Boy, are we glad we ran THAT one by the clients first!


An advisor I am working with in New York had worked out what I considered a well written positioning statement. It identified their target market and described what was unique about how they approached financial advice. It was clear. It was different. I thought it was compelling. And the next step before we used it as a basis for their communication strategy was to test it with a few clients to see if it needed any refinements before we moved forward. Were they surprised by what they heard!

The clients let them know that what they saw as the most valuable aspect of the services they provided was not what they considered most valuable. More important, they let the advisor know that the way the statement characterized them was a real turn off. Even a little condescending.

By the way, part of what they found demeaning was the claim that they “educated their clients” and “take financial issues off their hands.” Those are a phrases I have heard from quite a few advisors. If you are in the habit of saying that, I would encourage you to get some feedback from some of your clients like this advisor did. It may be that your clients appreciate the educational component of your service. It could also be, however, that your clients react like this advisor’s did. Their clients let them know that they come to this advisor for advice, not an education. I had not really thought about it this way, but it makes sense. I don’t go to my doctor or my lawyer to be educated. I want them to advise me. Similarly, telling people they can simply “delegate their financial tasks” to you is self-serving. Many clients want to delegate things to you so they don’t have to do them and recognize your expertise (in investment management, anyway). But saying to clients “you don’t have to worry about how your money is managed, just send it to us” can come off badly with clients. It did in this advisor’s case, anyway. The clients indicated there was nothing compelling about that as a proposition. You won’t know how your clients respond to that message until you ask.

Could you imagine the marketing quagmire this advisor would have gotten into had we moved forward with the original positioning statement? They would have been promoting a message that actually turned some of their ideal prospects away. Instead of attracting target clients, they would have been repelling them.

This kind of experience is not that unusual. In working with Emerson Investment Management of Boston, we pulled together there top advisors and drafted a positioning statement that emphasized three points they considered to be core to what made them valuable and different. When we brought it to their client advisory board, the reaction was “meh.” So we got some additional feedback from them and went back to the drawing board. They had a similar experience

You can find value in testing almost any aspect of your marketing with your clients.

Ask your client advisory board to critique your website. Find out what parts interest them and which do not add value. And be prepared for them to tell you it’s awful. I have heard that come out in a few advisory boards. (And, in fairness, the advisors generally had reached that conclusion before they asked for the feedback.) Do you believe that the pictures of senior citizens enjoying their happy retirement help prospective clients imagine themselves in that scenario, assisted by your excellent advice? Don’t bank on it. One of the best comments I ever heard in any advisory board was from a client of a firm in Connecticut. His feedback about the “happy retiree” pictures on their website was “we are tired of the Cialis ads.”

One firm discovered that its staff profile page was one of the most popular among clients. They found it more interesting and valuable than their services page or even their homepage. Whether that means emphasizing the staff pages or redesigning the home and service pages is up for discussion.

If you send out client newsletters, ask your advisory board to dissect them. What parts do they find most valuable? Which do they find least valuable? What articles are the most likely reason they would pass it along to their friends? When we ask clients to rank the different parts of a newsletter from most valuable to least valuable, from what they read the most closely to what they skip over, can you guess what they read most closely? It is commonly an update on what’s going on in your office – staff changes, who is having kids, events in the lives of the people there. And what consistently ranks lowest? Market review and commentary. What might you do differently if you knew that’s how your clients felt?

Testing messages with clients helps you accomplish a few valuable things:

  • You discover which messages connect and which messages fall flat.
  • Sometimes clients can correct or clarify your message. You might hear things like “let me tell you what I find really valuable.”
  • As you refine your language, you simultaneously teach your clients what you want them to say to refer you.
  • You remind them about some of the valuable things you offer that they might have forgotten.
  • You help jog their memory of any friends they may have spoken to recently who need what you do.
  • You engage them with your practice. They feel better connected and have a little ownership in your strategy. And engaged clients refer.

If you are creating or updating your message, test it out with a few clients. If you have not gone back to your clients with your current messaging in a long time, consider asking their opinion. What you learn may be surprisingly valuable.

Have you tested your messaging with clients? What’s the most surprising thing you heard back? And how did it help you adjust your strategy? I would love to hear about some of your experiences. Add your favorite story to the comments section below. 

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