Over the span of my 15-plus year career I have personally witnessed many industry-affecting regulations that significantly changed the way advisors sold our products, conducted their practices and how clients were able to access our services and support. From the recent Actuarial Guideline-49 series, to the Department of Labor’s Best Interest Contract and Fiduciary Guidelines, to FINRA’s Notice to Members 05-50 and the NAIC’s 10/10 rule, it should not come as a surprise to anyone that our industry is under a microscope from the government, Wall Street and the regulators. Ultimately, although difficult to navigate, for those of us that were not taking advantage of potential abuses it made our pure and noble industry even stronger and more valuable to the consumer by protecting them from the all too many bad apples ruining it for the moral agents and their clients alike. Well known financial institutions have taken additional consumer protection steps by testifying in front of congress in regard to some of the abusive tactics rogue parts of the field force were engaging in. Unfortunately, even as some of the best top-rated carriers have increased their compliance and suitability reviews, it’s still not enough. There are those in any type of business that will find ways to take short cuts or even advantage of prospective clients in order to achieve a perceived boost to their bottom line. The irony is that they achieve the exact opposite over time as well as harm individuals and the industry they are practicing in.
College planning is a relatively new financial planning concept in our industry and, in my opinion, it’s the purest form of financial planning because it’s not 100 percent predicated around selling a product or fund. Rather, the whole strategy is built on helping families with their most expensive and important investment: Their children’s future success.
When I took over the college planning division at LifePro Financial almost 10 years ago we immediately implemented one simple rule. Getting students into college is the first and most important priority.
I know this should sound like common sense, but unfortunately it’s not.
Therefore, every college planner we partner with must demonstrate how they achieve this rule, or they are required to use a college planning service center that will serve this vital role for them. There is no ambiguity about the necessity of this piece of the puzzle.
When we first got involved in college planning our founder, Bill Zimmerman, and president, Ben Nevejans, insisted that college planning could not be just an asset sheltering tactic but needed to be more holistic planning based. This was one of the main reasons we were the first and only college planning firm to incorporate index universal life into our college funding designs, because solving for college funding alone does nothing to help families with their future or current retirement challenges. Initially we were viewed as mavericks in the college planning industry because we were the first and primary firm to look outside of MEC-ing whole life contracts as a sheltering tactic. As time went on however, our concepts proved to be more beneficial for families. Carriers who at one time shunned all of college planning strategies began allowing us and our advisors access, and we still use many of them today. In fact, we have had the opportunity to teach some of the carriers how college funding should really work and how to manufacture products to support it.
Six years ago we started to notice a decline in RSVPs and attendance at our college planner’s workshops. Previously it was common for a college planner to spend approximately $1,000 on a direct mail campaign which would result in enough RSVPs to host four to six live workshops, and generate 20-30 new hires per month. As time went on the $1,000 direct mail budget was increased to $4,000—$5,000 and most were lucky to get enough RSVPs to host one or two live events. Knowing that this trend was not sustainable, we began looking for ways to help our planners improve their seminar marketing game.
We relied on marketing beta tests looking at everything from direct mail options to digital marketing. Every aspect of the process from A-Z was examined and used and eventually we delivered a full-service college planning seminar marketing system.
Now, Instead of spending $5k for a direct mail campaign, a college planner could spend $500-$750 resulting in 75-100 RSVPs with a 40-60 percent show up rate. What we also discovered during our testing was how the budgeting works for most seminar marketing companies. For example, out of a $2k budget to fill a room that holds 50 people, only $1,200 went to the actual campaign with the remaining $800 going to undisclosed “service charges.” This did not sit well with unsuspecting planners. Another tactic we learned about was to “pay per head.” There are some seminar marketing companies that will guarantee as many people as you would want to attend but it can cost you up to $200 or more per attendee. So, a $2k budget would be gone with just 10 attendees. This arrangement is just too expensive to sustain long term.
An important element of a strong seminar marketing system is transparency. A daily breakdown of exactly how the budget is being spent per RSVP is crucial. Many times an RSVP goal can be achieved well below a planner’s budget, with the remainder of the budget either being refunded or going toward a future campaign. An important question for a planner to always be asking is, “How are my business partners and vendors getting paid?” If the answer is “off of me” and not “with me” or even better, “after me,” then there is probably little to no alignment in the relationship. Ultimately, if a college planner does a wonderful job for his clients, the clients achieve what they were hoping to when the planner was hired. That’s a win/win. Better yet, if the marketing firm they partnered with helped them maximize their budget and get them in front of large amounts of prospective clients, and insurance and annuity products were used in the strategies, it would be a win for all involved.
Having a predictable, transparent and efficient system is paramount to solid College Planning, but there’s another crucial piece. Specifically, making sure that those engaged in the funding and planning are doing it correctly for the clients they serve. Naivete and inexperience are never an excuse for bad behavior and it’s up to the planners and those that support them to ensure that they are doing it the prudent and most beneficial way. Unfortunately, many planners were originally taught, incorrectly, how college planning is supposed to operate. Basic principles regarding what assets count and don’t count based on current FAFSA guidelines have often been misinterpreted. The promotion of “alternative funding strategies”—often unregulated investments—that not only add more risk but could jeopardize the entire plan, or worse, devastate the client’s financial position, have been used in the past by unknowing or unscrupulous advisors. Having a full service, holistic and proven college planning system providing the marketing, the messaging, the follow through, the funding and case design, the underwriting and the constant update all on a scalable level, is what will keep this incredible solution viable now and into the future without unnecessary regulation and oversight. Most importantly it will protect the students, their families, the respectable agents, and ultimately our college planning industry.