Any champion will tell you it is hard to maintain a winning streak, but Manulife (International) is determined to do just that at the SCMP/IFPHK Financial Planner Awards 2010. For the last three years, the company took home the prize as Hong Kong's Best Company for Financial Planning Excellence in the insurance sector and, with about 100 advisers entering this year's contest, Manulife is determined to keep the title for the fourth straight year.
"Our financial advisers are already very familiar with the awards and are excited about the competition," says Alan Ng, Manulife's assistant vice-president for agency training and customer marketing. "Our record may give a unique advantage, but the main thing for us is that, through the process, participants have a great opportunity to develop their professionalism, sharpen their skills and benchmark themselves against the best in the industry."
Key to this is the competition format. Over three challenging rounds, it first requires participants to submit a comprehensive written plan based on an actual client case. Those chosen to progress to round two must then present their plan and explain its recommendations to a judging panel of industry experts. And the subsequent category winners from the banking, insurance and independent financial advisory sectors have to present solutions for a complex case study devised by the organisers during the third and final round.
"An important aspect of the awards is the emphasis on real-life financial planning practices," Ng says. "The evaluation process is comprehensive and requires candidates to demonstrate strong analytical and practical skills. They must show they are able to address a customer's financial needs effectively, based on realistic expectations and a careful review of all the personal financial data that's available." Another significant point, according to Ng, is that the competition tests how well classroom learning and theoretical knowledge are being applied in everyday situations. For any professional financial planner, this is an essential skill. A big part of the job is to discuss priorities, explain the pros and cons of different options, and find the right solution for each individual client.
Doing that requires a high level of communication skills. At various times, it is necessary to persuade, educate or set out difficult choices in layman's terms. For that reason, the latter rounds of the awards place special emphasis on oral presentations, with the judges looking for candidates to handle each question on its merits and make sure client considerations always come first.
"As a professional, before you submit a financial plan, you have to analyse the client's financial position, understand his or her goals in life and then provide a recommendation that best suits those needs," Ng says. "Effective communication is one of the keys to achieving this, which is why the judging panel puts such focus on how clearly ideas are conveyed in the written submission and in the face-to-face presentation." As a result, participants can expect to undergo a rigorous test of their abilities. It is, though, one with direct and immediate relevance to their professional development. For example, it provides an ideal platform to demonstrate the kind of holistic approach to financial planning that Hong Kong's investing public is now coming to expect.
Understandably, they want reliable advice that takes due account of their assets, liabilities, cash flow, long-term aspirations and family responsibilities.
The "old-fashioned" approach, promoting specific products or shorter-term returns is no longer enough.
"The good news is that the demand for holistic financial planning is gaining momentum," Ng says. "Therefore, practitioners need to enhance their skills to cope with changes in the industry and learn how to advise their customers in real-life situations. Taking part in the awards is definitely one way to do this."
With the announcement of first round winners set for early next month, contestants who make it past that initial hurdle will have limited time to prepare for round two in August. Ng suggests they can improve their chances by reminding themselves regularly of a few important principles.
These include referring to the six recognised steps of good financial planning practice as a handy checklist and remembering to consider every recommendation from the customer's point of view. It also pays to talk to an experienced, respected financial planner to give an independent view on which aspects of the case to emphasise in the presentation.
"We have seen that candidates learn a lot simply by taking part," Ng says. "In sponsoring the awards and getting our advisers to participate, we hope to encourage healthy competition and enhance professionalism in the industry."
Contestants who make it to round two of the SCMP/IFPHK Financial Planner Awards should remember:
Professional financial planning is not only about numbers. It is also about explaining ideas, communicating with the client and getting agreement before proceeding with recommendations
Advice and investments should be reviewed on a regular basis
Every customer has a different level of tolerance to investment risks