right away. Or they could have other complicated requests concerning their portfolios that needed immediate attention. Other clients might call in with simpler requests, like, “Hey, could you order me more checks?” But these shorter calls would quickly add up, and suddenly the advisor would find that the clock read noon. And that's even before he would have opened the hundreds of emails that would need to be answered before the end of the day (if the office has a same day return communication policy, which so many now do).

The advisor would probably also have to put aside the complex estate-planning work he was handling with a local attorney for one of his biggest clients, and the investment research he was doing on alternatives and structured products for others. There would be so many investment order entries to complete, client funds to transfer and banking accounts to set up. Oh, and don't forget that sit-down meeting with the middle-aged client who wants to talk about retirement-planning options for herself, her kids and her grandchildren. When he met with her, she would ask, “Where's Jane?” And of course, she would be talking about the sales assistant. In fact, all day long, on the phone and in emails, his clients would have been asking him that.

Lucky for most advisors, their sales assistants haven't actually disappeared, and most are rarely away from the office for long. One sales assistant with a wirehouse (her firm declined to participate in this year's story), says when she does take off for vacation, she tends to prep her advisors, and makes sure everything is in order before she leaves. “I'm basically the first point of client contact. I try to grab all the phones before my guys do; normally it's administrative and service questions which I can handle and take off their plate, and if it is more in depth I can usually handle that too,” she says.

Actually, the only thing she doesn't do (and isn't comfortable with) is research and the selection of new investments. “It's not that I don't think I could do it, it's just that I don't think I have enough time to devote to it, and it's kind of understood that he (the advisor) does it,” she says. This sales assistant is certainly not lacking in qualifications: She has Series 7, 66 and insurance licenses, a certified financial planner designation and a chartered retirement-planning counselor designation.

But these days, her story is becoming more common. More than ever, sales assistants have become an integral part of a well-run practice — and financial advisors, and firms are well aware of that fact. Not only are the firms paying them more as their value increases, they are also encouraging their professional development, and giving them a presence on firm-wide advisory boards.

IN SALES ASSISTANTS WE TRUST

Financial advisors are certainly giving their assistants plenty of responsibility these days. According to Registered Rep.'s annual Sales Assistant Survey, some 71 percent of sales assistants who work at wirehouses, and 83 percent of sales assistants at regional b/ds, say clients rely on them for a variety of needs, including some types of advice. Further, our survey found that an overwhelming majority of sales assistants — 83 percent of those working at wirehouses, and 90 percent at regionals — say their advisors trust them to complete their work without supervision, and to take the initiative.

“They (sales assistants) are really the first line of defense. They really are the ones doing a lot of the interacting with clients, and they play such a crucial part in that piece of the service model that we are emphasizing so strongly at Smith Barney as well,” says Chris Dyrhaug, director of branch administration for Smith Barney's Private Client Group. Dyrhaug started as a CSA (Client Service Associate) with Smith Barney in 1994, but he says he always knew his passion was in management; a year later, he became an assistant operations manager. “It's funny having been in the branch system most of my career. Whether as a sales assistant or in management, I'll always go back and show you a good financial advisor, and nine times out of 10 they're going to have a good support staff behind them,” Dyrhaug says.

In fact, most clients spend more time with sales assistants and support staff (they account for 80 percent of “contact”) than financial advisors (20 percent), according to a study from State Street Global Advisors that uses data from the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School Of Business.

“I've heard it so many times,” says Meg Aldrich, a senior marketing consultant with the Hartford Financial Services Group. “A broker will say to me, ‘If it weren't for my sales assistant, I would make nowhere near as much as I do, because my sales assistant is a key part of my practice.”

Some firms have even set up sales assistant advisory boards to benefit both the assistants and themselves. Securities America was one of earliest adopters, back in 2001. Since then, says Kirk Hulett, senior vice president of Securities America, the firm has implemented close to 900 individual suggestions made by the sales assistant advisory board, including high-level technology initiatives that help support staff input account data more efficiently and easily. “What we recognize is that the key to the future growth and profitability of the individual advisor is helping the support staff be even better at their jobs,” Hulett says.

Smith Barney is in the process of putting together its own sales assistant advisory board as well. “We think they (CSAs) can be an extremely valuable tool in helping us get it right: systems, service models, efficiency, client service, technology — making the processes as effective as we can make them,” says Dyrhaug.

