Eric Stevens is the National Educators Association (NEA) retirement, specialist at Clarity Financial Advisors in Mill Creek, Washington. In this podcast, he shares his passion for working with teachers and how he has found success amidst social distancing in the 403(b) market.
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Edward Dressel: 0:07
Welcome again to another podcast of RetireReady Solution. This is Edward Dressel, president and owner of RetiredReady, and I am excited to have with me Eric Stevens. Nice to have you here.
Eric Stevens: 0:16
Appreciate it. Thanks for having me.
Edward Dressel: 0:18
We're in the mid of the Covid virus rampaging the world and Eric, he's knocking it out of the park. But before we go down there, Eric, you're with Clarity Financial Advisors out of Mill Creek, Washington, just north of Seattle. Tell us a little bit about what you do.
Eric Stevens: 0:32
We're a small family owned firm just north of Seattle, like you mentioned. And within that I am the National Educators Association retirement specialist, meaning I've been endorsed by the NEA. So my main focus within the businesses teacher retirement.
Edward Dressel: 0:49
And what does that look like?
Eric Stevens: 0:52
Well, that's working with the National Educator Association member benefit plan, which gives the teachers, being a member of the NEA, gives them an opportunity to have different benefits to them. And one of those benefits is access to a financial advisor. And that's basically what our role is within that. And it's really a lot about just educating. We mainly focus on the 403b side of of the business, although we do do other things within the office that are much more complex than that. But my role within that is pretty much, lack of a better term, the 403b specialist.
Edward Dressel: 1:29
Why did you choose being a financial advisor?
Eric Stevens: 1:31
Well, so I was on the insurance side of things for many years and I enjoyed doing that. And as I saw as things were changing in our environment, I felt there was a need for people like me who truly just care about people and want to--want to make sure that they're being well protected and financially secure. And I saw a need out there just because of the growing credit card debt and student loan debt that a lot of people take on to get into higher paying professions. And I felt there was that need there. And so when I was asked to come over to Clarity Financial Advisors and particularly to work with teachers, I jumped at it in a heartbeat because it's always been something that's been a passion of mine, where I can help people in the best manner possible and I felt like, you know, and I still--insurance is part of my business--but very little. But being a financial advisor just allows me to be able to really get in there and help people in the way that I think they deserve,
Edward Dressel: 2:32
What obstacles did you find in your business before we got into this Covid situation?
Eric Stevens: 2:37
Yeah, well, I think the major challenges: changing culture and mindset around what retirement looks like and what it's gonna be in the future. I think a lot of people who particularly who have pension plans or pension hybrid plans--they tend to not really look at them, especially with the teachers. They're funded through the state, and they think that that's going to be enough to get them through retirement. And simply that's not the case in 99% of the people, and then they need to have an additional supplemental retirement account to go along with that. And so it's basically changing that culture of the head in the sand kind of mentality that "I don't really want to look and see where I'm at." So I think, through education, that's kind of how we're changing that mindset.
Edward Dressel: 3:29
What challenges have you seen coming in with the virus hitting and social distancing? What challenges has that brought to the table for your company and for you specifically?
Eric Stevens: 3:38
Well, when this thing first started, we kind of scrambled because we've been doing business the way that probably most people have been doing business with face to face meetings and all that kind of stuff and really getting people the opportunity to know us. And through that way, because I believe in relationship building is is paramount in this business. But once this Covid 19 started, we had to scramble and we had some things lined up that we were planned on implementing in January. And we were gonna kind of hit it really hard in February. And then this all hit. And what we did is we immediately after we brainstormed were like, "Okay, we need to go to just giving value to people." So we started doing webinars, just so they can see us, and we got tremendous amount of response from that. And so we've evolved into now we're all virtual meetings. Instead of looking at this as being a challenge, this has actually been something that is beneficial not only for us as advisors, but also to our clients, because we've been able to streamline the system where they're no longer having to take time out of their day to meet with us formally, drive times and all that kind of stuff. I mean, we can literally get on a Microsoft Teams meeting or whatever the platform we're using and immediately connect with people, and they get to still see us so that interaction is still the same as far as building those relationships, but it's looking at it in a different way. It's taking this something that could be a total roadblock to us and use it as an asset. And to be honest with you, you know, I see this as being--we talk about things are gonna change forever after this. Maybe not everything's gonna change, but I see this model of doing business is gonna be the wave of the future. It's simply just that much easier for the client to deal with. So much easier for me because now I can get to 15 people a day where before I could only get to two with the school schedule, meet with somebody, maybe one meeting or two meetings after school, but nobody wants to stay there until five o'clock. People have families. They're busy. So it's really about taking something that could have been a roadblock and making it an asset for everybody involved.
