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Scale Up Using Third-Party Support Services with Michelle Wong

Small RIAs who are ready to expand face significant challenges. Adding employees increases HR demands and managing the escalating back office workflows becomes more time intensive. Add to that the need to focus on bringing in more clients. So how do you control those increasing demands and efficiently grow your business?

On this Elementality, Abby interviews Michelle Wong whose firm, Nifty Advisor Support, provides small RIAs back office support services. The client experience can be a key differentiator between you and your competitors. Don’t put the time it takes to nourish those relationships in jeopardy when you can balance your growing need for resources with a partner who can help you manage the growth.

Show Notes
NiftyAdvisorSupport.com

 

 


Podcast Transcript

Michelle Wong:
With the remote environment, now the biggest question is like, “Oh, how do I manage a remote employee?” Or, because the RA industry continues to grow, now it’s going to be more competitive against firms to retain talent. And it’s not just understanding, like getting the technical support, but it’s also, “How do I build a culture within my team where I can retain this person?” And I think a lot of those challenges kind of developed over the past few years where, you know, they come to Nifty because we have that management experience. We have all of these internal strategies that even our clients don’t really know that we do to help retain talent. And we build a team culture that is really hard to mimic with in-person culture and just that isn’t a part of traditional, the traditional industry that you see in financial services.

Abby Morton:
Welcome to Elementality. I’m Abby Morton, CFP and producer of our podcast here at Elements. I love being a financial planner. But I know it’s a challenging profession as well. That’s why the number one goal of our show is to help you prosper as an advisor as you better connect with your clients. We know your time is very valuable. Plan on a good return when you spend it here with us. Welcome everyone to the Elementality podcast. I’m your host today, Abby, and I’m here with Michelle Wong from Nifty Advisors. Welcome, Michelle.

Michelle Wong:
Thank you, Abby I’m so excited to be here. Thanks for inviting me.

Abby Morton:
I’m so happy to have you on. As I was telling you, I originally heard you first about Nifty from Kitzy’s podcast a couple years ago and ever since then I’ve just thought, “What a unique thing you’ve built.” So, why don’t you tell the listeners, first of all, who are you and how are you, how did you get like integrated into the industry? And then kind of give us a quick intro to like what is Nifty Advisors?

Michelle Wong:
Yeah, so I’m Michelle Wong. I’ve been in the industry, it’s been almost 10 years now.

Abby Morton:
Oh wow.

Michelle Wong:
I was lucky where I joined the industry right out of college. I really wanted to work in industry that was, you know, service oriented. I really felt like I could make an impact. So at the time, I actually wanted to be an advisor, of course, you know, typical sales role. I was recruited by AXA Advisors in New York Life, and eventually I realized, it just wasn’t for me. I wanted to kind of work my way up. So that’s when I started looking…

Abby Morton:
What… Let me pause you there.

Michelle Wong:
Oh go ahead. Yeah.

Abby Morton:
I love to like, let’s digest a little bit more. What do you mean like it wasn’t for me? Tell me a little bit more about that.

Michelle Wong:
Typical sales culture, you create a list of 300 people that you know, that you have to reach out to. So I started at AXA where, to even start in the business or get any clients, you need to get your insurance license and your Series Seven. And back then I was like, I’m still kind of testing the waters. I was just newly graduated with an economics major, so still figuring out what I wanted to do. But that’s when I explored New York Life because I was like, “Okay, let’s start out with insurance first and get my feet wet there and see what’s really for me.” Found out really early, thankfully that wasn’t for me. Just because, I’m very introverted, I manage social anxiety, all those things, so it just wasn’t the best fit. I’m very much into kind of theorizing around, people’s behavior. That’s why I really love economics, learning how people communicate, very organized and tactical in the way that I think. So I just felt like, starting back office and working my way up just made more sense to me.

Michelle Wong:
And you just gain so much more experience that, eventually if I wanted to be an advisor, I can kind of put my operations background to the test and that just…

Abby Morton:
Totally.

Michelle Wong:
Yeah. It makes it so much more…

Abby Morton:
And all of that background is really helpful, even coming into being an advisor, like knowing what someone who would support you does from a day-to-day. I think that knowledge is helpful.

