To Grow, Think Small
I have a vision. Call it my Financial Planning Utopia. It's a place where financial planners market together, collaborate and build practices together, and look out for one another's businesses as much as their own. If one planner fails, it is as much a group failure as it is the individual's. If someone is successful, it is a success that has been achieved by the collaboration of many.
How does this happen? It takes many people to market in the same way and adopt the same business approach, a niche marketing and niche-referral system.
Niche marketing has become the planning profession's latest hot topic. Many planners I have spoken with are scratching their heads as to why their shotgun approach, using a wide range of nonselective techniques, are not producing the results they had expected.
They wonder what they have done wrong. They have built appealing websites, attended networking events, asked family and friends to spread the word and consulted with the appropriate professionals. They have studied various financial planning theories, trying to become an expert, but find that being an expert doesn't bring in clients. They may put effort into specific ventures trying to reach many different market segments,hoping one will be the big payday.
But there's a more effective approach. Niche marketing, by design, focuses on a small segment of the market. By choosing a smaller group to serve, you can become a specialist serving the needs of this population.
TEACHING THE TEACHERS
I'm building a niche practice of teachers in the northern suburbs of Chicago. I've read, written to, and interviewed teachers and administrators, learning their needs. It has taken time to build trust and relationships. After a year, this marketing approach has started to gain traction, and relationships are starting to bear fruit.
What if every planner decided to market and build a practice using a niche approach? We could all become experts in small segments of the workforce, serving with in-depth knowledge. This is already happening within our profession.
Kristin Harad of VitaVie Financial Planning in the San Francisco Bay area decided to build her practice around families with young children. One of Harad's first clients asked her to provide her mother with planning advice. Normally, a young firm would not turn down a chance to build its business.
Harad, though, stood true to her niche and referred the mother to another planner more suited to help her. Harad has built a thriving practice made up of her ideal clients.
What if every planner took this approach? It would look something like this: One planner might target doctors, while another focused on teachers, another on lawyers, still another on restaurant franchise owners. They could serve clients in a local area, but also serve clients nationwide if their planning knowledge was applicable.
The companies could market together - when a prospect approached an advisor outside the right niche, the advisor could direct the prospect to a colleague. As businesses grew, firms tied by the same specialty could merge and form larger, more efficient RIAs serving a specific market segment. Names of firms would represent the people they serve so potential customers could easily deduce who would best serve their needs.
These companies would become known in their area as the place to go for financial advice if you are a firefighter, graphic designer or IT professional. If firms get large enough that they attracted clients from other states or countries, staff with that specialized knowledge might be well suited to serve them. If a firm had no employee that could handle the work, the potential client would be referred to an appropriate practice where there was an advisor who was a good match.
Advisors might become subject-matter experts within their chosen niche, allowing their fellow advisors to do the same, of course, in different niches. Advisors serving the same niche could collaborate and share information to ensure that customers get the best advice possible.
This model would be a great service, making it easier for people to get financial advice. And it would help planners too.
Michael Kitces, writing last year on his Nerd's Eye View blog at kitces.com, emphasized that it was important for planners to specialize to get referrals. By trying to be everything to everyone, it makes it hard for clients and other professionals to refer to them. If a firm serves a niche market, it makes the business of referrals much easier.
UTOPIA TO REALITY
How does this utopia become a reality? Many young planners today face challenges as they start marketing to attract clients.
To start marketing effectively, a planner must first know what type of advisor they want to become and in what area they want to focus. If an advisor begins a marketing campaign to high-level executives, but doesn't build his knowledge of tax strategies and benefit optimization, then the client might suffer.
Young planners should be guided to decide what niche they'd prefer, learning how to develop strategies and relationships within this niche market. Many current clients at the young planner's firm may already be part of this niche.
By tapping into the professional relationships of the clients, a new book of business could be built without the strenuous work of starting a marketing campaign. To be the most effective, young planners should also learn about the different challenges they could face by serving clients in a market.
Planners must also be trained in marketing their services to the public as well as the planning community. If a planner serving members of the Air Force also knows planners who serve general contractors, they can refer clients to one another.
For this utopian world to work, planners need to help grow the firms around them, serving the entire local planning community. By selflessly giving clients to more suitable firms, not only does the planning community support its own growth, but it also becomes a community that helps each other.
Dave Grant is a financial planning analyst with Vantage Financial Partners in Arlington Heights, Ill., and founder of NAPFA Genesis, a networking group for young, fee-only planners. Deena Katz's Profitable Practice column will return in August.