This adviser’s success secret: Putting clients ahead of profits

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After a few years of working with a large brokerage house, Martha Dove was tired of feeling like a small fish in a very large pond, so the chief human resources officer for Labouré College in Milton, Mass., began searching for a new benefits adviser. That’s when she crossed paths with Vinnie Daboul.

Dove was immediately impressed with Daboul, the co-founder and partner at Sage Benefit Advisers of Peterborough, N.H. “Most people try to sell you things,” she says. “He was just very honest, straightforward.” So Dove chose to work with Sage over the two other firms that had responded to her RFP.

She was pleased with her choice, as Daboul “went above and beyond” in helping Labouré customize a benefits plan that met the needs of the school’s 100 benefits-eligible employees. Daboul impressed her further, Dove says, when he personally attended the campus’s two-day open enrollment fair to answer employees’ questions about adding a deductible for the first time and switching to a new carrier.

It’s all in a day’s work for Daboul, who makes it a priority to personally meet with each of his more than 35 clients every six weeks, if not more often.

“In the benefits world, we don't put a lot of emphasis on fiduciary responsibility like in the investment space,” explains Daboul. “But I do take my role with my clients as their fiduciary as something that is very important. When I built Sage, I built it off of that Norman Rockwell picture, where the life agent is sitting at the kitchen table with the husband and wife writing a life policy.”

Daboul characterizes Sage as an old-fashioned benefits company that is “truly client focused, client first.” In his previous work with other benefit companies, he would often bring in a new client and then immediately have to pass them off to the administrative services team. That’s not what he wanted for his brokerage, when he founded it in 2011.

In addition to his personal meetings with clients, Daboul has an in-house service team that consists of three people. Adriane Robbins, director of client services, is one of them. “We try to work more as a concierge,” she says. “If somebody calls in with an issue, we don’t want to just give them a phone number and send them off. We want to try to help them track down an answer to their question.”

Clients first
Sage’s business mix is approximately 60% fee-based, 40% commission. Daboul aims for a “fair and reasonable” profit when determining fees, he says, disclosing everything to the client. Typically, it amounts to 20% margin. “Prospects are shocked when you bill them that way,” he says. “Often our fees will be only one-third of their existing broker’s commission.”

Growth matters, he adds, but relations with existing clients matter more. That means when he’s got three extra hours in his week, he’s using them to call on existing clients. “I want new business, but those three hours are more important with my current clients,” he says.

That reflects Dove’s experience. During open enrollment season this past fall, Daboul was on the phone with Dove nearly every day. “Vinnie really has been more of a partner,” she says, “than simply a vendor.”

Robbins calls Daboul a high-energy adviser who’s always accessible. “Vinnie really likes to stay involved,” she says. “He’s not just bringing on new clients and dropping them off.”

But there are limits to how many clients even Daboul can meet with in a given week, so going forward, he plans to bring in another senior adviser once he reaches a threshold of approximately 49 clients, so Sage can sustain its current level of customer service.

And if doing that undercuts the agency’s margins, Daboul is okay with that. “I'm an adviser,” he says. “That's my job. My job is not to figure out how to maximize my profits.”

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