It takes a certain talent for role play plus broad professional expertise to be a final-round judge at the SCMP/IFPHK Financial Planner Awards 2011. That's because the contest's objective is not simply to assess each finalist's knowledge of investment and insurance products, or their ability to come up with a structured written proposal.
More fundamentally, it is to see how well finalists understand and anticipate the actual needs and likely concerns of individual clients, and how practical their recommendations are for typical "real life" scenarios.
Therefore, a big part of the judges' task is to listen to each case, not as a financial expert but as if a client, and to consider the presentation, explanations, and suitability of advice in that light.
"To be a good financial planner, you must [have] more than just technical knowledge," says Kareen Chow, vice-president and head of agency sales for Manulife (International), and one of this year's 10-strong judging panel. "You must also excel in putting yourself in the client's shoes."
Chow also notes that any slides or visual aids used in a presentation should respect that same basic principle. There is often a temptation - in the context of the competition and in day-to-day meetings - to "convince" by bringing out a series of charts, graphs and comparative trends.
"You do need background information, but too many figures can make a presentation less clear and less interesting," she says. "The main thing should always be to address the client's issues in a way that is easy for them to understand."
As a judge, Chow looks for signs that the finalists are thinking long- term and giving advice accordingly. Although the average Hong Kong investor is becoming more sophisticated and better informed, there is still a tendency to get caught up in looking for "hot" funds and chasing short-term gains.
In such circumstances, financial planners must be ready to go the extra mile. That usually involves steering the client's thoughts to what matters most in family terms and discussing the kind of lifestyle hoped for after retirement.
"These things obviously have an impact on decisions made now," Chow says. "So the financial planner has to look at the overall balance and take steps to educate the client, not just talk."
Another judge, Cynthia Hui, executive director (supervision) for the Mandatory Provident Fund Schemes Authority, says that the best financial planners see this teaching aspect as very much part of the job. Their approach is to present choices, highlight pros and cons, and explain potential returns in best or worst case scenarios.
When necessary, they will also be quick to correct misconceptions which, for example, might cause a client to shun equities or doubt the value of additional insurance cover.
Having judged the awards for several years, Hui says she has seen standards improving and the gap between contestants steadily narrowing. She takes this as a positive sign of increasing professionalism.
"It is a construction competition and those who do well deserve the recognition," she says. "In the final round, though, there could be a bit more time for the judges' questions. With enough practice, everyone can do a good presentation, but the interactive part is the real test."
PANEL OF JUDGES
PRACTITIONER CATEGORY (Final round)
Louis Cheng Hong Kong Polytechnic University Steve Chiu Bosera Asset Management (International) Kareen Chow Manulife (International) Rosetta Fong Convoy Financial Services Holdings Carol Hui Office of the Commissioner of Insurance Cynthia Hui MPF Schemes Authority Vicky Kong Standard Chartered Bank (Hong Kong) Jones Lam The Prudential Assurance Bruno Lee HSBC Eleanor Wan BEA Union Investment Management