Without trying to make a specific forecast, it's probably safe to say financial advisors will be dealing with plenty of uncertainty in 2012. This has, after all, been a year in which market watchers have kept repeating that the "new normal" is going to be slow economic growth and high unemployment.
How you respond to this environment - in terms of your client experience and your business practices - will greatly determine how successful you are in the months ahead. Keep in mind that affluent investors have traditionally diversified not just by asset class, but also by financial advisor.
In these volatile times, you have an excellent opportunity to build relationships with high-net-worth investors who are actively looking for advisor alternatives. With that firmly in mind, here are some key strategies and tactics that will make a big difference over the next year and beyond.
LOOK IN THE MIRROR
Take a good look at your business and ask yourself what the biggest dangers are that you face, what are the most attractive opportunities you could pursue and which of your unique strengths could help you sidestep those dangers and capture those opportunities.
The biggest danger most financial advisors face today is a slowdown in the growth of their businesses. This is a big deal. Many financial advisors have to grow assets under management by at least 20% a year in order to attract the talent they need or the clients they want.
There also may be other headwinds preventing your business from growing as fast as it should - from having too little time to pursue new business to working with too many of the wrong types of clients. Take time now to identify these key problem areas.
The good news is that affluent investors are still concerned about the markets and the economy, and they're willing to make significant investment moves if they have confidence in their financial advisors. They are, more than ever, looking for experts who can solve their most pressing financial challenges. If you differentiate yourself, you will get more than your fair share of the affluent investor market.
TELL YOUR STORY BUT LISTEN, TOO
Sharing a powerful personal story about yourself - one that gives the person listening to you some insight into who you are and what you stand for - can create a deep level of interest in you. It's a great way to boldly set the stage for a long-term relationship with a new prospect.
That said, you won't get very far with affluent prospects and clients if you spend all day talking and making the conversation all about you. More than anything, investors want to be heard and understood.
This is especially true in difficult market environments when they feel uncertain and possibly even like they have lost their bearings. Most affluent investors say the care a financial advisor takes to identify their needs is a very important selection criterion that they consider when choosing a wealth manager.
Building such relationships requires you not just to talk but also to listen to what your clients are saying, to identify what they are not saying and to ask appropriate follow-up questions to get to precisely what really matters to them. Investors we've spoken to over the years at CEG Worldwide have frequently said that an advisor's attentiveness and desire to establish a rapport were key factors in selecting that advisor over others.
If you're not willing or able to ask good, probing questions, you can't serve your clients as well as they want and need to be served. As a result, you risk failing to get their business, or losing it in the years to come.
OFFER SECOND OPINIONS
Many investors are justifiably nervous right now. But unlike in 2008 and 2009, investors today aren't suffering from decision paralysis - in fact, they seem more willing to change advisors than ever. That could be great news for you if you can get in front of dissatisfied investors looking for a new source of financial advice.
To capture that opportunity, start offering a second opinion service to valued family, friends and associates of your ideal clients. When you meet with a client at a regular progress meeting or even a private client event, point out that there are a lot of people who are unhappy with the advice they are getting and that you would be happy to help someone they care about receive the type of positive experience the client has with you.
When you call these prospects, offer to provide them with a second opinion about their portfolios (at no charge). The prospects will generally be open to your review.
Our coaching program clients report that this second opinion service has proven to be a much more effective approach at getting introductions during the past year or two than simply asking a client for referrals directly. When you offer something of value - a free assessment - to people your clients care about and want to see be successful in life, they are more likely to introduce you to more of their valuable contacts.
HIRE SOME EXPERTS
The needs of clients - especially affluent ones - have become especially complex in the past few years, as investors try to navigate their way through new financial legislation and uncertainty about a wide variety of taxes and other issues. They need financial advisors capable of managing their entire financial lives - not just investments, but also asset-transfer planning, wealth protection, charitable gifting, estate planning and other advanced planning needs and concerns.
The bottom line? If you don't know the answers yourself, you need to find someone who does and put your clients in touch with that person. You will be in good company.
Top advisors don't try to do everything themselves. Rather, they build teams of experts outside their firms who can provide more specialized knowledge.
Your particular needs will depend on your client base, of course. But generally, financial planners can add tremendous value by creating a working team that includes a private client lawyer, an insurance specialist and a tax specialist.
Working together with these three professionals, you should be able to address nearly all of the issues your clients face. This approach makes you valuable to your clients in more than just investment management.
TIME FOR FAMILY
Also remember that part of being a successful financial advisor is having a strong quality of life. Don't let the search for success consume all of your time. Instead, make space in your calendar for family and other nonwork activities that you enjoy, such as sports and vacations (even if it's just the occasional long weekend).
Shutting down the professional part of your brain regularly will actually help boost your success. It will energize you and get you ready for the most stressful, busiest days. You may even find that new approaches and creative solutions to problems will occur to you more readily if you give yourself a break.
The strategies you choose to pursue in the coming year are of course defined by your practice goals. Whatever they are, be sure you attack them with clarity of purpose, focus and the commitment to execute on your plans.
Remember also to ask your business associates and employees to have the same commitment to getting the job done. You'll do well in 2012 if you remember to do well by your clients.
John J. Bowen Jr. is a Financial Planning columnist and founder and CEO of CEG Worldwide, a global training, research and consulting firm for advisors.