Michelle Wong:
Yeah, even when I talk to advisors and they’re like, “Oh, I was… I started in OPS too.” I was like, What, really?” And just the experience is just so much richer being an advisor versus someone who has only been advisor and they really don’t know what goes on in the back end. I think working in OPS just lets you understand how to better serve your client in a way that someone who has only been advisor might not have.

Abby Morton:
Yeah, totally. Okay, so then what’s next?

[laughter]

Abby Morton:
Did you kind of do the back office thing and so did you just start Nifty or, I don’t know…

Michelle Wong:
Yeah, so…

Abby Morton:
Did you get training somewhere else?

Michelle Wong:
Yeah, so I was with a couple of the larger RAs in the Maryland, DC area around the two billion AUM mark. I worked with In House advisors, but then also as a part of a tamp as, back office and the outsource to outside RAs. And I did a bunch of different things. OPS, I revamped their marketing, even though it wasn’t necessarily part of the job description. I’ve always been involved with nonprofit work, like I was very heavily involved in a sorority where I got a lot of my leadership experience from. So I really harped on everything. I’ve always been Jill of all trades and I created Nifty just out of a need for wanting to work remotely, luckily before COVID.

Abby Morton:
Yeah, yeah.

Michelle Wong:
Which I think was just timing was perfect. And you know what, there’s it with operations, with management, specifically, when you find a good OPS person, you like don’t let them go, which means that their career growth is really limited. A lot of firms at the time were like, “Oh, we’re gonna go remotely eventually”, but then just like never happens. So a lot of over promising and under delivering on my end, at least. So I started Nifty and we’re…

Abby Morton:
What year did you start Nifty?

Michelle Wong:
2018.

Abby Morton:
Okay.

Michelle Wong:
So my late 20s. And now, we’re a team of 16 and we’re across the United States. We actually had our first team retreat like this past October, which is really exciting.

Abby Morton:
Yeah, definitely.

Michelle Wong:
And we work with RAs across the United States. And it’s just nice that COVID luckily didn’t affect business much at all ’cause we were already set up for success prior to that. It was just nice. The only thing good about COVID is that people are realizing like what mean what type of life they really want and what type of business really resonates with them. And luckily, I did that earlier before COVID. But I think that’s a great thing to kind of connect with advisors on, it’s like what really… What’s worth your time and what’s not. [chuckle]

Abby Morton:
That was definitely a question I wanted to ask you is how has the pandemic changed your business model? I’m thinking it’s probably only done good things for Nifty and sounds like your team has grown quite substantially. Would you say most of that is because of the pandemic and because advisors are realizing they need more virtual help and your team to help them kind of get up to speed on how to do that?

Michelle Wong:
Yeah, I think with the remote environment, now the biggest question is like, “Oh, how do I manage a remote employee,” or… Because the RA industry continues to grow it’s going to be more competitive against firms to retain talent. And it’s not just understanding, like getting the technical support, but it’s also how do I build a culture within my team where I can retain this person. And I think a lot of those challenges kind of developed over the past few years, where they come to Nifty because we have that management experience. We have all of these internal strategies that even our clients don’t really know that we do to help retain talent and we build a team culture that is really hard to mimic with in-person culture. And just that isn’t a part of the traditional industry that you see in financial services. But like with our, I kind of, we’re kind of evolving to like a client experience agency and we provide talent solutions. But a lot of these advisors they hire us out on a part-time basis. And we do all of the HR for them not just payroll, but then making sure their team member is happy.

Michelle Wong:
I make sure… I actually coach a lot of advisors with communication and delegation, and also the team member as well. So there’s kind of like this happy medium between both. So I think our advisors appreciate that, the team members appreciate that, and naturally everyone just wants to work together as a whole.

Abby Morton:
Wow, that’s awesome. That’s really neat. So let’s take maybe a bit of a step back and give me a good overview of like, what are the services Nifty provides? If I was an advisor, just started out, like who’s maybe your typical advisor that’s coming to you? Where are they in their career? And what services are they looking for that Nifty provides for them?

