Some years ago, a planning firm asked if I would come to its offices and help the leaders figure out why their marketing efforts weren’t working as well as they’d hoped. I sat in on one of their prospect meetings, and everything looked normal.
The principals were dressed like investment bankers. They began by selling their impressive credentials as professionals and experts. Then they turned their attention to the prospects’ portfolio, evaluating the account statements and outlining their investment processes.
Later, in a focus group, I asked some of the firm’s clients about the effectiveness of this meeting, and there were groans. One participant told me that, if the point of the preamble had been to impress her, it worked perfectly.
She was so impressed that her first thought was: “These people know so much more than I do about finances that they’re going to laugh when they see what a mess I’ve made of things.” Her second thought: “These people are so smart, they could steal all my money and I’d never know what happened.”
Others nodded, offered similar perspectives, and then the conversation turned to the principals’ habit of looking at account statements before anything else. First, I was told, the account statements had nothing to do with why they had come to see the firm. Second, the chore of meticulously going through the numbers, and financially undressing in front of strangers, was painful. One participant compared it to having a root canal procedure.
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I asked: Did you get value from the relationship? Every person answered in the affirmative. There had, in fact, been a lot of value over the years.
Would you recommend the firm to your friends and neighbors? People shook their heads. Probably not. Why not?
Because (people said in various ways) I would never put my friends and neighbors through this painful front-end experience. I don’t know if my acquaintances need their portfolios re-examined. And by the way, would it hurt if the planners wore a cardigan sweater occasionally, instead of expensive suits that are so intimidating and make them seem so much less human and accessible?
REFASHIONING THE MESSAGE
The point here is that a lot of what advisors think is helping them market their services may actually be counterproductive. It’s a point made recently by Mandy Fisher, marketing strategist for Out And About Communications. (I would tell you where it’s located, but the firm doesn’t actually have a headquarters; its staff is all over the country.)
Fisher believes most potential clients — as well as some current ones — don’t understand the value planners offer. And worse: She thinks many prospects confuse advisory firms with the broken brands on Wall Street. “The problem is at the industry level, and also at the firm level,” she says.
Any solution is going to be complicated, because it involves not just fashioning a better message, but perhaps also refashioning what the message is about. Jim Koch, founder of the Samuel Adams beer brand, famously said that his marketing message had to start with the ability to pour a glass of beer, push it across the bar and feel confident that the bar owner’s reaction would be positive.
Advisors are in a state of flux about their value proposition, and they need to get to the same place Koch achieved after many years of brewing different mixes in his kitchen.
TAINTED AND COMMODITIZED
For decades, Fisher says, advisors have focused on the investment planning work, which also happens to be Wall Street’s specialty. This also happens to be the specialty of robo-advisory firms, which offer investment management that is almost free of charge. If you do a better job of communicating your investment management expertise, Fisher says, you’re just positioning yourself more prominently in a part of the market that is both tainted and commoditized.
Instead, she suggests, take a hard look at what people really want out of life. “What end solution do you provide?” she asks. “Instead of focusing on you and your credentials, focus on the benefits somebody will get from working with you.”
Such as? You can remove some of the taint by association if you talk about protecting clients from unnecessary fees — a service Wall Street is unlikely to provide, since it’s the primary source of those unnecessary fees.
Fisher points out that people lie awake at night wondering if they might be paying too much for their insurance coverages, paying too much in taxes and meanwhile be losing money to hidden portfolio charges that you (the professional advisor) would be able to spot instantly. Alleviating that concern is a value proposition you can communicate clearly and effectively. And the best part is: You’re already delivering it.
You might also consider changing your client experience into something more fun. Instead of immediately turning to the investment portfolio, help clients create a mind map of their present and future life. Give them quizzes about their money personality. Let them daydream about activities they’d like to do.
Give them a chance to take the wheel of the financial planning program and see what their finances would look like if they delayed retirement and added an annual trip to Europe, or downshifted to a less stressful, lesser-paying job that they could do part-time deep into the traditional retirement years.
A simple switch from a root-canal-like experience to fun could have a big impact on referrals. “When you’re trying to find a doctor, you don’t go by websites and reviews,” Fisher says. “You talk to your friends and family. It is all about the experience.”
Finally, Fisher thinks advisors can distinguish themselves when they focus their primary attention on client goals. The beauty of this is that everybody has goals. What people don’t have is the support and encouragement to achieve them. “Think of the weight-loss programs,” Fisher suggests. “People know what they need to do, but they aren’t held accountable to it. They need somebody who will keep them on track.”
COMFORT AND HOPE
Instead of making clients feel intimidated by the gulf between your knowledge and theirs, you could be a powerful instrument of comfort and hope. Instead of leading with the same services that Wall Street offers, you could become the client advocate who protects people from Wall Street and other financial predators.
Instead of offering a painful onboarding experience that makes people leery of recommending your services, you could be making planning the fun experience it should have been all along.
These steps can help you do two things that the profession desperately needs: communicate the value of your services in a way that connects with the public, and move your brand out of the shadow of Wall Street scandals.
Bob Veres, a Financial Planning columnist in San Diego, is publisher of Inside Information, an information service for financial advisors. Follow him on Twitter at @BobVeres.