PROFESSIONAL DEVELOPMENT

With sales assistants functioning as such a key part of the business, advisors and their firms have plenty of reasons to invest in their expertise, whether that means helping them get advisory licenses, or providing them with targeted professional development programs. A few firms developed sales assistant training initiatives long ago: Securities America, for example, launched something called “Sales Assistant University” way back in 1998. But most other firms have only started taking assistant training seriously in the past few years or so.

Take Edward Jones, which rolled out its Branch Associate Training and Development (BATD) e-learning program in late 2006. (EJ calls their sales assistants “Branch Office Administrators.”) The interactive e-learning platform was designed to offer the firm's branch-based sales assistants essential skills training. And the program has been so successful that pieces of it are even being used to train new financial advisors who don't have sales assistants of their own.

Smith Barney, meanwhile, has put a lot of focus on getting assistants licensed, says Dyrhaug. In fact, the firm thinks it is such an important initiative that it is giving support staff time during work to study for the series 7 and 66 licensing tests. In addition, the firm offers continuing education resources in house so that assistants can get a Financial Planning Associate designation. It also offers tuition reimbursement for other planning-related training, as well as the opportunity to attend a Smith-Barney sponsored offsite training program.

In some cases, initiatives that used to be open only to advisors are now targeted at sales assistants. For example, Randy Carver, founder of Cleveland-based Carver Financial Services, hosts an annual Accredited Advisor Conference. This year, for the first time he says, half of his 100 attendees will be sales assistants. The conference, which takes place on a Caribbean Cruise, offers continuing education and graduate level courses for financial advisors, and is in its 15th year. In the past, the event focused on financial-planning topics (such as rollovers or estate-planning), but this year there will be seven hours of workshops on administration, operations and compliance — the dominion of sales assistants.

“I see advisors relying a lot more on their assistants, and doing a lot more things that three or four years ago I wasn't seeing, such as more direct client work and meeting with clients, whereas before the job was more administrative, and more of a support role,” says Carver. “They (sales assistants) need basic sales skills as well as interpersonal skills, because they are the face of the firm,” he says. “So it's very different than somebody that's just doing paperwork behind the scenes.”

Additional licenses can certainly make a difference. Bobbi Bruner, a registered sales assistant with Carver, says that after she received her Series 7 license in 2004, and her Ohio Life & Health Insurance license the following year, she began participating in client-advisor meetings, running reports for the appointments, and even meeting with clients on her own (to discuss their insurance needs, provide quotes, process applications and deliver policies). Before that, she had mostly been filing papers, filling out forms, occasionally answering phones and making appointments. Bruner says she plans to complete registered paraplanner requirements next, which will allow her to work more closely with advisors on investment related projects.

That said, firms are not uniformly providing formal training programs — this trend seems to be in its infancy. In fact, Registered Rep.'s annual survey found that only 6 percent of sales assistant respondents from wirehouses received formal, structured training designed specifically for their jobs when they started working for financial advisors. And 8 percent say they received some informal training from their financial advisors or branch managers. As for assistants working for regional firms, only 2 percent of respondents say they received formal training, whereas 10 percent say they received informal training from the advisors or branch managers. The vast majority of respondents say they learned on the job, or from other sales assistants.

PAY ME!

But getting educated, and getting paid more, go hand in hand. In 2006, sales assistants with Series 7 licenses' watched their median salaries (including bonus) grow 10 percent to $53,846, according to Registered Rep.'s annual survey. For sales assistants whose primary job responsibility is managing clients, median salary (plus bonus) also rose 10 percent to $57,368 in 2006. Compensation for those sales assistants whose primary responsibility is client service also fared better: salary (plus bonus) jumped 7 percent to a median $46,428 in 2006.

Some sales assistants are getting far bigger raises. Take Bruner, whose pay has jumped substantially as she earned more credentials and began providing more complex assistance — like taking trade instructions from clients, and answering more of their questions herself. She got a 10 percent raise when she got her Ohio Life Insurance license in 2005, another 16 percent raise in 2006, and an additional 13 percent in 2007, not to mention mid and year-end bonuses. In all, that adds up to a 44 percent raise over three years.

Some firms have begun tying bonuses directly to training programs: For example, Edward Jones recently introduced a new system in which trainee branch office assistants (BOAs) are eligible for a bonus at six months when they complete their basic training, and again once they have been promoted to BOA. Effective February 2008, the bonus is tied to new BOA training curriculum, and will be based on performance as evaluated by the assistant's advisor.