Michelle Wong:
Yeah, so we work with a lot of solo and small advisors, and we help provide back office support for the entire client experience. So we provide part-time digital marketing help, client servicing, OPS help, and paraplanning support. And then, we just introduced a recruiting service as well. So a lot of these advisors, I think the beauty of Nifty, which I really love, is that we can help with really any stage of an advisor’s career. So whether they’re a startup, maybe they’ve been in… They had their firm for a few years, maybe they’re a little more matured where they just want to be themselves, or they’re hashing out a succession plan where they are introducing another advisor and they need someone who knows all the processes and workflows and tech already. And they don’t have to hire a full-time employee to harp on that knowledge.

Abby Morton:
Yeah.

Michelle Wong:
And in addition, we work with the systems that advisors use, so we’re very unbiased in terms of what we… How we support the advisor, what tech stack. It’s not as if it’s like a tamp where the advisor has to adapt to our systems because that’s a whole hurdle in itself. And it also gives us some great… Allows us to flex our muscles in terms of, “Does this tech stack make sense or does this other tech stack make sense?” And it allows us to adapt our services to the needs of, you know, these solo advisors where they’re all super unique, but of course they’ll always do something in a similar way. [laughter]

Abby Morton:
Yeah. So you’re saying if I come to you and I have some piece of tech that your team’s never heard of before, would your team learn that tech for me?

Michelle Wong:
Yeah. So I comp that as a part of Nifty because it allows us to support all of our advisors better. The thing is that we don’t get that opportunity to learn or train a less than advisor work so that specific system. But then also allows us to develop like FinTech partnerships because we’re the ones that are actually working the system, it’s not the advisor. And the fact that we’re exposed to so many different CRM, so many different portfolio management systems, it also gives FinTech kind of like an edge and they actually are willing to like provide us training to make the advisors experience better.

Abby Morton:
Okay, that is awesome.

Michelle Wong:
So it’s really fun.

Abby Morton:
Yeah, do it all.

Michelle Wong:
A lot of different things going on in Nifty. Yeah. [laughter]

Abby Morton:
So how do you structure that with your team? Do you have, like these three people do your money and these three people do your right capital and this person kind of knows everything. Do you have it segmented in that way?

Michelle Wong:
We base it on how much work the advisor has or wants to engage with us, their working style. The engagement is very different from an advisor who is just starting up and they have no workflows, no processes, no idea in terms of what the day-to-day is going to look like versus somebody who has been in the business maybe, I don’t know, two or three years where they have those processes down and they don’t need that type of foundational support. So depending on the experience of the team member, whether they have been in the industry for a while, they have an understanding of workflows, processes, and they have a pretty good tech tool belt of experience, that affects how we kind of match our team members with our advisors. And if there is a gap. I very much promote professional development and training. So we do our best to, if we have an advisor coming on like a month later, we have an amazing team lead, we have myself where we can provide those resources to that team member that the advisor might not have.

Abby Morton:
Okay, awesome. So if I wanted to come on and start working with Nifty as an advisor, like what’s the onboarding experience like? And then what, like am I segmented into I have to work with Nifty for 20 hours a week or 30 hours a week or could I even engage you for five hours a week? Like tell me about that, like onboarding and then levels of service.

Michelle Wong:
Yeah, so for marketing, servicing, and paraplanning virtual assistants, we have like a 15 hour minimum which is just per month. So it provides a lot of flexibility in terms of like your biggest needs to your smallest needs. And what the onboarding process looks like is once you decide to work with us, we have an onboarding questionnaire that talks about your working style, communication style, what are the typical bottlenecks they go through on your day-to-day, the stuff that you have inside your business but then also, like if you have kids if you’re balancing family that’s really important for us to know because, let’s say, Abby, if you’re like not responding to an urgent email, or if you desire for us to communicate, during a certain time block where you might be working on business development on Mondays and Fridays and you’re kind of stuck in client meetings on Tuesdays and Thursdays, we have that communication upfront so we can be as proactive as possible and we’re very realistic in terms of how all of our sole advisors, manage their businesses. Outside of that you know depending on the service that you sign up for.

