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Will designations make you more successful?

I learned that this business is more about managing people’s expectations, not their returns.

Entering financial planning fresh out of college, I knew nothing about the financial markets or how this industry functioned. So I was excited when I was offered a spot as a financial advisor trainee at Raymond James’ Financial Planning Residency Program, now called AMP. The two-year program combined sales training and technical financial knowledge.

Coming from an academic background, I was eager to study for all my licensing exams and for the CFP, reasoning that the more I knew about numbers and rules, the more clients would want to hire me. After all, I thought, I have a math and economics degree from Emory, multiple licenses and a CFP. Why would anyone not hire me with all those credentials? Why would they hire, say, the advisor next to me with just a history degree from a non-elite college and no professional designations after his or her name?

I was a naive rookie advisor who assumed that if I acquired as much technical knowledge and training as possible and showcased that knowledge to prospects, the deals would be sealed.

Turns out, that advisor with the history major outperformed me. He built a sizable book of business his first year out of the traditional three-to-six month advisor training program, having accumulated $10 million-plus in AUM. He’s still in the business — remarkable given the failure rate of new advisors is close to 85% within the first four years.

Advisors' favorite certifications and designations

I, on the other hand, was able to get potential clients in front of me but, despite all my knowledge and designations, wasn’t able to close them.

That’s because like many other financial advisors, I had mistaken marketing for sales. A CFP designation behind your name gets prospects through the door, but you still have to persuade them — sell them — to sign on the dotted line. You have to convert them from being a prospect to a paying client.

I knew I had to work on my sales skills when a prospect said to me after the meeting, “Helen, you seem really smart based on your profile, but we just don’t feel connected to you.”

What I’ve learned from personal experiences, observations and interviewing top producers throughout my career is that this business is more about managing people’s expectations, not their returns. The truth is, the better your people skills, the more successful you become in acquiring clients.

To put it bluntly, you’re in the business of sales; financial planning is simply the product you’re offering.

Like it or not, surviving in this business is not measured by how educated you are. Ultimately, what makes you a successful financial planner in the industry is your ability to acquire clients. Meaning, you have to make them believe that you genuinely have their best interest at heart so that they stay invested in you and with you and, better yet, they even refer you more business.

Reflecting on my own client acquisition process and my communication skills, I realized that, yes, I was that advisor who used fancy financial lingo trying to impress clients with how much I know, but I failed at making them feel emotionally invested enough to see me as a financial confidant.

For marketing purposes, getting a CFP designation may be worth the investment since it’s more widely recognized to the general public and consumer. Unless you really want to home in on a niche like divorcees, then getting a designation specific to that niche, such as a CDFA, may be a wise investment.

However, when deciding whether to invest more time and money toward another certification, it would be wise to consider how it contributes to your overall marketing plan. If you plan to specialize in estate planning, for example, and want to primarily serve that market, perhaps getting your AEP wouldn’t be a bad idea for marketing purposes, but you still need the soft skills — i.e., sales skills — to close the deal.

Rookies in this business spend too much time worrying about what other designations they can acquire, and not enough time honing their ability to read people and communicate more effectively. If you can’t read that a client is glossing over your reports and becoming disinterested in your presentation, you’re not a good financial planner, just a smart one. If you’re finding yourself unable to get more clients, it may be time to consider a sales training course, personal development class or business management course instead of signing up for more licenses and designations. One of the best investments I made was becoming a member of Toastmasters. I was able to refine and polish my presentation and speaking skills through that, learning how to effectively engage any audience size.

I’ve never received a referral who told me they were interested in me because of my CFP; they always tell me it’s because their friend or family really enjoys their experience working with me.

At the end of my two-year training program before I set out to build my book, a seasoned advisor said to me, “Remember: No one cares about what you know until they know that you care.”

I had no idea what he meant then, but I sure do now.

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