An advisory firm I work with is in a competitive market in one of the most affluent areas in the country. One way they differentiate themselves is in the thoroughness of their financial plans. When I first began working with them I asked what they do to win over prospects and convert them into clients. “That’s easy,” they replied. “We give them a sample plan.”
They explained that if a prospective client said they would be interviewing other advisors after my client walked them through their process, they would give the prospect a sample of one of their financial plans to bring home. They sent the prospects on their way with the recommendation that when they talk to other advisors, ask to see those advisors’ sample plans and compare them. Almost all the time the prospects returned, ready to become a client, reporting that while all the other advisors claimed to do financial planning as well, none of them could produce a sample of the plans they purportedly did for clients.
I was shocked. This was a market of experienced advisors competing for multi-million-dollar clients. Not exactly lightweights or newbies to the business. But there it was. Every advisor claimed to provide financial planning, but my client provided proof.
Proof is a tricky thing in the financial advisory world. You cannot prove we will do a good job because we don’t actually know how things are going to work out. You don’t know where the markets are going. You don’t know how the tax laws will change. You don’t know what the results are actually going to be. You can’t use testimonials. Unlike the local gelato stand, there is no real practical way to give people a taste. But with it, you can attract clients and referrals.
And there are some ways you can offer a form of “proof” that the experience of working with you will be the way you describe it. Here are a few I like to recommend:
Give them a sample deliverable – The advisor I mentioned above offers a sample financial plan. In it prospective clients can see all the areas that are addressed, the extent of the analyses, and how easy it is to understand. If you offer special analyses, like a Social Security report or a college financial aid analysis, offer one of those. Offering a sample of what comes out of your process can be a direct way to provide evidence of the kind of work you do.
Show them a documented process – I am frequently surprised when I talk with advisors who I believe are competent and do good work who cannot succinctly describe the process they guide clients through. The most frequent objection is that every client is different. While the results for each client, what their plan might recommend, and the advice they give to each client will be different because each client is unique, the process you take them through should be consistent. Document the steps and offer them to prospective clients. One of the exercises I do with almost all of my coaching clients is to develop a graphic representation of the advisors process. Documenting your process in a flowchart or with pictures makes it a lot easier for a client to remember. You do not need much text. Give each step a name and talk the client through it when you meet with them. When they bring it home, the pictures and titles will be enough to remind them of all the things you address at each stage of the process.
Show them checklists and other tools you use – One of my clients has an extensive checklist of items and issues that planners on the staff use when reviewing a client file to make sure that their plans are up to date. While they would never ask a client to complete such a complicated instrument, they thought it would be interesting to at least show a blank one to clients as a way of demonstrating how thorough they are when preparing financial plans. The clients were impressed. They made comments like “I knew you were thorough but I never realized how much work you put into these things.” It was a great way to prove how extensive their process is.
Be prepared with some fun facts – Having a few choice statistics or common myths at the ready can be a great way to prove your expertise. Show your prospective clients that you know things within your specialty that the average general practitioner does not know. We frequently insert them into positioning statements. The unexpected and the surprising are engaging. Starting them off with “for example, did you know…” can capture people’s attention.
- For example, did you know that rolling over your 403(b) into an IRA is often a mistake?
- For example, did you know that moving money out of this employer’s retirement plan can reduce your retirement health benefits?
- For example, did you know that 65% of women who get divorced make one mistake that costs them tens of thousands of dollars of taxes over the 10 years following the divorce?
- For example, did you know that 70% of retirement plans audited by the Department of Labor last year were found to be out of compliance?
- For example, did you know that if a college athletic director wants your child on his team he can help you get a better offer from the financial aid office?
Client stories and case studies – Stories are powerful for two reasons: We are wired to remember them a lot better than we can remember lists of benefits. And because they show the effect of what you do on someone’s life – ideally, someone that your prospective client has empathy with. Rather than hoping that they can interpret an abstract benefit, a good story can help a client envision their own life being improved the same way. What makes stories powerful also makes them tricky from a compliance standpoint. Some advisors I have worked with have attempted to put together case studies that named (with their permission) the clients being profiled. The SEC struck them down as being testimonials even though they made no mention of the advisor or the services that were provided. I have had anonymized client stories rejected by compliance departments because describing what ultimately happened in the story was deemed to be promissory. (Converting the story to a hypothetical and stating what really happened as a hoped-for outcome was acceptable. The logic was twisted and bizarre, but that’s the compliance game.) Case studies and stories have been extremely effective in many situations. But make sure you check with your compliance officer or department before using them.
Provide Social Proof – Social proof, the positive influence created when someone finds out that other are doing something, is hard to come by in financial services. Except referrals, of course, which are the ultimate social proof. But one firm I spoke with had a brilliant way of creating it. They recruited prominent citizens in their city to serve on their client advisory board. Part of the role was to consent to begin included in the firm’s public announcements about the board. Financial advisors, of course, cannot disclose the identities of their clients. With permission, however, they could promote the members of their advisory board. People in the community would often assume that if those high profile people were associated with the firm, the firm must be high quality. It helped them attract some ideal clients.
Designations and affiliations – I list these last because they are the weakest kind of proof. And I say that as a Certified Financial Planner certificant. Professional designations and affiliations with organizations like NAPFA and the Garrett Planning Network say important things about you as a professional. But how they translate into specific benefits to a client are too indirect to be powerful marketing tools. If you are in competition with a single other advisor for a financial planning client and you are a CFPâ professional and the other is not, it will give you an edge. But in a crowded field where many other advisors all have the same designation, it does not provide much leverage.
Telling people how they will be better off working with you because of your special expertise or unique process will help you attract clients in your target market. Providing some kind of proof that you can deliver on those promises can help make you much more persuasive.