Michelle Wong:
Now, with marketing we asked, “Do you have a brand guide? If not, do you want us to create one? What are the publications that you trust and don’t trust? If you want us to be more involved with like social media management, what’s kind of… ” and we use that brand guide to help with any type of graphic designing or creation of deliverables, whatever. And then the same with like servicing, we make sure that we meet. There’s so many different things that we do which is great. Are you involved more with financial planning, or do you offer financial planning and investment management because advisors who offer more into or offer their clients more on the investment management side those needs are very different versus an advisor who just offers financial planning. And then planning, we have two different offerings, we have a lower level paraplan package was just like data entry and technical support. And then we have a more advanced planning offering which includes data entry but then they can also help create scenarios and recommendations. So depending on that we have a kickoff call we review the questionnaires together and you meet your virtual assistant.

Michelle Wong:
From there we set up weekly meetings and then I will also check in at the end of that first month, see how things are going if there are any challenges that I can help the advisor or the team member overcome, just a very open transparent conversation. And then, we also provide a few tools for advisors to make the process working with our team member as easy as possible.

Abby Morton:
Yeah, what are those tools?

Michelle Wong:
So we use Toggl as a time tracking tool. Have you heard of Toggl before?

Abby Morton:
No. I haven’t.

Michelle Wong:
It’s really cool, you can create these public reports so every advisor that we have. They’re sent a Toggl link where they can see the number of hours that they use against the hours that they purchase.

Abby Morton:
It’s just for the advisor to better know how that person spending their time, how many. So then they can kind of plan out the month of like, oh, I do think I’m going to need more this month or, oh, we haven’t even met that we’re going to need to give her more work, or whatever.

Michelle Wong:
So, you can even… Yeah you can reference past history, and you can use that to forecast for the future. I actually tried to move away from Toggl at one point, it was only last in a month but then the advisor like, “Where’s my report?” and we ended up moving back to Toggl. So I’m glad they liked it and we’ve been using that since we first started.

Abby Morton:
Okay.

Michelle Wong:
And then, we also, allow our advisors to have a private Slack channel with us in that channel is me to help just manage the relationship and their virtual assistant. And it’s just a way if there’s any urgent items that they can ping the team member in Slack. And then we also use last pass for like password management as well. So, a lot of advisors they come to us because they aren’t the greatest at human resources, they aren’t the greatest at practice management. So making that experience easier when they’re looking to outsource for the first time or maybe they’ve had bad experiences in the past. At Nifty, we’re trying to do everything different just to make the advisor life so much easier.

[music]

Jordan Haines:
Hello, Elementality listeners, it’s Jordan. The elements financial monitoring system is revolutionizing how you attract onboard and deliver ongoing advice to clients. So you can scale your business far beyond traditional limits. If you want to profitably help more people make smart financial decisions, head over to getelements.com/demo and schedule a time to see it in action today.

[music]

Abby Morton:
I assume if I just hire you to do pair planning work I just am working with one person from Nifty that would make sense but let’s say I’m engaging you for all of your different services like you said, your operation side and pair planning and let’s say marketing. Am I working with the same person for all of those different services, or would I have like a different marketing person from a pair planning to an OPS person, all at Nifty?

Michelle Wong:
You would most luckily be working with multiple people. With service and pair planning there’s kind of like this gray area. Like some people in client servicing, they very much can do financial planning vice versa, it depends on the team members experience. Marketing is very niche. It’s a very niche and developed skill that I feel like advisors are still learning like, “What does marketing actually mean?”

Abby Morton:
____ at all, right?

[laughter]

Michelle Wong:
Yes, always yes. But you can have this Nifty pod of team members supporting you and each engagement is treated separately. So if I find that an advisor is interested in like two services I say, just to start off because usually budgets are a little smaller for sole advisors, which service is going to bring you the most impact? Like what is your biggest need right now? Because we can always adjust in the future. And because virtual assistance is so new, a lot of advisors have no idea how to work with a virtual assistant. So I’m very mindful of, aligning the solution to their need, because we want all of our clients to stay with us for the long term.

