How To Survive the Busy Season - Top 5 Tips
The last 3 months of the tax year are invariably the busiest time in a financial planner's calendar. People are back from the Christmas break and looking to sort their finances out early in the new year, and then in late February / early March there are those who are hurrying to utilise their various allowances before 6th April.
It can all feel like a bit of a mad rush, with a relentless demand for your attention and resources thinly-spread.
At PowerPlanner, we've generally coped well when things get busy around this time, with no significant drop in turnaround times and quality standards kept high. Here are a few ways in which we've been able to do this.
Sign Up to a Clear Process
Team members should know what to do and how to do it well. This sounds obvious, but it's amazing how many IFAs don't have a defined process for common tasks. Most do have a documented, high-level advice process, but when it comes to administrative tasks it's often a different story.
By defining what needs to be done and how best to do it, you achieve consistency and clarity, which helps improve accuracy and speed of delivery. A clearly-defined process also means things are less likely to get forgotten, which means you can have confidence that, when a job is said to be done, it really is.
Of course, this only works if team members agree to honour the process, so it's a good idea to consult those who will be doing the work and collaboratively define how it should be done.
This is a principle borrowed from the IT industry. The idea is that if something is not right or not working, it's better to find out as soon as possible and fix it early rather than waste time going down a path that's doomed to fail. If some computer software is broken, it's better if the programmers learn that immediately by having the software fail to start up in the first place because of the error, rather than carrying on regardless to find out days later from a disgruntled user who's just lost loads of work because of a system crash!
When applied to paraplanning, this means we should check our documents are all present and correct before starting work on a case. Do we have in-date valuations? Do we have information about regular contributions, charges and penalties or bonuses? If not, then we should note what's missing and go back to the providers immediately rather than lose time working with outdated or incomplete information.
Standardise Your Data
Failing fast is much easier if you know where to find things for each client because everything is stored in a consistent manner. While providers' literature will always vary, there's no reason why we can't use file naming conventions and sensible folder structures for all our clients to make finding specific information as easy as possible.
I've seen so many firms just use things like "info received.pdf" as a file name, or - even worse - stick with the meaningless, auto-generated bunch of letters and numbers used by scanners to save files when documents received in the post are added to back office systems.
We only save these documents once but will read them many times throughout the lifetime of a client's file. As such, it's worth investing a few seconds to name a file after what it contains, include a date, and save it to the correct folder. This will make life so much easier and quicker later down the line when you're looking for specific information.
Automate the Mundane Tasks
Many of the day-to-day tasks a paraplanner or administrator does are repetitive jobs that involve copy, paste, find & replace or just applying the same settings over and over again. Doing these monotonous jobs manually is inefficient and often results in complacency, which can lead to sloppy mistakes that make your company look unprofessional. These sorts of tasks are good candidates for automation.
For example, there may be certain paragraphs and tables that are dropped into suitability reports on a regular basis, but need reformatting to be consistent with the document style of the SR. Instead of applying the desired attributes one by one, you can record the steps in a macro and run it to apply the formatting automatically each time.
This reduces several minutes of repetitive, error-prone work to a single click or keystroke, and the more common the task the more time you're saving overall. Furthermore, if requirements change, then you can always re-record your macro to keep it up-to-date.
Of course, automation is not just limited to formatting macros. Any time you find yourself doing the same thing over and over again you should consider whether it's something that can be automated.
Use the Right Tool for the Job
I'm going to single out Excel here. I would strongly recommend not typing information into Excel if you're not going to process the data mathematically. It may, admittedly, make it neater and easier to search through, but if you have well-organised documents then you won't need to worry about finding information.
Spreadsheets are great for repetitive mathematical tasks, such as working out capital gains tax or compounding interest. They're also really useful for mathematical modelling, such as observing a client's annual allowance tapering with varying levels of remuneration. They are not so good when used as databases or shared resources, as their mutability and lack of version control means data and formulas can easily become corrupted, often without anyone noticing until it's too late.
If you need a database, use your back office system or something like Access. If you need a shared collaboration tool, there are plenty of free web applications like Trello that can help.
Of course, tools are not limited to spreadsheets, but they're so prevalent in their use and misuse that it's worth citing them as the primary example here. The bottom line is that, when looking to build an efficient process, always question whether there is something more appropriate to use for a particular task.