With many financial services firms across the industry in cost-cutting mode, sales assistants saw their paychecks shrink in 2010 — and not just bonuses. Registered Rep.'s annual survey of sales assistants, client service associates, and other support professionals across the country, conducted in August, indicates that average base pay fell 16 percent to around $45,000 in 2010, while the average bonus dipped 4 percent to around $6,300. And yet, support personnel are not expecting the pay squeeze to last. Sales assistants say fatter checks are on the way in 2011. Of 183 survey respondents, 57 percent said they expected their total compensation for 2011 to be more than what they got in 2010, versus 46 percent who were expecting higher pay a year ago.

For some sales assistants, the direction their paychecks take is determined largely by the financial advisors they support. This is typical when base pay is low and the bonus accounts for the majority of pay, because most bonuses are paid directly by the financial advisor instead of the firm. Nearly a quarter of respondents said that 90 percent or more of their total pay comes directly from the FA, while 33 percent said up to 10 percent does. Only 13 percent of respondents said that none of their compensation is paid by the FA.

For now, support personnel are doing more for less — about 66 percent said they have taken on more responsibility over the past three years as a result of the downturn, while another 24 percent said they work for more advisors. Nearly half said they have greater client contact. That makes sense in this volatile market environment, as panicky investors tend to call in more often wanting help. Finally, in an environment where more rules and regulations are being layered onto the industry, many assistants are also spending more time on compliance. Almost half of respondents said the time spent on compliance is greater this year than last, versus 45 percent who said it had stayed the same. Only 5 percent said they were spending less time on compliance.

The job may be more demanding these days, but there seems to be plenty of work for sales assistants. Some firms are hiring. For example, Randy Carver, founder of Cleveland-based Carver Financial Services, says he hired a new sales assistant just four weeks ago, and one last year, bringing his total up to 9 sales assistants. Together with three para-planners, they support just two financial advisors. That has allowed the FAs to take on wealthier clients who need better, more comprehensive service, he says. “I believe in a big service model.”

Carver's registered sales assistants work directly with clients and might even suggest an allocation for a client portfolio for approval by the financial advisor, while the non-registered assistants do strictly administrative work. But all of them answer the phone and handle client service. In his office, people are busier than before, but he's also paying more.

Of course, cost-cutting and spending trends are not uniform throughout the industry. Edward Jones says it has also increased its base pay and bonus pool for its sales assistants, called branch office administrators, this year. Base pay was up 2.8 percent on average, while performance bonuses, which are calculated according to both the firms' profits and individual branch profits, were healthy, says Penny Pennington, a principal with Edward Jones in charge of branch and region development.

On the other hand, attendance at some career development conferences is down — it may be that financial advisors don't have as much extra cash to spend on training support people. Carver, who hosts an Accredited Advisor Conference bi-annually, says that last year, attendance by sales assistants was non-existent. By comparison, back in 2007, nearly half of his attendees were support personnel.

In any case, the appetite for career development among sales support personnel hasn't diminished. The number of SAs with additional licenses rose significantly this year, particularly the Series 63 (up to 57 percent from 48 percent) and the insurance license (up to 32 percent from 23 percent). These licenses allow assistants to have more in depth conversations with clients about investment and insurance products. Edward Jones actually began testing a pilot program last fall to determine whether getting series 63 and insurance licenses for its support personnel would increase client satisfaction, said Pennington. “We wanted to start with whether it's appropriate for them to have those conversations with clients,” she said, “whether that will increase client satisfaction. If so, then we want them to be licensed to do that.” The pilot continued through beginning of the year, and the firm is now working through recommendations. If the firm decides assistants should be licensed, it will roll out a new licensing program early next year.

Many assistants are also interested in moving up in the world of wealth advisory. About half of those surveyed by Registered Rep. said they were interested in graduating to a position with more responsibility, compared with 35 percent who said they were happy staying put. About 14 percent said they wanted to serve FAs with ultra-wealthy clients. Another 11 percent said they would like to be office managers, while 10 percent were interested in becoming financial advisors.

Job satisfaction is high among sales assistants. Nearly 70 percent reported they either loved their jobs or were mostly satisfied, and 73 percent said the firm's treatment of sales assistants was either good or excellent. In write-in answers, sales assistants indicated that what they love most is interacting with clients and helping clients achieve their goals. “I have known some for so long that they've become family,” wrote one sales assistant. “I love working with clients. It is very satisfying to assist people in achieving their goals,” wrote another. As for what they like least, the answers were diverse, ranging from inadequate pay to paperwork to lack of direction and communication from the advisor.

METHODOLOGY: On August 3, 2011, Penton Research e-mailed invitations to participate in an online survey to 1,249 Sales Assistant subscribers of Registered Rep. There were 183 completed surveys, for an effective response rate of 14.7%.