Abby Morton:
Definitely. So if I come on and… Like is there a contract I’m locked into for 12 months or is it a month to month deal?

Michelle Wong:
We have one month, three month and six month commitments. And the exciting part is for three and six month three month we started to offer CRM monitoring. And we’re going to get into that too And then, [chuckle] for six months we started to offer a client experience monitoring, so it includes CRM monitoring but includes every touch point of the client experience, including marketing touch points. So let’s say if you use Mailchimp to send email campaigns, what does the open rate look like? What does the click rate look like? How can they improve their newsletters or templates to better reach their audience? Same thing with planning. Are your clients using the client portal? If not, like why is that? And it’s just we’re trying to bring more value to our advisors. So they’re not just implementing on the day-to-day with their virtual assistant, but they’re also being intentional in terms of how they’re utilizing their system as well.

Abby Morton:
Okay. Wow. I’m just like…

Michelle Wong:
It’s a lot.

Abby Morton:
Putting together all these things, right?

Michelle Wong:
I know. It’s a lot, but it’s so exciting. [laughter]

Abby Morton:
Like, what do you guys not do? It feels like you do it all, like a one-stop shop, right?

Michelle Wong:
Yeah. It’s… Honestly, it was hard because like in the beginning, like when you listened to that Kitzy’s podcast, that was just me. And I could do absolutely everything, but that’s not realistic. Most people don’t have all three or four level of expertise. That’s when we actually started to build out specific departments and it allows us to make sure that if you do sign up for a service, you are getting the most value out of that service versus being spread amongst one person and having those expectations to leverage… It’s like being split into third versus being able to really hone in on what they do best.

Abby Morton:
Yeah, definitely. What about the people that work at Nifty? Like what are their backgrounds, credential certifications that they have? How do I know that like they have a good background and I can support or feel good about what they’re providing?

Michelle Wong:
So they have experience in the industry. I would say at least three years. We do a lot of internal training, whether it’s through the servicing team lead, whether it’s me, whether it’s the FinTech partners, internally, there is value in a department or a team atmosphere, right? So the marketing team, they have like a Slack department channel where they can ask questions, same with a client servicing team where if something urgent comes up, they can ask questions, just like the things that change on the day-to-day. And same with planning. So there’s this level of camaraderie between entire team where if I help someone most likely they’re willing to help me as well, and that just helps develop the value within Nifty. It kind of becomes like a brain dump of… No, like a hive mind of Nifty knowledge that advisors can take advantage of.

Abby Morton:
Oh, I love that. So do you spend your time like helping clients day-to-day? Are you more just managing the business of Nifty and keeping all of the things?

Michelle Wong:
I stopped working with clients directly, probably earlier this year, maybe in April. And that was a huge shift for me as well.

Abby Morton:
Good.

Michelle Wong:
It was super exciting.

Abby Morton:
How has it being?

Michelle Wong:
It’s been really great. And our first client is still with us, he joined me in like June, 2018, the biggest hype, Nifty cheerleader, it’s great. But it just allows me to focus so much better on prospect calls. I listened to the team, making sure that I build what I wanna build, but then also getting feedback from the team before I do that, because it doesn’t just affect me, it affects the team as a whole. And when you ask for team feedback, you get more buy-in as well. And I’m starting to do that with advisors too, as we’re going into five years next year and it’s really exciting and just seeing like what the next step is.

Abby Morton:
That’s awesome. So tell me, do you think most advisors sign up with you and stick with you for the long haul or do they feel like it’s kind of a stepping stone until they do eventually wanna hire that kind of internal person?

Michelle Wong:
It’s a little bit of both. Our advisors do stay with us long-term, but when they reach out to me and they’re like, “Oh, I was finally able to hire someone full time.” It’s more to celebrate and just having us being able to be a part of their business journey and be able to support them in such a critical time, it’s just something, to be able to see our advisors grow is just really exciting and just being a part of that and as you’ve seen, like various capacity, is really great. And a lot of the time our advisors, when they come to us, it’s their first time working with someone remotely, working with someone in support, those are questions that we ask in the beginning. Like, “Have you worked with a virtual assistant? Have you worked with support? If not, what makes you nervous about working with someone like this in this capacity?” So when they work with us, some advisors have more challenges than others, depending on what their day-to-day looks like.

