Ann is an experienced advisor, sought after trainer, and SEO of Retirement Planning Strategies based in Denver, Colorado. With over 18 years working with federal employees and their complex retirement plans, she shares some of the obstacles, key insight, and strategies of her success working within this niche market. Like, the crucial shift in how she uses TRAK that not only has her business growing but her client's engagement in reaching their retirement goals.
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Ed Dressel: 0:06
Welcome to another podcast with RetireReady Solutions. I'm excited to have Ann Vanderslice with me today. Ann, welcome. Good to have you.
Ann Vanderslice: 0:14
Ed Dressel: 0:15
Why don't you tell the audience a little bit about what you do, who you are and finding your niche in the financial services world.
Ann Vanderslice: 0:23
Well, I've been doing this for 20 years. I started working with federal employees in 2002, so I've been working alongside the federal community for about 18 years. I really focus on federal employees. Only about 5% of our clients are outside of that niche, and they've all been referred by a client. So the only way we end up with somebody outside of the federal system is either if you're married to a federal employee and you're not that employee or if you've been referred to us. So we've really been able to grow our business by just targeting that audience, knowing them, knowing what their pain points are and being able to provide great service
Ed Dressel: 1:02
And your role with your company?
Ann Vanderslice: 1:04
Well, I'm still an advisor. I still meet with clients. Mostly, I don't meet with new prospects now, but typically just people who I've been working with sometimes for seven or eight years to become a client, or people who are current clients. And then I am the sole trainer for the company so I'm the one that's out on the streets, talking to federal employees within agencies. And then I operate as the CEO. So I--trying to oversee and run a small business and also out on the road and acting as an advisor.
Ed Dressel: 1:40
Excellent. That sounds like a little bit of work. When you talk about working with federal employees for somebody that doesn't work with federal employees, what's unique about them? What makes that world different?
Ann Vanderslice: 1:51
Well, this may be true in the corporate world. I don't know, because I really haven't focused on that. But I think there's a couple of pieces that are really unique to federal employees, and one is their benefit system has been around since 1920. So we're now 100 years of federal employees earning some benefits and having a pension. The system has changed over time. We got a new retirement system in 1987, then some modifications to that in 2012 in 2013 so it's always changing and expanding. But as you can imagine, any plan that's been around for 100 years sometimes has some 100 year old antiquities in it--some things that really don't make any sense anymore. But they're still in the plan. So it's a very complex system, and you can think about it as it always works this way--oh, except for that one time when it doesn't. There seems to always be an exception to the rule. The other thing that really is significant is that in 2011 Congress passed legislation called Sequestration that impacted all federal agencies, and they were required to cut their budget. And at the time agencies thought, "Well, if we're gonna cut our budget, we might as well get rid of human resources because we won't be hiring anyone, so we don't need those people." And almost every agency downsized, centralized, and relocated, their human resources function away from the employees. And so as a result, we have a lot of people in a lot of agencies who don't have a way or I should say, an easy way, to get answers to benefits questions,
Ed Dressel: 3:41
So there's a lot of unique parts. I tell people we illustrate over 600 public pension plans, and I say by far the federal plan is much more complicated than any other pension plan we've dealt with. What do you see as obstacles in your business?
Ann Vanderslice: 3:56
Well, I don't think that we really have any obstacles that maybe most businesses don't have. You know, hiring can kind of be an issue, but I feel like I've really gotten a handle on that over the last couple of years, and we have a really great team. We have a really great culture right now--not for lack of effort--there's been a lot of effort put into that. But right now, everything seems to be pretty smooth. I don't have any big obstacles right now. I'm afraid to say that because, you know, tomorrow something will happen.
Ed Dressel: 4:32
Okay, so here's somebody that's looking into getting--jumping into the federal world. Hey, that sounds like an opportunity for me. What obstacles would you tell them they're going to run into in working with federal employees?
Ann Vanderslice: 4:43
They are going to run into an obstacle of how to get in front of them. Federal employees tend to be a little skeptical, and agencies tend to be even more so. An idea that, "Oh, I'll just go in and give a one hour program on a portion of their benefits and I'll tell them I'm gonna do it for free. Anybody would let me come in and do that." No, they won't. If they don't have any background on you, they don't have a recommendation--nobody wants to look bad inside the federal government. So they tend not to be risk takers. They tend to be conservative, so they're not taking a chance on letting somebody in that they aren't sure is going to do a great job for their employees. They don't want a black eye. So I think the biggest obstacle for somebody who wanted to start today would be just, "Well, how do I even get in front of these people?"
