We're better than this: The 10 words and expressions that should be expunged from the RIA business

The RIA business separates itself by putting people first so let's cut the corporate-speak

Thursday 10.11.12 by Brooke Southall

Despite what anyone says about corporations being people, they’re not.

Legalities aside, one proof of that is in the words corporate people use to describe things. They’re dull, dehumanizing, opaque and even intentionally obfuscating. We celebrate RIA firms that strive to become bigger, better corporations and the companies that serve them effectively in seeking that goal.

But I find it discouraging when people in this business use phraseology, expressions and terms that rob the RIA business of its humanity, transparency and enlightenment. (I knew it was becoming a problem when I started to give in and inject some of these wordings into conversation!) That’s why we’re all excited about this business to begin with — to create a profession where the individual investor is king and gets treated like a person, not a revenue source. See: What is the value proposition of a financial advisor — and how is a budding RIA culture upping the ante?.

Speaking like people

Over the past few months I’ve been compiling a list of words that are slipping into RIA language that I believe would best be left out or used minimally. To some extent, we are what we speak. Let’s speak like people.

Here are ones that have recently grated on me during interviews and readings.

  1. Solution: More and more, companies that sell to RIA firms say that they don’t sell service or technology per se. They sell solutions. The companies that make this claim believe they are simplifying matters. I think it tries to make a verbal silk’s purse out of a sow’s ear. Would I be helping you if I said that RIABiz was selling written solutions for the RIA business? It would make my life easier to use that word because it’s sometimes hard for me to explain what we are as a company that offers news, directory listings and a place for people to express views. But I’m not sure I’d be helping the person who wanted to understand what our value proposition or “service” is. Now I need to go to a pub for an alcohol solution.
  2. Client-centric: This is an expression that I’m hearing even from RIAs themselves — or at least the people trying to promote them. When we write about a company, we’re always trying to understand what its magic is or how its new iteration differs from its old one. More and more often I’m hearing that the firm is client-centric. Seriously, if your big pitch for differentiation is that you serve clients, I’d say you need to think things through.
  3. Excited: I recently became consciously aware of just how overused and senseless the use of this word is in this industry after asking one of our newer writers, Kelly O’Mara, what she found out after she got off the phone with a source. She’d laugh and say the source kept telling her how “excited” he or she was as a way of commenting on a happening. I don’t want to be mean, but truly it’s mostly just your mother who really cares how excited you are about anything you do. We’re trying to make a determination about whether we should be excited about it as a news-advancing or industry-advancing matter by understanding what you did, not your professed emotional state.
  4. Platform: The first image that comes to my mind when somebody says “platform” is something constructed of plywood placed in a field where a band can play for a bunch of beer-drinking 20-year-olds. Maybe, secondly, a place where somebody waits for the subway. Yet, I find everyone is falling over themselves these days to say they have created a “platform”. This is a word that seems to be so versatile that it ceases to have much meaning at all. Starbucks is a coffee platform. IBM is a technology platform. In the ’70s, some folks wore platform shoes and Lady Gaga is bringing them back in style. Lately, anyone having anything to do with putting alternative assets into people’s hands is calling it an alternative-assets platform. Even as somebody involved with writing and editing articles about them, it is getting hard to get what they do.
  5. Boutique: The first time I heard this expression was back in the ’80s when some First Boston guys became Wasserstein Perella. That was pretty cool, but I’m not sure every RIA under the sun is in a position to use the expression. It gets a bit precious and doesn’t really add any knowledge to the listener, except that the firm’s principals think quite well of it and that they charge exorbitant prices to pay for their views of Central Park. I think it’s better to confine the word’s use to a place where overpriced Italian handbags are sold.
  6. Good cultural fit: It seems that every deal involving people in the RIA business is now declared by the dealmakers to be a good cultural fit. This verbal insult to people’s intelligence is often compounded by the user explaining that it can be proven by the fact that both parties to the deal are “client-centric”. Please. My immediate thought when somebody tells me that they’re a good cultural fit is that they can’t think of any concrete reasons beyond financial engineering for why the companies belong together. Bringing the absurdity of the word to light lately was Philip Palaveev of The Ensemble Practice, who defined it as meaning what employees are doing when nobody’s looking. Notwithstanding that, I’m not sure I want to know what anyone is doing when they don’t think they’re being observed, I like this definition, and if somebody wants to use “cultural fit” as a descriptive phrasing, please include a colorful definition like that with it. Otherwise I’ll think of it as a reason we give native peoples a pass on killing whales or what makes yogurt good for your stomach.
  7. Sweet spot: Firms like to call the types of customers that they want to serve their “sweet spot”. Recently, I heard the head of an asset custodian say its sweet spot was RIAs with assets between $100 million and $1 billion. I felt like saying: So you’re basically desperate for any business you can get. The first use of the term sweet spot I heard was in the 1970s when I was taking a tennis clinic wielding a wood racquet. The instructors said that we were seeking a sweet spot on the strings and if you ever used a wood racquet you know that it’s a tiny portion of the string surface. So unless the expression is used to connote a tiny sliver, it’s disingenuous obfuscation and useless for communicating a point.
  8. Tools: Have you noticed that everything is a tool these days? In fact, what technology-related thing is not a tool? When somebody tries to explain what they are producing with this word, I can’t help but think that I’d rather be handed a screwdriver.
  9. Synergistic opportunity: You would think that with all the fun that’s been pointed at “synergy” dating back at least to the ill-conceived corporate mergers of the 1980’s and the non-words such as “strategery” that have spun off from it, it would be in the dustbin. People have not given up on this word. In fact, they may have made it worse by tacking another polysyllabic word on to it with “opportunity.”
  10. All good: Back around 2000, when I first lived in the houseboat community, my neighbor was a rock star and we walked each other’s dogs. Whenever an adverse event befell him, his response was always to punctuate the conversation by saying: “it’s all good.” I have noticed that people in our business have started to use this phrase and — just so you know — I presume that there may be a problem lurking when this expression pops into the conversation. Besides the fact that the connotation is just the opposite of what it literally means, it really is a leftover, decade-plus-old phrase that makes it seem as though we business stiffs are trying to sound like hung-over rock stars. I’m not sure how that’s going to help build a better version of an advisory profession where what’s good for a client fits through the eye of a needle.
Brooke Southall