Edward Dressel: 5:50
So let's pull it apart a little bit. When you said there was a tremendous response, how did you get the word out that you're moving to webinars?
Eric Stevens: 5:58
Through emails. So we have access to the building reps, which are the union building reps within the schools--and these are the people we've been dealing with for a long time now--to set up, "Hey, can we come to your lunch room? Can we meet?" Because we never go into a school unannounced or without being invited. And so we had access to those emails basically to say, "Hey, we got some really informative webinars coming up" and just send that out and saying, "Hey, if you could please just pass this along to the rest of the members in your school," and with it being as simple as getting on a platform and being able to see us interact, it's made it a lot easier for us to be able to do that. So that's how that response came through the contacts that we already had.
Edward Dressel: 6:42
So you're doing both group webinars, where you're talking to a group of teachers and then you're moving to a one-on-one webinars as well?
Eric Stevens: 6:47
Exactly. So we we have different webinars that we do, and a lot of them is based off of whatever webinar that might be. And then, if anybody wants some one-on-one time with us, then we'll do the individual at a later date
Edward Dressel: 7:01
What have been some of the more popular topics for the group webinars?
Eric Stevens: 7:05
Well, the most popular one that we've gotten is, using the TRAK software--and this was our plan to begin with before Covid19 hit--and the plan was we came up with a strategy and an initiative that we were going to make the year 2020 the Year of Knowing Your Gap. If anybody's familiar with the TRAK software you'll know with that term what the Gap is. And it's really about educating people through that software. And so we did a webinar a few weeks after Covid 19 hit. We basically just showed how it worked through slide show. We didn't do it interactively on there, but we had a flyer out there, Bridging Your Gap, and then talked about some of the pieces that go on within the TRAK software and how it's designed to give our clients peace of mind and let them really know what trajectory they are on currently and if any adjustments need to be made, how we come up with those adjustments.
Edward Dressel: 8:03
Just for full disclosure, I didn't know the answer to the question, what your most popular webinar was. I just asked it because it seems like people would want to know. I did not know that TRAK, resulting in that kind of response. That's fun to hear.
Eric Stevens: 8:16
Yeah, and I think a lot has to do with before we actually did our first webinar, we had kind of been pushing it all the month of January. We're getting it out there and in the union newsletters. And so a lot of people had had exposure to that. We went to a union meeting--so we've done a lot of back work to lead up to this. So it's not like we just put on the webinar, people showed up. There was definitely work on the backside of it. But yeah, that was a great response from that.
Edward Dressel: 8:42
But once you did do the group webinar people said I want to move to the one-on-one meeting?
Eric Stevens: 8:47
Absolutely. It was. The response was fantastic. I would say probably the penetration on the webinar, we probably got 80% response back "Yes, I want to know my Gap. Tell me how I do it." So it's been, it's been great.
Edward Dressel: 9:02
Eighty percent response. I think we'd all love to have that kind of response from any meeting we did.
Eric Stevens: 9:08
Yeah, I would. I was surprised myself because we didn't really know what to think about any of this because we've never--we've done webinars before, but they're usually like taped and they're just educational pieces. So they have an interactive one where they can have actually ask questions at the end. So yeah, it was, it was a surprise to us as well.
Edward Dressel: 9:27
So it sounds like people are really interested in knowing retirement planning at a level that means something to them because there's a lot of jokes about hey, I don't really--they don't want to know the bells and whistles, but the high level of you--and if I call it an integrated benefit analysis where people are gonna see their pension system, social security and they're outside assets. People are interested in getting a picture of what retirement looks like generally. With that, would you concur with that?
