Creating a niche market for your planning services can be an opportunity to stand out in a crowded field of advisors who, to most people, all seem pretty much the same.

When Individual Asset Management founder Tom Zachystal turned his focus more internationally, he found his target audience. Ninety percent of the clients at his Menlo Park, California, planning firm have something big in common: they are either Americans living abroad or foreign citizens living in the United States.

“We specialize in cross-border issues, which is kind of unusual, so clients seek us out,” Zachystal says. They often find him while looking for solutions to problems that flow from U.S. tax laws.

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“Is there anything really different about helping dentists, as opposed to helping physicians? Not really. You should bring some kind of specific qualifications or knowledge”
– Tom Zachystal

“U.S. citizens who live overseas have a U.S. tax-reporting burden, and then their brokerage firms do as well, so both local and U.S. brokerage firms shy away from them,” Zachystal says. He solves the problem by using custodial firms to hold client accounts and finding discount brokerage firms that will accept their business.

That’s just one trick of his trade, says Zachystal, whose niche practice is thriving. Expats often have any number of tax quandaries as well as problems with estate planning, moving money between countries, getting bank accounts and debit cards, and wiring funds.

“The key is to have a network of professionals in different countries and areas of expertise,” he says, because it’s not possible for a planner to be an expert on every country’s cross-border policies.

A niche practice might be right for you, too, if you can develop a genuine specialty. “Is there anything really different about helping dentists, as opposed to helping physicians?” Zachystal asks. “Not really. You should bring some kind of specific qualifications or knowledge. That’s what’s valuable.”

SLOW AND STEADY WINS THE CLIENTS
A practice that is designed to serve a niche from the beginning can be a slow start. “It was difficult to get the practice going,” Zachystal says. “I can’t meet most of my clients in person, so they can’t see our offices. There are many weird things going on in unregulated financial markets, so expats of many years tend to be cautious. It took 10 years for my name to really get around the expat community.”

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“Some people will look at my website and say, ‘that’s not me.’ But I also attract the people who are right for me, and I end up with more initial clients who are right for my practice”
– Melissa Ellis

Converting a general practice over to niche is often easier. Melissa Ellis, founder of Sapphire Wealth Planning in Overland Park, Kansas, made the conversion gradually.

“My client base was mostly women in their 30s, 40s and 50s, and college planning and divorce were the issues they were dealing with,” she says. “I was divorced myself at the time and had kids in high school and college, and as I learned about my own situation, I realized that there are a lot of issues around college planning when the parents are divorced.”

Bit by bit, Ellis began to specialize in working with divorced women with college planning needs for their children. She maintains general clients, but new additions tend to seek her out for her specialty.

Of course, some dismiss her as a potential planner because of her specialty, and Ellis is OK with that. “I don’t want to be all things to all people,” she says. “Some people will look at my website and say, ‘that’s not me.’ But I also attract the people who are right for me, and I end up with more initial clients who are right for my practice.”

WHEN A NICHE IS CHARITY-DRIVEN
Personal interest also got Patrick Renn into a niche practice. The president of Atlanta, Georgia-based Renn Wealth Management, he became involved with the Special Olympics and gained board members and donors as clients. That grew into a specialization in clients who are interested in and involved with significant charitable giving.

“A lot of planners don’t regularly talk with their clients about significant charitable giving. Either they’re not familiar with the concepts or they aren’t familiar with discussing it, because they don’t feel expert enough,” Renn says. “But clients want to talk about it.”

Renn points out a great benefit in developing a niche as a planner.

“In the public’s eyes, there’s a great sameness among advisors. Once you figure out what you can really get excited about, it’s very freeing,” he says. “You can focus on becoming the go-to person in that niche” — a powerful position for any planner.

Ingrid Case

Ingrid Case

Ingrid Case, a Financial Planning contributing writer in Minneapolis, is a former senior editor for Bloomberg’s Markets Magazine.