I’ve learned to pay attention to the first 30 seconds when I visit a firm. In the approximately 350 offices I have visited, my first impressions are generally neutral to positive. On occasion, though, a few offices strike an exceedingly positive—or negative—note.

Why does this matter? Although I’m not overly influenced by aesthetics, and much of that first impression is subjective, I think an advisor’s ability to stand out can be what turns a prospect into a client or sends him or her across town to a competitor.

DeBoer president’s outer office (Image: DeBoer Financial Group)

When a First Impression Goes Wrong

To protect the guilty, let me describe a fictitious office—one that combines all the worst characteristics I’ve seen:

I arrive at an office whose exterior features no landscaping and a cramped gravel driveway. The entrance of the converted house has a rusty door opening to reveal a stained 1980s-style carpet. Three white cats immediately start rubbing against my black pants, while the odor of a litter box lingers. The makeshift reception desk is missing a receptionist, while the area’s low ceiling, dingy beige walls, and stuff — old magazines and bric-a-brac — create a sense of claustrophobia. (Could the thigh-high stacks of paper betray a hoarder?) It’s clear that the office’s vintage furniture has lived a full life, and water running in the bathroom and kitchen can be heard throughout the house. Once I’m finally greeted by a human, the walk to the conference room reveals more frayed rugs and dirty curtains, along with a two-inch rim of dirt around the baseboards and furniture.

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Don’t underestimate the effect a positive environment has on your employees — and you.

Thankfully, this isn’t a real place, yet each of these characteristics is not as unusual as you might think. Advisors often don’t see the gradual erosion of their office environment nor realize the effect it can have. Some who cater to blue-collar clients even take pride in what they perceive as the folksiness of their office. But research tells us that it takes seven seconds to form a first impression. More importantly, it’s hard to change a negative first impression. That means the dingy office that provides excellent service faces an uphill battle.

What can we learn from this? Let’s consider the opposite end of the spectrum—offices that present an exceptionally positive experience.

Seizing the Office Space Opportunity

A lease coming up for renewal frequently presents an opportunity to reinvent your office space. The two firms below certainly seized this chance to actualize their vision.

Jeffrey DeBoer of DeBoer Financial Group in Roseville, Calif., moved into his office in 2015 after extensive planning and design. Although the one-story building looks like a home in a residential area, it’s actually one of several buildings within a professional office park. DeBoer and his team named their space “The Experience,” a clear indication that clients come first.

DeBoer's exterior (Image: DeBoer Financial Group)

Indeed, the firm’s clients are like family, so DeBoer wanted the office to feel both comfortable and classy. Review meetings, for example, are held in a den-like room with a leather upholstered sofa and chairs, a coffee table, and a monitor, mounted above the fireplace, where statements, financial plans, and reports can be presented. It doesn’t stop there; the firm strives to offer creative, intimate client events, such as an Iron Chef competition, which had the DeBoer team and clients donning aprons in the office’s café and dining room.

As DeBoer explains, “It is important for all of us to work together in an environment that we truly enjoy. It has made a world of difference to be able to work out in the gym, cook breakfast together as a team, or share a bottle of wine in the dining room—all without leaving the office.”

Another advisor who took his office space to the next level is William Leeb of Financial Council Inc., in Towson, Maryland. Leeb’s firm was considering leaving the space they had occupied for more than 30 years, but Leeb rightly questioned the value of taking on a daunting and expensive move. What a third-party consultant helped Leeb understand was that his office did not in any way communicate the firm’s vision for clients: Plan Well, Retire Well, Live Well.

DeBoer's kitchen (Image: DeBoer Financial Group)

So, Leeb assembled a group of enthusiastic team members who created a wish list for their new space, such as having the right technology in all the right places. The team also focused on articulating precisely what they wanted clients to say when they entered the space. From design of the floorplan to interior décor, the project quickly evolved into an exciting investment in the business’s future.

Financial Council moved into the new space in 2012, in the midst of Hurricane Sandy. Any move is hectic, though probably none more so than this one, but what the firm experiences now is a calmer environment which benefits both clients and employees. Once you step inside the glass doors, you feel a sense of openness that continues all the way through the extensive greenhouse glass of the reception area to the exterior of the building. Client feedback tells Leeb they nailed it.

“Clients still haven’t stopped talking about how peaceful it is and how comfortable it makes them feel,” Leeb says. “It has also made a tremendous difference in the overall mood of our staff—and on me. Today, I can say with confidence that our office space communicates our vision: Plan Well, Retire Well, Live Well.”

Lessons Learned

What can you take away from these stories as it relates to your own office space?

  1. Look at your space with a critical eye. Sometimes we don’t see what’s in front of us. Ask a third party for an honest opinion.
  2. Ask yourself how important the office space is to you. If you’re a small advisor planning to retire in five years, you may not care. But if your firm is built to last, controlling the message your office conveys is an opportunity you need to take.
  3. Keep it clean. Make sure you have a good cleaning service and that the environment reflects the same care that you take with your clients’ financial future.
  4. Excel on service. Although great space will never compensate for lousy service, it can set the stage for you to provide exceptional service.
  5. Your space can convey your vision only if you have one. Be sure to clarify your firm’s purpose, vision, and clientele.

Above all, don’t underestimate the effect a positive environment has on your employees—and you!

Joni Youngwirth is managing principal, practice management at Commonwealth Financial Network, member FINRA/SIPC, an independent broker/dealer–RIA.