Eric Stevens: 9:54
Yeah, I would agree with that. I would say, yeah, they they don't want to know the bells and whistles that TRAK software has, but they want to see that end result, and they want to see where they're at. So going through that is, that's the beneficial piece. Yeah, they don't want the intricate parts of how that software worked and really, let's be honest, the software is fairly user friendly, but there's a lot of stuff being done on the backside of it that they're not seeing. But to be able to have the end result, they want to know where they're at. They want to know what age can I retire? What, you know, am I gonna have to be teaching because I want to? Or am I gonna be teaching because I have to? And really, that's been really our mindset. The reason why we pulled together this Gap Analysis initiative was because through our rounds of speaking to educators and members throughout schools, we've noticed they kind of looked at us like "I got 20 years left. Is it not ready to talk to you guys yet?" And it's like, "Well, you kind of should have talked to us about 10 years ago when you started." And so it's bringing that education piece to it has been the fundamental of it.
Edward Dressel: 10:57
One of the unique features of TRAK software for anybody listening to the podcast that doesn't know, we have over 600 state pension systems you wheel a straight cash flow from. And I'm gonna guess in the state of Washington, you're working with Washington TRS. And there's--I think there's three tiers if I recall correctly?
Eric Stevens: 0:00
Edward Dressel: 11:15
In a D B and a D C element of some of those where they have a cash balance option. How does having that in the software help you engage your teachers?
Eric Stevens: 11:24
Well, that's everything because there's a lot of different companies that offer pretty much the same thing. But when they can go in and they can see that this is built specifically for them for their plan, I think that makes all the difference. They're seeing that it's taylored to them. Rather, go to some of the big brick or mortar financial advisories where you get a general sense of where you're at, this gets them specifically to their retirement plan. And I think that has been kind of an eye opener for people to go, "Wow, these guys are really locked into my needs.", And they really understand my retirement account. And when, which we do, we spend a lot of time calling the 800 number at the state, really digging into knowing what these plans are all about. But to be able to have that piece where I go, drop down "Oh, your tiers plan three? Now let's see what that looks like." And then be honest. A lot of people don't understand their own plan, and we get this all the time. It's inevitably if someone has a tier's plan two, they say, "I wish I would have had plan three and vice versa, and it's really about educating them on, they're both good plans. It's just a matter of how are you working it? Because, like I said before, 99% of the time, you have to have an additional supplemental retirement plan to go along with that for long term success.
Edward Dressel: 12:43
I see this working really well with teachers you already have a relationship with. Has this been working with new teachers and gaining new accounts from people that you haven't worked with prior to Covid hitting in the social distancing?
Eric Stevens: 12:55
Actually, all of them in the last two weeks have been all new clients. Every single one of them. I mean, we do have some current clients, but the thing is is we try to keep our current clients engaged already and knowing where they're at, and so maybe there's a little bit a piece of that. I mean, we have had a couple reach out and say, I want an update on where we're at. But every single one that I've met with over the last two weeks, I got to say, probably it's been, I don't know, 15 or so--and then we're just talking two week period--they've all been new clients.
Edward Dressel: 13:30
So in the last two weeks with one of those teachers, do you have a fun success story that happened? Don't use a real name.
Eric Stevens: 13:37
Yeah, well, they're all fun success stories just because any time someone has no idea where they're at and they do and you kind of see those rigid shoulders kind of relax, it's a success story to me, but yeah, in particular I had one teacher who was concerned about how long they're gonna have to be teaching and we sent out a questionnaire form for them to fill out. So we have the information to be able to fill in to the TRAK software. We give estimated retirement age. And I believe she put 75 question mark--75 years of age question mark. And I looked at that, and I just, I knew that this was gonna be a sensitive one that I was gonna have to deal with. And so I ended up working the TRAK software and going through it and matter of fact, she told me before that she had not opened it. She hadn't looked at any of her accounts for over a year because she was afraid to know where her accounts were sitting. And so for me on this side, as being a financial advisor, that kind of like broke my heart. And so I'm like, What? What can I do here? I have to work the software as well. So I'm like, see what we can do. And we got in there and we were able to, without having to do much more than what she was doing, we said, Hey, we got her a date and say, Hey, you're gonna have to work till 65 to get your full retirement and wait for so security kick in. But it's not as bad as you think it is. And to have that response back to her was just to see that stress just kind of melt away and go, "Okay, I have a game plan and I have a direction now. And it's not--I'm not just weathering in the wind here and hoping that I land on my feet"-- so that for me, I mean, that's the reason why I do what I do. I mean as well is when I get on there and I run it and I said, "Man, you're knocking it out of the ballpark. You've made some great decisions over the last 10 years and and I can't do anything for you because you've been doing so awesome." Those were the two things what I live for and that's the reason why I came into this business is to really to get people in the right direction and headed in the right direction. And especially when we're dealing with educators and teachers and I'm in a state that is, they value public education here a lot. The community really rallies around the school districts around here. And they see the sacrifices these teachers make and building of relationships they do with our children. And for me to be able to just take a little bit off of their plate that they don't have to worry about is everything for me. I mean, that's literally like I said before, that's what I live for, and I love it.
