I am introspective enough to realize I have a number of habits that annoy people on a regular basis. To put a soft number on it, I would say “dozens,” but I am fairly confident this figure is likely conservative from the perspective of my family, friends, and coworkers. While some bad habits are easily identifiable, such as my “sailor-like” vocal tendencies in times of frustration, I am much too obtuse, and my ego too fragile, to internalize most of the truly annoying conditions that people do not − or will not − point out to me (my wife being the exception). However, there is one particularly apparent bad habit I am constantly aware of but cannot seem to shake − I send an overwhelming number of “high priority” emails.

The allure of that beautiful red exclamation point button on Outlook’s taskbar, literally named “! High Importance,” is simply too irresistible. It draws me in like a moth to a flame, and, in my mind, that simple ‘!’ sends the receiver the following undeniable message: “DROP EVERYTHING NOW!!! THIS IS REALLY IMPORTANT!” Although I know each message I send with a red exclamation point has a decreasing impact, we all accept varying forms of delusion to get us through the day.

While I will not delve into the depths of my ongoing struggles with email, I did realize it may be worth writing a short list of what we view as high-priority – that is, what is so important we should drop everything and pay attention? You could call this a list of “core consulting beliefs” if you were writing a business book, but what it really comes down to is the basic traits and practices we feel are a foundation for long-term success in client portfolios.

What is Truly High-Priority?

  • Independence: This all too frequent claim should be taken with a “trust, but verify” attitude by clients. Above all things, guidance from a professional should be based on a contractual fee with no additional remuneration or benefit, other than a strong reputation, for the advice given. This trust relationship will invariably lead to better client decision making.
  • Listen and Understand: I have had the opportunity to feel like Salieri to Mozart (the ability to recognize greatness, but not create it) many times in my 25+ year career by meeting some truly great minds. However, sometimes even the smartest people miss the basic point that listening and understanding what the client values is infinitely more important than the knowledge you bring to the table. Listening, understanding, and, ultimately, responding to what a client is attempting to build and/or achieve is a critical building block of superior client service.
  • Objectivity, Conviction, and Simplicity: Diligent and healthy skepticism for new and “sacred cow” concepts ensure ongoing objectivity and inevitably results in conviction for ideas and strategies that have the potential to move the needle. These value propositions need to be efficiently and effectively simplified prior to review and execution. Clients should not move on “best ideas” they do not fully understand.
  • Accountability: A seemingly simple concept – if it is the right thing for the client, odds are, it is also the right thing to do. Capital markets and global events have a way of making truly gifted individuals look silly and turning great ideas upside down. While patience is critical, taking accountability to move on from strategies that are no longer viable, and those that never panned out as expected, is crucial to long-term success.
  • Asset Allocation First, Manager Structure Second: This is probably the most frequently violated high-priority notion. Altering a portfolio’s ‘strategic’ asset allocation for every manager that appears attractive is the opposite of viewing opportunities through a strategic lens. If the main source of information regarding an opportunity is the manager pitching it, see “trust, but verify” above.
  • In the End, Fees Matter: While strategy and skill are certainly important factors in long-term investment success, the impact of fees and carry on long-term results should not be discounted as inconsequential. Clients should always “sweat the details” regarding explicit fees and opportunity costs associated with each portfolio investment. Costs are an ongoing drag on results, regardless of whether or not an investment is successful.
  • Read “! High Importance” Emails Immediately: This goes without saying.

While there are obviously more than 6 (or 7) high-priority components to strong client service and long-term portfolio success, these items create a universal foundation. If you take anything else away from this list, hopefully the next time you pause and feel a slight pang of guilt before you click that “! High Importance” email button, you’ll click it anyway, assuring yourself you’ll never be as bad as I am.