Chris Sonzogni of SmartAsset: “Make sure that the advisor is working for you”

Make sure that the advisor is working for you. One of the ways to do this is to ask them if they’re a fiduciary. This means that they will make recommendations that are in your best interest when providing advice. As part of our series about what one should look for when hiring a financial […]

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Make sure that the advisor is working for you. One of the ways to do this is to ask them if they’re a fiduciary. This means that they will make recommendations that are in your best interest when providing advice.

As part of our series about what one should look for when hiring a financial planner or adviser, I had the pleasure of interviewing Chris Sonzogni.

Chris is the Director of Advisor Marketing at SmartAsset, where he helps financial advisors build meaningful relationships with prospective clients. Previously, Sonzogni helped financial firms develop their consumer and investor-facing brands, both as the lead on Investopedia’s custom content team and as an in-house marketer at PGIM Fixed Income and AllianceBernstein.

About SmartAsset
Founded and headquartered in NYC, SmartAsset is a financial technology company that helps more than 100 million people each month make smart financial decisions. The company publishes data-driven content, topical guides, personalized calculators and educational tools to help people navigate life’s big personal finance decisions. Additionally, SmartAsset operates SmartAdvisor, which is the leading independent client acquisition platform for financial advisors in America. Forbes named SmartAsset as one of America’s Best Startup Employers in 2020.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to ‘get to know you’ a bit more. Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

Despite having no background in finance, I helped a friend start a nonprofit that helped students understand investing, saving and student loans right out of college. I enjoyed the work so much that I wound up working in asset management for two large asset managers, before moving to a major personal finance site as an editor. I worked between the brands that wanted to reach our audience, our readers who were hungry for information, and financial advisors who were interested in educating our readers.

I’m passionate about financial literacy and education, and I learned a lot about not only producing high-quality content but also how to get people to actually read it. My team helped develop articles, awards, videos and experiences to help readers better understand complex topics, from IPOs to investing. I was also introduced to the financial advisor community, many of whom helped us answer questions from our site visitors.

That all laid the groundwork for what I do today. Our mission at SmartAsset is to help people make smarter financial decisions. And one of the ways that we do that is by helping consumers find the right financial advisor for them. Day-to-day, I help financial advisors and wealth managers discover our SmartAdvisor platform and understand its benefits, determine whether it’s right for their business, and also ensure that they’re getting the most out of their experience.

Can you share a story about the most humorous mistake you made when you were first starting in the industry? Can you tell us what lesson or takeaway you learned from that?

I remember walking into my first day in asset management marketing and asking one of our portfolio managers what a “coupon” was. I genuinely didn’t understand how bonds worked.

Luckily, everyone at that firm was incredibly gracious with their time, from my immediate team members to senior investment professionals. While getting up to speed could feel like drinking from a firehose, everyone was not only passionate about what they did, but seemed to genuinely want to help me learn the ropes.

It was a great professional experience early in my career, first because it showed how vital culture is in setting the tone for every aspect of a team’s success. But second, it taught me how difficult the financial world can be without help. I’ve learned to try to be as generous with my time as possible, especially with people who are new to the industry. The best thing we can do is bring more smart, driven people into this field and help them succeed.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

At SmartAsset, we’re focused on helping consumers understand the benefits of financial planning. We’ve found that there’s not a great guide to helping people determine whether working with a financial advisor is right for them, and that’s a problem that we’re working hard to solve. The truth is: even though the internet has made it easier to invest and save, more than half of Americans still don’t know where to find reliable financial advice.

Part of the reason is that finding a financial advisor has historically been difficult and time-consuming. Traditionally, advisors and clients have met in-person or through referrals, which makes it hard for some people to access financial advice. Through our website and platform, we help consumers answer their financial questions, and then help them find a financial advisor if they need one. By reducing friction, we want to broaden access to financial advice and help people solve their financial problems more quickly and correctly.

Last year, we launched a product called Live Connections that takes that a step further. Now, we can connect an investor directly with an advisor match instantly, over the phone. Someone who really wants to speak with an advisor can now fill out our survey, see advisors near them, and be on the phone with an advisor within five minutes. We’re unlocking ways to help people find better matches for their financial priorities, and then getting them connected quicker.

Are you able to identify a “tipping point” in your career when you started to see success? Did you start doing anything different? Is there a takeaway or lesson that others can learn from that?

When I started as an editor, I had a strong command of the asset management and investing landscape but was new to digital media. Despite this, the team trusted me to manage the execution of some of our sponsored projects right away. In fact, I was on the job for just a few months when our video producer tapped me to conduct an on-camera interview when our editor’s flight was delayed.

The team operated with a great deal of trust. From client presentations to dreaming up ideas for editorial projects, the team was really good at solving problems on the fly, but also pitching in to help out one another, regardless of the project. As a result, I developed a really good understanding of the site’s suite of products, client relationships and capabilities.

That wasn’t only a tipping point in my career in that I gained a number of skills and a lot of confidence. It showed me how important having a robust hiring process can be, as well as how important it is to build and maintain a great culture. Having experienced how a great team can work together, I’ve consciously searched for similar organizations to join. I also try to keep that in the back of my mind as we hire, onboard and execute towards our goals every day: Am I helping the people around me to do their best work?

What three pieces of advice would you give to your colleagues in the finance field to thrive and avoid burnout? Can you give a story or example?

I suspect people in all fields deal with burnout, but I suspect it’s especially common in financial services. I have three things that have helped me to alleviate it:

1. Embrace imposter syndrome. I didn’t study finance or begin my career in financial services, which meant that the learning curve was steep. In some ways, that’s been a blessing: there is always something new to learn. But I often also feel like the dumbest person at the table. I’ve managed it by realizing that everyone has something to bring to the table. I try to lean into my strengths but have also really focused on listening and speaking up when I feel that there’s something that I can contribute.

