Financial Adviser Titles: What’s in a name?
Best Practice Advice & Sales & Marketing for Professional Services & Strategic Issues

Financial Adviser Titles: What's in a name?

August 28, 2020
by Tony Vidler  CFP logo   CLU logo  ChFC logo

Do financial adviser titles matter?  A good question given the number of advisers who seem to try and elevate their professional positioning by referring to themselves as something other than “a financial adviser”.  You know what I mean….financial advisers who have titles like “Risk Mitigation Specialist” or “Personal Financial Manager”….



Something is called a particular name only because that is what the majority of humans agreed to call it, and when enough people use a name – or title – it takes on its own meaning for the majority.  So one of the problems with clever monikers is that they don’t have critical mass in the consumer comprehension stakes….the majority of people simply do not understand what a “Risk Mitigation Specialist” might be.  Perhaps it is a branch of the Fire Department?  Or maybe a bodyguard?  Who knows….


Therein lies the essential problem with creative self-appointed titles: they create confusion more often than they create clarity about an individuals expertise.   That in itself is a barrier to engagement, which seems to me to defeat the purpose of having come up with a clever new title.



While the problem of most consumers being reluctant to engage with a business if they cannot understand what that business does to begin with has always existed, I feel that in todays environment there are even more reasons to veer away from creative titles.



Legislative protection of certain titles and phrases; licencing and regulatory requirements for explaining a professional status; and trademarked titles and designations all potentially restrict which titles and words advisers can use to describe themselves anyway now.  Then there is the general reluctance of consumers to bother with the obscure and unusual when it comes to selecting professional services unless the title clearly refers to a genuine specialist area serving a very specific need or niche.  More importantly though, there is the very real issue of establishing instant professional credibility and the absolute need for todays professionals to be unequivocally honest and transparent.  That extends to describing themselves accurately and with clarity nfor consumers.



I remember reading an interesting little article about some research a couple of years ago which found that:

59%of Advisors call themselves as Financial Planners, but only 30% truly offer planning services.

I have no idea of the size of the research group, or whether it was just the USA or somewhere else, but the fact that half of those using this particular title didn’t actually offer the services associated with that title stuck in my head.  In essence, the research asked advisers to classify themselves and their practices on their own perception of the services they offer the market.  The researchers then reviewed those answers against what the adviser practices actually were, and the work that had actually been done with their clients.


I think this disconnect is a serious problem for the half that didn’t provider the professional services which their titles suggested that consumers could expect.



For that half there are some mitigating factors I suppose.  I would guess that most of those advisers offer some of the elements of financial planning, but then focused nearly all of their efforts on asset accumulation and/or wealth management work.  That is reasonably typical in my experience.  Also, once could guess that many of them aspire to provide in-depth or comprehensive planning services, but many of their retail clients are not necessarily in need of such services.  So it is probable that the disconnect here is simply be cause the firm has the capability but there is a lack of demand, which is why those elements of financial planning are not being “delivered”.


It did however highlight the ongoing confusion amongst clients AND advisers over the industry terminology and titles and how they relate to the work that consumers can expect when engaging an adviser.


Certainly there is nothing inherently wrong or unethical about calling oneself a financial planner (for example), if one is qualified to use that label and is offering financial planning services to consumers.  The ethics of using the title is not at issue at all really.  It is irrelevant whether the consumers use the full range of such expertise or not if the adviser has the expertise and is offering to deliver it.  I do wonder though whether an adviser is giving them-self the best chance of capitalizing on their core value proposition in the consumer minds?  That is, in their branding are advisers linking their expertise and value to what the consumer wants or needs?


The essence of appropriate labeling, or naming of anything, is surely to convey an image which is immediately understandable to the target audience.  We continue to call a rose a rose simply because that is accepted, understood by the majority, and instantly conveys an image to the person we are communicating with.  In other words, it works as a form of communication to clearly convey a message which has little chance of being misunderstood.


Bearing this in mind, many financial advisers might need to re-consider how they label – or brand – themselves.  The title being used might be meaningless in the consumers minds….so meaningless that it is actually a barrier.  Or it may be that the range of services and type of work associated with that title are not necessarily in demand…or that one is specialising in a key aspect only.


Despite the many years of work that may have gone into earning the right to be called a Financial Planner (or any one of a number of other suitable professional qualifications), and how much distinction there might be within the industry in using such titles or qualifications, it may actually be largely meaningless to the target market.  Speaking for myself, I have been A CFP and a CLU since 1998….however I can’t realistically say that they have ever been anything but a peripheral element of the professional positioning.  Some letters that consumers generally don’t understand, but which give them confidence that I know some stuff, am essentially held to some ethical and conduct standards that many others aren’t, and perhaps that I am good at passing exams.  That all helps with establishing professional credibility of course (and it is certainly not my intent to make light of these or any other professional designations).  Do they accurately convey what I do for consumers to the consumers themselves though?

Do the people I want as clients get it?  


Personally I am just sticking with Financial Adviser as a title.  Most consumers (here anyway) understand what one of those does.  It is true that it carries some positive AND negative connotations in consumers minds, but at least there is no misunderstanding about the role.  The title does not become a barrier.


You may also find this post useful:
Keep It Simple: Give Consumers What They Want When They Google An Adviser


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