Ed Dressel: 5:38
I kind of like what comes first the chicken or the egg--I just need credibility, but I can't build credibility,
Ann Vanderslice: 5:43
Right. And it takes--in my experience, it takes a long time. I always tell people to start with people who are already in your client base, so if somebody will say, "Well, I have--I only have five clients who are federal employees," I'd go right back to them and say I'm really putting my focus on federal employees and your benefits. We have a great new program. Who in your agency is the person who could arrange to bring us in for a complimentary luncheon learn session? So I go right back to the people who are already my clients
Ed Dressel: 6:15
Seeking a warm referral. Good method.
Ann Vanderslice: 6:18
Ed Dressel: 6:19
How do you engage your clients towards retirement readiness?
Ann Vanderslice: 6:23
We really build a plan that takes the federal benefits side of it that they have. And then we pair that with traditional financial or retirement planning, so that the client understands what they can do and then which of those opportunities they want to take advantage of. So we try to show them the possibilities and then lay out, "This is what would be our recommendation of what you do first, what you do second," so that they actually come up with a plan. And by taking that philosophy, we're able to meet with federal employees who are fairly new to federal service and get them on the right path. Make sure they're using everything they should be utilizing inside the federal system and if they're in the middle of their career were just trying to maybe do a little course correction. And as they approach retirement, we're checking all the boxes off to make sure they don't miss anything
Ed Dressel: 7:20
What's the success you've seen in that approach?
Ann Vanderslice: 7:24
Well, it's really--as the years have gone by now, we pretty much know that if somebody comes in and meets with one of our advisors, we have a really, really--probably better than 90% chance--that they will become a client at some point. So maybe they can't right now. Maybe they're, you know, not minimum retirement age. They can't move their thrift saving plan yet but that's all the money they have--we'll continue to plan with them and build that strategy so that when they're ready to retire, they wouldn't think of going anywhere else. A. Because human resources is gonna be of no help to them and so--and I should say there that that is not necessarily a knock on the people in human resources in these agencies. They're working with limited resources. They're doing the best they can. It's just that that's not their function to make sure that when someone's anxious about retiring--it's a frightening proposition. They've been working for 30 plus years, and now we're going to say, "OK, get across the finish line and everything's gonna change Good luck." So we're really trying to ease that anxiety by helping to make sure you're not missing anything. You're not making any mistakes. We're gonna make this go as smoothly as possible. And as a result of that, they tell their friends, and we've just had really good success with the process.
Ed Dressel: 8:50
The federal pension system--we've talked about it earlier is really a complicated system. How do you help federal employees understand their benefits?
Ann Vanderslice: 8:58
We try to reach out to federal employees in a variety of ways, understanding that everybody doesn't--first of all, everybody doesn't have the same interest, and secondly, that everybody doesn't learn the same way. So I teach full day classes on the entire spectrum of federal benefits for federal agencies all over the country, and it's really now just by referral. I don't do any marketing, but I go teach one place and they tell somebody else and we get a phone call. So I really spend a lot of in depth time on the benefits, and I always tell them at the beginning of class, "The most important thing you can do today is do not leave here with a question. This is your opportunity. Anything that didn't make sense, that you're not sure how it works. This is your chance." So we really make a big investment in those classes and then I teach bite size topics. So we teach a breakfast club--a session that's one hour every month from 8 to 9, and then we teach one lunch and learn every month on a different unique topic. So we're teaching 24-1 hour sessions that are free. Anybody can come to them. They're now available by webinar. So we've been able to reach a lot more employees because, I'm standing there given the program anyway, we plug it into a media and as many people around the country can sign in and watch that webinar as they want to. The other thing we do is, I have a pretty extensive mailing list, email newsletter list, and so we put out a monthly newsletter that has some federal benefits stuff, some general financial planning tools, it might have an article on budgeting for the new Secure Act. But we're really dripping on them with a newsletter to try to give them information they might not even know they're interested in.
Ed Dressel: 10:56
What's made--you've observed employees starting to understand what you're communicating, What's their typical response?
Ann Vanderslice: 11:05
They typically come in whether it's into a class or into our office, to meet with an advisor, they come in feeling a little overwhelmed and anxious. They're afraid they've made a mistake and that they aren't gonna be able to undo that. If I had a dollar for everybody who came in and said, "I don't think I can retire" and we were able to tell them that they could, I could probably retire right now. It's just they underestimate the value of working for the federal government for 30 years, And so my--I think my appreciation for that is what we're able to do, and we often hear as people are walking out the door, they will say, "I feel so much better." And that's really what it's all about. They understand what they have. They know what to do next, and they feel better.
