The first generation of financial planners rarely started out as planners; most were initially insurance agents or stockbrokers whose business was selling a product. Later, after they already learned how to sell, they evolved their business to get paid for advice instead.
By contrast, planners entering the profession now often seek to be paid for their advice from the start, and subsequently struggle because of their lack of business development experience and sales skills.
Unfortunately, most of the “sales training” available today comes from product firms that train their “advisors” in how to sell their products, and relatively little training exists for financial advisors who need to learn how to sell clients on paying for their advice.
Nonetheless, selling is an essential skill for new advisors. It covers being ready to ask for the business and go for the close, crafting a sales process, and managing a sales pipeline and monitoring business development metrics, In the end, it doesn’t matter how great your advice is if you can’t persuade anyone to pay you for it.
Like any other profession, the primary role of a planning professional is to help and serve the client. Yet the reality is that in a low-trust industry like financial services, a never-ending stream of clients to help doesn’t just walk in your door.
What’s more, even if they do find their way to you, it’s hard for them to visualize what 'financial planning’ — an invisible, intangible service — is really going to do for them, and why it’s worth paying for. This means that if you want to help people, you will have to convince them that it’s worth paying for your advice.
Unfortunately, there is a shortage of sales skills among advisors today, and for a growing number of advisors, the lack of training and opportunities to hone sales skills is becoming a serious impediment to their career advancement.
In her recent book, The Pocket Guide to Sales for Financial Advisors, Beverly D. Flaxington makes the point that the sales process itself is an engagement — a back-and-forth interaction between two people who are both trying to figure out if they should work together.
But the mere fact that you want to help the client — and that the client may well need your help — isn’t enough. If you want prospects to hire you and become clients, you may have to prod them along and show them the way.
CLOSING THE DEAL
Accordingly, one of the most important parts of the sales process is that after you’ve explained to the prospect your value and what you can do to help, it comes time to actually “go for the close” and ask for the business.
It’s that moment in the meeting where you ask the client to make a decision to move forward and work with you, saying something like “With everything we’ve discussed, I’m confident that I can meet your needs, so I’d like to ask that you consider working with me. Can I give you an agreement to sign so we can start working together?”
Unfortunately, going for the close and asking for someone’s business is difficult for many of us. We make ourselves vulnerable. We put ourselves on the line to potentially be rejected, and it feels scary to risk rejection. Even if you’re confident it will go well, it can feel socially awkward or confrontational to put the prospect on the spot to make a decision.
Yet the reality is that planning is a difficult service to purchase. It’s not a physical product that a client can pick up in his hands and test out for a little while before buying it. It’s an intangible service that requires the prospect to trust and have confidence that the advisor will deliver value in the future. This means that purchasing it is scary for the prospect too.
It’s always easier and less risky for a prospect to just do nothing and not hire the advisor. That’s why giving a prospective client a little extra nudge is crucial.
The advisor’s confidence in asking for the business, in the face of the social tension that’s created by asking, is often what it takes for a prospect to make the leap of trust to hire the advisor.
While it may be scary to ask for a person’s business, prospective clients will virtually never volunteer to give you the business, and you’re virtually certain never to get any business if you never ask for it at all. As Wayne Gretzky famously said, “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.”
But going for the close is only part of the overall sales process. First, you need to give the prospect an opportunity to really understand what you do and the value that you can provide.
The starting point, then, is to create marketing materials that tell the story of what an advisor does and how the prospective client will benefit.
In her book, Flaxington notes that a remarkably effective technique is to literally tell a story that illustrates how an advisor delivers services to the benefit of a client. This approach is so effective that Storyselling for Financial Advisors by Scott West and Mitch Anthony, which was published 15 years ago, is still one of the most popular books for advisors.
Establishing a consistent selling process and making it routine also allows the advisor to focus his attention on improving client communications. For instance, some prospective clients may prefer to receive information visually, while others prefer to listen to it. Some are more analytical and want the dollars-and-cents details, while others prefer to concentrate on the big picture. Some want to know what the advisor is going to do for them now, while others are more interested in the long term.
At the start, when an advisor is focused on just trying to master the sales process, it’s very difficult to adapt a delivery style to match a client’s preferences. Yet ultimately, the ability to adjust your communication style to conform to your client’s learning style can vastly improve your ability to sell and get business done.
The more consistent your sales process, the easier it is to revise and improve on your communications style and delivery.
TRACKING YOUR SALES PIPELINE
At the most basic level, the business development process for an advisor is about turning strangers into prospects, and then turning those prospects into actual clients.
The first transition is about prospecting and marketing: reaching the millions of strangers out there and turning some of them into people who are at least potentially interested in doing business with you.
The second transition is about selling: taking someone who’s potentially interested in doing business and persuading them to actually hire you and commit to paying you for your services.
Of course, you won’t really know which strangers are going to become prospects until they identify themselves as such. But once someone does become a prospect, he or she can be tracked in a sales pipeline that identifies everyone who is somewhere in the process of moving from prospect to client.
For firms that actively manage their sales process, the sales pipeline is an actual physical document, such as a tracking spreadsheet or a report from the advisor’s CRM, that details the steps and where each prospect is in the process (for example, send initial marketing materials and information, schedule first approach meeting, etc.).
This methodical approach ensures that even with a high volume of potential clients, no one slips through the cracks and each prospect continues to receive the appropriate communications.
A sales pipeline report can also track the “quality” of each prospect. Is the person especially interested in doing business with you? Is he or she a potentially valuable client who could bring in an outsized amount of revenue?
Prioritizing prospects ensures that they receive time and attention commensurate with their potential contribution to your firm.
By tracking a sales pipeline on an ongoing basis, it also becomes feasible to craft key performance indicator metrics and keep tabs on the entire business development process.
KPIs answer questions like: What percentage of prospects eventually become clients? What percentage of prospects who initially contact the firm ultimately follow through with a first meeting? How many who show up for the first meeting sign up on the spot without a second meeting? How many go through two meetings but still don’t close?
And when clients don’t close, why don’t they close? Were you not a good match for their needs? Did they choose to work with someone else? Were you too expensive, or could they simply not afford to pay your minimum fee?
Tracking KPIs makes it possible to identify potential problems and areas for improvement.
If only 10% of your prospects turn into clients, perhaps there’s a problem with your sales process.
If prospects take the first meeting but rarely follow through in the second, maybe your presentation at that meeting needs to be improved.
If you’re meeting with lots of prospects, but too many of them choose other advisors, perhaps you’re not clearly differentiated enough.
If you’re meeting with lots of clients who don’t think you’re a good match for services or who can’t afford to pay for your services, you might be falling short in terms of qualifying your sales leads.
The bottom line is this: You can’t survive as an advisor if you can’t persuade people to pay for your services.
Cultivating your sales skills and refining your sales process so you can effectively sell yourself is crucial to the success of your practice and should be treated accordingly.
Michael Kitces, CFP, is a Financial Planning contributing writer and a partner and director of research at Pinnacle Advisory Group in Columbia, Md. He’s also publisher of the planning industry blog Nerd’s Eye View. Follow him on Twitter at @MichaelKitces.
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