Edward Dressel: 16:09
TRAK--we designed it to be interactive with your client. Has that made any difference in the webinars you do with your teachers?
Eric Stevens: 16:16
Yeah, it's made a huge impact. Before we would get their information, we would compile it, and then we would meet with them one-on-one with the pdf file, and we kind of go through it and it was working. But it wasn't working the way that it should be working. And since we've been able to go online and be able to have these one-on-one meetings, I can share my screen and I can go on there and we can go through scenarios. Different scenarios of okay, if it's 403b at $200. What does this look like? It's 403b at $500 a month. What does this look like? And a lot of times I like to play this game. I say, "How low can we go?" And I'll take a teacher? And she says she wants to retire at 65. I'll just start clicking the age of retirement down so we can find a gap. How low can we go? Sometimes we'll get to 57 I'm like you're fully funded and it's all about bringing that peace to them of like, "Absolutely. Continue to teach after 58 if you want. But you're not teaching because you have to after that age." And so to be able to have that interactive piece has really made a difference in showing people how this software works and then how we can apply it to their specific situation and their specific retirement needs. So I think that's been a huge part of this software. And it's one of the reasons why I'm a firm believer in the TRAK software, and it's the reason why I use it on a daily basis. And I don't talk to a single 403b client without running a Gap Analysis through the TRAK software, because I believe that it's that important.
Edward Dressel: 17:48
Well, that's fun to hear. It helps me with my passion. Have you ever met with a teacher who met with you and said, I just met with another financial advisor and I like what you brought to the table versus what they had?
Eric Stevens: 18:02
Yeah, we actually get that quite a bit. The marketplace is changing. There's a lot of online stuff and sign up for 403b's online, very low price that they have to pay for that. But what they're trading off is their trading off that personal relationship. They're trading off getting the Gap Analysis through the TRAK software. They're getting that engagement of, "Hey, I have a question about this" and we're there to answer those questions, and I think that has played a huge part in bringing over some of those people. There are other people in the 403b world. They sign you up and they forget about you or they're turning through advisors so quickly that they never see the same advisor again. And the founder of our business 30 years ago found this and he started working with teachers because he had the same passion. And those relationships and dealing with them is kind of how we differentiate ourselves from everybody else's. It is because we care, and it is because we're there for them and I will answer a question or pass them along to somebody who knows the question. It's not about me making money. It's about me serving my client the best way I can. So I think that has been the difference in being able to bring people over because a lot of these other companies in the 403b world, they're not engaged in building relationships. They're engaged for the money, and I'm--I simply refused to do that. I refused to be a salesman. I am there to educate and put somebody in a place where they're being properly protected. They're being funded in at the rate that they deserve, and they're getting the hands on personal touch that they deserve. It's their money that they're trusting us with, and for me not to be able to bend over backwards for them, then I'm simply not doing my job properly.
Edward Dressel: 19:49
As we look at this social distancing, it sounds like you've come up with a more efficient way to meet the needs of more teachers and help your business grow and have a good time doing it all at the same time.