2. Elevate others. I’m introverted. I wouldn’t be where I am today if I didn’t have people in my life that encouraged me that I belonged at the table and encouraged me to contribute. Find people who you respect, particularly those who may not typically be invited to the table and empower them to contribute. Diversifying the inputs leads to better ideas, fewer unforeseen pitfalls and, honestly, better work.

3. Learn how to talk about and manage stress. I learned about five years into my career that stress manifests physically: chest pains, teeth grinding, etc. Instead of compartmentalizing, I’ve found that sticking to a routine, working out more and creating space between work and home are ideal for me. Other things work for other people. But I learned a lot about managing stress after I opened up to peers about the fact that I was really running into issues and they shared what worked for them.

Ok. Thank you for all of that. Let’s now move to the core focus of our interview. As an “finance insider”, you know much more about the finance industry than most consumers. If your loved one wanted to hire a financial advisor (not you :-)), which 5 things would you advise them to find out about before committing? Can you give an example or story for each?

I know a number of financial advisors have already answered this question, so I want to talk about a few things that people may not think about when hiring an advisor.

First, make sure that the advisor is working for you. One of the ways to do this is to ask them if they’re fiduciary. This means that they will make recommendations that are in your best interest when providing advice.

Second, don’t underestimate the importance of personality fit. Just like your doctor, your advisor should be someone whose advice you’ll follow, even if it’s unpleasant. Some people prefer someone who’s a peer, others prefer a softer bedside manner. But remember that financial advice is only good if you listen to it.

Third, find an advisor who works in the way that you want to work. Especially for younger investors, technology can play a huge role in their satisfaction with an advisor. If you dread driving to quarterly review meetings, find an advisor who’s ok with video conferencing.

Fourth, fees matter, to an extent. Advisors have a few different ways of charging fees. A fee-only advisor charges a set rate for their advice and do not receive a financial benefit from the products they recommend. This can be a flat retainer, an hourly rate, or a percentage of the assets that they manage for you. Commission-based advisors are paid based on the investment products that you purchase. Many people prefer a fee-only advisor, since it limits potential conflicts of interest. (To be clear, some investors prefer to work with an advisor who charges commissions or a blend of commissions and regular fees. The most important thing is that you understand, upfront, how your advisor gets paid.)

But there’s an important caveat here: Financial advice isn’t cheap to begin with. You shouldn’t necessarily choose the advisor with the absolute lowest fees if they’re not going to give you advice that you’ll follow or that doesn’t fit your needs. Saving 25 basis points per year on your investments can make a big difference over time. But saving an extra little bit every paycheck because you actually listened to your advisor can pay huge dividends over time as well.

Finally, be honest. A few years ago, Merrill Lynch did a study that found that people would rather discuss their own death than their finances. It’s easy to glaze over embarrassing spending habits or hold back questions that you have when interviewing and working with an advisor. But it’s vital that you be upfront and honest with your advisor in order to get the best advice. The best advisors will recognize if they’re not a good fit for what you need and should point you in a different direction if they’re not an ideal match.

I think most people think that financial advisors are for very wealthy people. This is likely not actually true. Can you explain who would most benefit from hiring a financial advisor and why? Can you give an example?

One of the most exciting things about working at SmartAsset is the range of investors that utilize our platform to find a financial advisor. While many of them are wealthy, many are not. In fact, one of the most encouraging trends is the number of young people searching for financial advice.

Younger savers have historically not sought out financial advice. And advisors have historically paid more attention to older, higher net worth investors. But many young people face complex financial situations and would benefit from a trusted advisor: They’re trying to balance saving for retirement with paying down student debt, and many are trying to evaluate whether they should purchase a home or plan for a family.

We talk a lot about the power of compounding — how saving money early can pay huge dividends over time, but how waiting just a few years to get started can hurt. Savers who wait need to put away substantially more later on in order to retire on time and may compromise their hobbies or lifestyle as a result.

The earlier that consumers build strong money [spending and saving] habits, the better off they will be. As younger people begin to save and invest for the long term, it can be extremely helpful to have a financial advisor to guide you through the process, as well as to serve as a behavioral coach to help you get through stumbling blocks and keep your eye on the prize. Advisors can also help you clarify your financial goals and benchmark them. It’s much easier to save when you know what you’re saving for and how much you’ll need to put away.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

I’ve been fortunate enough to work with some amazing people, many of whom have pushed me to do things that were outside of my comfort zone, or that I thought I couldn’t possibly achieve.

I have a really close-knit family that not only supported me, but also served as an inspiration. My parents were young when I was born, and my mom actually finished her law degree while taking care of an infant and went on to build a career as an attorney. In other words, I always heard from my parents about the importance of education and hard work, but they also acted as role models by living those principles as well.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I think there’ve been real strides to open up the financial services industry to a wider array of voices, but there’s a lot of work to be done. Much of the reason that I am where I am today is because of people who were willing to take a chance on me, or who encouraged me to take on additional responsibilities or brought me to meetings where I otherwise wouldn’t be invited to attend. And I benefitted from a lot of structural forces that supported me.

Diverse teams have stronger ideas, build better products and help more people. It’s our responsibility to make sure that we’re not only building a workforce that represents everyone but also to look around us and make sure that all of our team members are at the table, helping to make decisions and are able to contribute and grow.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

I’m on Twitter at @ChrisSonzogni.

Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational.

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