In addition to bonuses, Jones recognizes BOA talent by awarding partnerships. In fact, half (4,500) of all BOAs at Edward Jones are partners that share firm revenue. This year the number of BOAs who are limited partners in the firm has more than tripled. Over the past five years, the median BOA salary has risen 26 percent, says Jones.

Daniel Boyce, a CFP and partner of The Center for Financial Planning in Southfield, Mich., which is affiliated with Raymond James, says that his firm does pay more for assistants who are licensed, in both base salary and incentives. One thing is certain: Sales assistants are getting paid more these days. That means firms and reps will have to keep salaries competitive if they want to retain their top talent, like the Outstanding Sales Assistants we profiled this year, starting on page 77.

ESTIMATED MEDIAN SALARY AND BONUSES FOR 2006

Note: (N/A = there were not enough respondents for analysis in this category.)

Experience Total Compensation Bonus
20-plus years $63,333 $12,142
15 to 19 years 55,000 7,499
10 to 14 years 55,000 8,750
6 to 9 years 49,999 6,666
Fewer than 5 years 40,625 1,300
Primary Job Responsibility
Client management 57,368 10,385
Client service 46,428 5,833
Series 7
Yes 53,846 7,343
No* 33,999 999
Type of Firm
Wirehouse (2,000+ reps) 54,091 7,221
Regional (200 to 1,999 reps) 53,333 10,500
Type of Practice
Fee-based using mutual funds N/A N/A
Commissioned-based using individual securities N/A N/A
Separately managed accounts 58,571 9,999
Mix 52,307 5,750
Region
Northeast 55,713 4,583
North Central 54,545 6,499
Southeast 51,667 9,999
South Central/West 49,374 8,333
Northwest 53,750 7,499
Involvement in rep goals/strategies
Not involved or aware N/A N/A
Aware of, but not involved 49,285 6,666
Provide some input 53,158 7,499
Integral to strategy 57,499 8,333
Source: Penton Media, Inc.
*There were only 9 respondents, results may be misleading.
WHAT'S YOUR BONUS BASED ON?
Respondents Percentage
FA's production 80 48.8%
Achievement of preset goals 26 15.9
The discretion of the FA 72 43.9
The discretion of the firm 38 23.2
Do not receive a bonus 10 6.1
Other 2 1.2
No answer 2 1.2
Total Compensation
Less than $20,000 1 0.6
25,000 to 29,999 5 3.0
30,000 to 34,999 12 7.3
35,000 to 39,999 10 6.1
40,000 to 44,999 25 15.2
45,000 to 49,999 20 12.2
50,000 to 59,999 40 24.4
60,000 to 69,999 17 10.4
70,000 to 79,999 15 9.1
80,000 to 89,999 8 4.9
90,000 to 99,999 4 2.4
100,000 or more 5 3.0
Median compensation: 52,250
Total Bonus
None 13 7.9
1 to 999 14 8.5
1,000 to 2,499 23 14.0
2,500 to 4,999 21 12.8
5,000 to 7,499 16 9.8
7,500 to 9,999 13 7.9
10,000 to 14,999 21 12.8
15,000 to 19,999 13 7.9
20,000 to 24,999 9 5.5
25,000 to more 19 11.6
Median bonus: 6,562
Source: Penton Media, Inc.

MINI ME

Most SAs Are Like Mini-Advisors

What's your involvement in setting the business strategies, and goals of the broker?

Respondents Percentage
Not involved, or aware of, the strategies and goals 9 5.5%
I am aware of the strategies and goals, but am not involved in their development 42 25.6
I provide some input in the goals and strategies 79 48.2
I am an integral part of goal and strategy development 34 20.7

Which best describes your working relationship with the FA you work for?

Respondents Percentage
Micro manages my every move; Shows little confidence in my abilities 4 2.4
Manages closely, but not to the point of interfering with my ability to get things done 17 10.4
Trusts me to complete my work without close supervision; allows me to take the initiative 141 86.0
Other 2 1.2

How do you work with clients?

Respondents Percentage
Clients rely on me only to relay messages to the broker 2 1.2
Clients rely on me for basic administrative services 34 20.7
Clients rely on me for a variety of needs, including some types of advice 119 72.6
Other 9 5.5

Source: Penton Media, Inc.