One fundamental key to success for any bank or credit union investment advisor is the ability to integrate oneself into the culture of the branch or institution. That means more than just being socially accepted as a co-worker. It means creating value to become an integral member of the staff.

The first challenge that often needs to be overcome, especially for advisors new to their branches, is to simply fit in. Doing that means gaining the trust of the branch staff. Too often new advisors are so excited about their new position that they tend to come on a little too strong to the branch staff. Part of the blame for that may lie with the new advisor's program manager or branch manager.

Many front-line managers are tasked with creating a sales culture, but many customer-facing employees often do not buy in. That disconnect between a manager's desired or perceived culture and how the branch staff actually views its role can cause a new advisor to misjudge the actual culture. In an effort to recruit a new advisor, a manager may over-emphasize the extent of the sales culture and create lofty referral expectations on the part of the advisor. That expectation can lead the advisor to desperately ask for referrals and express frustration. As a result, the advisor becomes viewed with suspicion instead of trust.

A better approach, according to Kathy Erickson, a branch manager with First Tech Federal Credit Union in Fort Collins, Colo., is to slowly integrate yourself into the branch culture. "We had a new advisor about a year ago who very quietly attended our staff meetings every week for about two months," says Erickson. "This gave the staff the opportunity to get to know him and for him to get to know us and see how we worked before he started asking for a lot of referrals." Of course, Erickson adds, "The fact that he brought doughnuts or bagels to each of those meetings also helped."

Inside institutions with private banking services, gaining that trust is both harder and more important. As the owners of significant banking relationships, private bankers are often wary to add new, unknown and potentially uncontrollable elements to the relationship. Just as advisors often worry that a downturn in the market will lead to unhappy customers, private bankers, who are seldom licensed or compensated for investment business, also worry that a downturn in the market may put their relationship with the customer at risk.

From the private banker's perspective, there are two risks: the advisor and the market. The banker may wonder about the advisor's experience and competence, his skill and insight with investment recommendations, and interpersonal skills in working with the client. They may also be concerned about being replaced as the customer's most significant relationship in the bank, or in a worst-case scenario, that the advisor will act unethically and not in the best interests of the client.

The market risk for the private banker is the same as it is for the advisor. If the market performs poorly, is there a risk that the client will also blame the banker? The combination of all of these risks often results in the private banker adopting the position that the risk is simply too great, and the rewards too small in introducing the investment advisor to their best clients. That's especially true if the advisor is new to the institution.

It is often easier for the private banker to simply disregard the unknown entity as opposed to take any of these risks.

To combat this and begin to position yourself as an integral member of the team, advisors need to demonstrate their value to their bank teammates by making constant referrals back to the institution. "Referrals back to the FI from the advisor are becoming more and more important," says Julie Anderson, Independent Financial & Insurance Services Program Manager with Independent Bank in Ionia, Mich. "Over the years we have experienced a decrease in lobby traffic, so making sure we are all looking for cross-sale opportunities is more important than ever."

Advisors often bemoan the fact that the institution's loan officers have access to great referral information but seldom seem to make the referral. But the fact is, if advisors are doing their jobs correctly, they have equal access to the same type of information that would make a great referral back to the institution.

Advisors need to take the time to run a full balance sheet on all their clients, including a full listing of the client's debts as well as their assets, in order to identify any potential referral opportunities.

At the same time, advisors need to familiarize themselves with their institution's products and services. Just as an advisor is likely to know the advantages of various products they offer or encounter, they should also know the details of their institution's products and how those compare with major local competitors.

By being able to identify these referral opportunities, both the branch and the customer are likely to benefit directly. And the advisor is likely to benefit indirectly through the goodwill created from both, thereby confirming his or her status as a trusted, valuable resource.

The next time customers have a need, odds are good they'll come to you. And the next time the banker or loan officer identifies a need among their clients, the more likely they will be to send the referral.

While sending referrals back to your institution will always generate goodwill among the staff, some advisors may be concerned that their institution may not offer the absolute "best" products available. If that is the case, it should go without saying that your first obligation is to the customer. Think of it this way: If your bank or credit union employer gets upset with you for not referring a customer back to them in favor of a better product elsewhere (which as a practical matter happens very rarely), you can likely get another advisor job elsewhere. If FINRA gets upset with you for not acting in the customer's best interest, you may need to find a whole new career.

EDUCATE, DON'T TRAIN
Another important but subtle difference that will allow the advisor to create more value among staff and integrate further into the branch culture is to provide financial education instead of referral training.

It's nothing new for an advisor to want to attend branch meetings. Usually it's for the goal of training the staff how to identify and make referrals. The reality is, however, that in many institutions the majority of customer-facing staff have very little understanding of the basics of financial planning themselves. Rather than training them on how to make referrals, providing clear and understandable financial education that they can use in their own lives elevates your value to the individual staff members. It also elevates your status as an expert and as someone who cares about providing solutions to customer problems, not just selling them products they may or may not need.

Several ways of providing this education that have proven effective include brief snippets of information called "10-minute trainings," quarterly "lunch-and-learns" and employee-only financial education seminars.

Recognizing that most branch staff meetings are already filled with topics that need to be discussed, the 10-minute trainings provide a brief and concise explanation of a basic financial-planning concept.

Examples of these might include the difference between tax-deductible and tax-deferred, the Rule of 72, simply defining and explaining stocks, bonds and mutual funds, or a brief explanation of how social security works. The idea is that the more the branch staff knows about the issues you work with, the more they'll be able to recognize a referral opportunity.

"We love having our advisors as education resources," says Erickson. "We have a mixed staff of younger and more mature employees who all either can or do personally benefit from the knowledge right here in our office." Becoming that resource not only helps the employees personally, but also helps them do their jobs better. "Every year we get together with our advisors around tax time to get the latest updates on IRA contribution limits or other new and newsworthy things so we're in a better position to help our members ourselves," says Erickson.

Another method that Anderson says has worked well integrating her advisors into their branch environments is in hosting quarterly lunch-and-learns. "The staff has admitted that when the reps are out of sight, they are out of mind," says Anderson. "However, we have found that hosting quarterly lunch-and-learns has improved referrals and overall awareness for our department. We offer various topics to the group covering insurance and investment concepts."

One additional form of financial education that takes more time, energy and commitment, but pays huge dividends if you can pull it off, is to do employee and family-only financial education workshops. Several years ago when I was in production, I worked with my branch manager to put together a comprehensive financial education workshop that met one evening per week for three weeks. We invited all the staff, their spouses and their adult (including teenage) children. The workshop covered everything from basic budgeting, insurance and emergency funds, to investments, retirement planning and estate planning.

While logistically planning far enough out to allow everyone to put it on their calendars was a challenge, with the branch manager's support we eventually got over 70% attendance. Over the course of the next year, referrals increased significantly and my personal production more than doubled.

Much is written about the need to integrate with the branch staff, which is absolutely true. But to make "quantum leaps" in production, you need to become more than just a co-worker, you need to become a valued resource, integral to the overall contribution of the team. By doing so not only will you increase your production, but everyone on the team, including your customer, wins.

Keith J. Weber is a consultant and coach for program and practice management. For more information visit www.kjweber.com.