Ed Dressel: 12:02
You guys use the Retirement Analysis Kit--the software we provide for helping to work with federal employees. What difference does that make in your practice?
Ann Vanderslice: 12:11
Well, it's made a huge difference. Having software that both calculates the pension, calculates their health benefits, projects the future value of their Thrift Savings Plan and puts it into a retirement strategy, into a format that's easy to understand. It has enough detail for the sophisticated client, and yet it's simple enough for the person who just wants to know the basics. So it really provides this wonderful, I think, combination of, "Here's all the details you need to know. Here's what that means to you."
Ed Dressel: 12:57
What's your response from your clients when you hand them a report and interact with them on it?
Ann Vanderslice: 13:02
Well it's interesting. About two years ago, I think now, we put a little twist in the presentation of that report. So up to that point we would have the report's already. We'd have a first meeting, we'd gather all the data, we'd have to come back in a week or two, and we would have all the reports laid out, printed out in a really nice folder and then we kind of present to them from the report. About two years ago, we put a flat screen in all of our offices and in our conference room. And now when they come in, we have the Gap Analysis Report on the screen and we walk through. We start by just sharing with them that, "We know that the number one thing you want to know is "Are we gonna be okay?" Now, you're gonna want to know lots of the details about if that's true, but what you really want to know, deep down is, "Are we gonna be okay?" And so we're gonna start there. And here's what this report shows you. So we have it up on the screen, We walk through the details, we tell them the assumptions we make and then we say, "Anything we should change?" So right there on the fly, they feel like they're engaged with it, and they get an understanding of it I think that they wouldn't get just from looking at the report. So it's very interactive with them. They're saying, "What happens if we do this?" Whether you know, so they can see how powerful the software is on that screen, and then when we have everything down. "Okay? This is a plan. You like this?" Then we print it and present it to them.
Ed Dressel: 14:43
I've been trying to sell people on interactive education just like that for a long time and the difference that can make. Contrast with what you were doing before and the difference it makes to the client.
Ann Vanderslice: 14:54
We've seen a huge difference in how engaged they are with the plan. They really feel like it's theirs. And when they can say, "Well, what if I take social security at 67 instead of 62?" and you show them that difference and they can see it right on the screen. They're engaged with that. We have people ask us, "Can I go online and use this myself?" No, no, no, no. It would confuse you if you run it yourself. We make it look easy. But they like that connection, I think it's just a greater connection. I like to think that a picture's worth 1,000 words, and even people who don't consider themselves to be financially savvy can get a grasp on their situation and have confidence because of the way we're able to show them those reports. They think that they now understand things that they didn't when they walked in the door.
Ed Dressel: 15:51
So you talk about how good the interaction is with using the softer versus a static report and doing that. We designed the software for that, and I'm a big believer in it. Do you see any results after you get done talking with them and when they leave, is there any follow up differences between a static report and the interactivity?
Ann Vanderslice: 16:09
The big difference between static and dynamic is that we have a lot more requests for a change in assumptions. We'll often a few months down the road, get an email that says, "Can you run my Gap Analysis Report? I think I'm now gonna work until I'm 64. I'm definitely not taking social security until I'm 67. Can you rerun that and send it to me?" And they're confident enough to ask for those changes, and to know that they'll understand it when they see it.
Ed Dressel: 16:47
Do they talk more to their friends about what you do, then maybe before?
Ann Vanderslice: 16:51
Yeah, the other way that that interactive approach has impacted our business is that over 50% of our new business each year comes from referrals. It comes from people who came in, had the experience, got so much out of it that they're willing to go back and tell their colleagues about it. And so that, to me, is a huge thing, because what you don't have to market to, what you don't have to, you know, charm people to come in, but that they're they're coming because they believe they're gonna have a good experience and that they want to know what you have to offer.
Ed Dressel: 17:28
Well, I really appreciate you taking the time, Ann. I'm a big believer in the interactivity, and it's fun to hear somebody who I didn't know was doing that. I know you have a lot of success with the federal world. Twenty years. Congratulations. That's exciting. And making a difference for people and finally giving them some retirement confidence and the ability for them to really understand. Thank you for taking the time today, and I wish you the best in the market place. You're working really hard in.
Ann Vanderslice: 17:54
Well, great. Thank you for having me. And I appreciate the fact that you got federal benefits on your calculator.
Ed Dressel: 18:01
Have a great day!