Michelle Wong:
But when they decide to grow out of their Nifty relationship, I feel like we’re the ones that train them to treat their back office or marking in person with respect, what’s the information they need and the challenges that they might go through so they have a better understanding of how to treat their employee.

Abby Morton:
No, I love that. So, second to last question, like what price points are we at? What are we looking to spend if we engage with Nifty?

Michelle Wong:
The lowest package for virtual assistance is 15 hours per month at 75 per hour. And then, we also have other packages that are on our website. So if they feel that virtual assistance isn’t the right fit right now, and they want more DIY approach, but they still want that kind of practice management consulting or tech feedback, we just rolled out a all access email support package where it just costs like $500 a month, which includes five responses from the team and they can ask any questions. So it could be about their tech stack, maybe, or they might be having a tech issue, they can ask us practice management questions, HR questions, whatever it might be. And you can even bulk your questions in one email, so it only allows us to provide one response. So, you know responding to emails, takes quite a bit of time. But the fact that we’re exposed to so many different FinTech systems, different best practices, we’ve seen what works, what hasn’t worked.

Michelle Wong:
We also have the perspective of those who work in back office and using that knowledge to just make a better working experience for everybody. We’re just at a… Our positioning is very different where we’re independent too, like it’s just me, we’re not owned by an RA. Like there’s no other higher up, it’s really just me. And I think since our advisors are all like independent, I think they do value that like Nifty is independent too. Like there’s nothing affecting our judgment. And I think, nowadays there’s a lot of value in that as well.

Abby Morton:
Really? No, that’s so great. It seems like great services. It sounds like you’re always changing and evolving with what advisors are probably looking for and wanting. So I think that’s awesome, which really leads into my last question of like, what’s next? Like, where do you see Nifty going? What are your dreams for the future? I know it’s evolved a lot since I even heard about it from Kitzy. So yeah, what’s next for Nifty?

Michelle Wong:
Just really expanding the client experience, like solutions of that Nifty provides, so not just virtual systems, even though that’s like our bread and butter, but leveling up that expertise and showing that those who work the systems, the ones that are running the engine on the day-to-day, they’re so much more capable than what meets the eye. So really advancing the team, using that to advance our advisors and really building out more content over the next year. So they can really see like what we can do. And I think we’re getting to that point, we are meeting our five year mark, which is a huge milestone. So just sharing that because we spent so much time building internally. So that’s the most exciting part.

Abby Morton:
No, I love it. That is so exciting. I’m excited to see what happens. And I know, the big reason I wanted to have you on today was just, we have many advisors who listen to our podcast, who are right fitting in with like your target client ideal. And I think that they would really love to know what Nifty has to offer. And I think that they would find it very valuable in their practices. So thank you so much for coming on today and talking with me about your amazing business. And like I said, I’m excited to see where you go in the future.

Michelle Wong:
Yeah. Thank you so much, Abby. This is such a great experience, and thanks so much for sharing our story.

Abby Morton:|
Of course.

Jordan Haines:
Next time on Elementality.

Chelsea Rude:
And that’s why, I mean, that’s one of our first questions in our discovery meeting with clients is tell me about the very first memory you have dealing with money in your childhood. And that opens up a whole different dynamic in that first meeting of what do I remember? What was talked about as a kid? What negative emotions or positive emotions do I have around money? How is that changing how I approach money? How does it change how I approach money with my own children? And it really kickstarts what we are hoping to achieve, which is more financial clarity and more awareness of the decisions that we’re making and maybe why we’re making those decisions.

Abby Morton:
You can learn more about the Elements financial monitoring system at getelements.com/demo, and schedule a time to talk with one of our friendly financial planning experts. Elementality’s executive creators are Reese Harper and Carl Richards. Elementality is produced by Abby Morton and directed by Jordan Haynes. Have a good one.

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