Eric Stevens: 19:59
Yeah, absolutely. You know, I know it's affecting businesses and across the spectrum, and as far as we're concerned is we're really taking something that could have been a complete negative and turn it into a positive. And it goes back to that same piece that I just spoke about--about being engaged, being there for our clients, being there for potential clients. And so we had to shift gears and we could have just said, Hey, we're gonna wait this out a couple months, see how it goes. Business will pick back up when business picks back up. But we said no. Our clients deserve better than that. We need to find a way to be engaged with them. And through the media that we have now, we have all this at our disposal. And so we just kind of tested the water and just figured hey, this is better than doing nothing, and we know that we need to be there for them. It's a scary time for a lot of people. They don't know what's going on. The market is not doing what they thought it was going to do and all these things were happening and we needed to be there for them, for them to have clarity or for us to explain things that the reason why the market is changing and all these different aspects. So it was really about us being out there, not like, Hey, how can I sign up more people for 403b? It's like no, how can we get out there, how can we educate, keep people from freaking out and having anxiety about what's going on? So it goes back to that educational piece, and we found through the media part of it, we've been able to streamline it. So now not only were we able to get out there, but now we are able to serve our clients at a much better rate than we were before. Just simply because I couldn't get around to every one of them as often as I would like. And now they're one touch of a button and they're in my home office and we're having a conversation about what's going on and how they're feeling and answering any questions they may have. So it's really taking something that could have been negative and potentially business breaking, to something that has been an asset. And it all goes back to once you come up with the idea in your head that you need to figure out a way, how can you serve your customers and your client? How can you reassure them? You find a way through necessity and it's just we've just been blessed to be able to have the media that we do that, we can be able to connect people on that level. And they still look in my eyes and I can still look at theirs and I can read their body language and know that, hey, it's gonna be okay. We're gonna get through this together. I am doing everything I can on your part to make sure that we're making sound decisions together. And so having those pieces of the puzzle now put together in a way that is convenient for everybody, it's made a huge impact.
Edward Dressel: 22:37
So to put a little bit more succinctly, what would you say you bring to the table that differentiate yourself from other advisors?
Eric Stevens: 22:43
It all starts with a passion for what you do. And the reason why you do it. And like I said, particularly teachers, my kids are in public school, I'm a product of public school. I can, off the top my hand, I could give you three teachers that I learned from that taught me life lessons that were so far outside of the school world that I hold dear to my heart today. And so to be able to have the understanding of what they go through and how they care. And so I feel that it's easy for me to bring that same level of care and compassion and support to them as they show to all their students and that they deal with in the families that they deal with. That job is not an easy job. And I even joked with some of our clients that we have now. I'm like, "This is a marriage. If I'm doing my job and you're doing your job, we should be together for the next 30 years until retirement." And that's kind of how I look at it. It's not a cookie cutter model that we use it. It's specific to each client and each potential client, it's hearing what they need and what their expectations are. And a lot of it is alleving fears, and sometimes it's calming them down, and sometimes it's being the coach and rooting them on and saying, "Hey, you're doing awesome, Keep on doing what you're doing." And so it's really about bringing that personal touch and you just can't fake that if you're not passionate about what you do, and then if you're not in it for the right reasons. And I think that makes all the difference in the world when it comes to why we do what we do and how we do it. Because I think if I had a different mindset, I think I would be a different advisor than I am now.
Edward Dressel: 24:19
Well, it's great to hear somebody working their passion and making a good living doing it at the same time. You're probably the envy of a lot of people. I really appreciate your taking the time today, Eric, sharing a little bit about what you're doing, how you're having success in the middle of what I've heard from other people going "I'm looking for something to do." And I have talked to a number of advisors struggling to pay bills. Thank you for sharing your story with them and with me. And I wish you the best and continued success as things unfold and as we move forward.
Eric Stevens: 24:48
Yeah, absolutely. I appreciate you having me on and yeah, I just think we need to look at things in a different way. We always talk about things that were done 30 years ago aren't done now today. Well, things that were done three months ago aren't being done the way they are today. So it's all about adapting and changing.
Edward Dressel: 25:03
Thanks, Eric. Have a great day.
Eric Stevens: 25:05
You do the same.
Edward Dressel: 25:06
And again, thank you for taking this time today and I wish everybody that's listening the best in the marketplace in the unique situation we are in today..