“Coach’s Forum” is a place in which you can ask your questions, tell your stories or give your opinions on any aspect of practice management. For each column, George selects the most interesting and relevant comments from readers and offers his advice. Our objective is to build a community of people with a common interest in making their financial advisory practices as effective as possible.
Advisor says: I appreciated your recent column on how to make business decisions in light of the Covid-19 pandemic. Determining office space requirements has been particularly relevant to me at this time. After reading that column, I am now confident I already have the right size and configuration for the foreseeable future.
You also suggested that this was a good time for us to reimagine our businesses in key operational aspects such as marketing, client relationships and business model. I know you couldn’t fit all of those topics into one column, so I am hoping you could expand on your thoughts.
Coach says: First, congratulations on determining that you have the office setup that best suits your business going forward. As for the other topics you ask about, please note that I am not a social scientist, but have always been a “student of the business.”
As such, I am interested in how financial advisors, financial services organizations and clients make decisions and respond to change. Although the financial services industry has always had to deal with change, the rate of transformation today is exponential and the final outcome very much unknown.
However, we cannot let that uncertainty stop us from making the best decisions we can, based on what we believe to be true today. If the world around us doesn’t unfold as expected, we may have to rethink earlier choices. With that caveat, here are a few things currently bobbing about in my head.
Clients today are not the same as they were six to nine months ago. Although much of the world appears to be on a slow pivot from managing the Covid-19 pandemic toward recovery and reopening economies, the fear of contagion and the stress of personal and global economic uncertainty have altered the way clients will behave, perhaps for years to come.
An obvious example is the use of technology. Many clients have now accelerated their adoption and trust of digital interaction. I believe this will have a permanent impact not only on our reliance on technology, but also on the velocity of its development. As the use of technology expands, manufacturers will accelerate their designs and upgrade capabilities beyond what many of us can even conceive of today. Financial advisors and financial services organizations are, therefore, going to have to commit to significant and ongoing investment in both current technology and subsequent generations of technology to meet the demands of their clients.
The objective of technology use should be building trust and confidence in the advisory process and relationship. Undoubtedly, clients now have a different view of the world. However they have been affected by the pandemic, they feel the need for a greater sense of health and financial well-being, safety and quality of life for their families. If you can help your clients feel more in control of their lives, you will be rewarded with loyalty and advocacy.
Old marketing methods won’t work anymore. It will be a long time before current or potential clients will show up at a seminar, client appreciation event or other in-person business development activity.
Webinars, online town-hall meetings and personal YouTube educational channels will become the new mass-marketing regime. Social media and “influencers” will replace traditional advertising. Google, Facebook and LinkedIn will be the primary sources of referrals. Potential clients will first research, then want to interview advisors via video to assess fit before establishing a relationship.
Differentiation has always been a challenge in a world in which many consumers believe that all advisors offer essentially the same products and services, charge the same fees and make the same promises. To overcome this perception, your marketing must become more personalized to smaller, defined slices of the broader market.
This will require a narrower approach to client segmentation. In order to capture the interest of particular subsets of a client base, you will require a deeper understanding of their unique beliefs, interests, social networks and specialized needs to make your messaging relevant and compelling.
You can get this knowledge through research — through formal and informal client surveys, community involvement, academic analysis, etc. — then create highly focused client personas. Just as potential clients will want to know about you prior to connecting, you should want to ensure that prospective clients fit a target market through your own data-gathering activities.
Another consequence of the pandemic has been heightened awareness and appreciation of corporate values. You must, therefore, communicate a strong sense of purpose and articulate how you intend to make a real difference. You can do this through the causes you choose to support, the partners with whom you align, the way you treat your employees and the messages you send to clients. Most important, you must back up your bold statements with real action.
The e-commerce experience has definitely elevated people’s perception that just about anything can be purchased or accomplished online. As a result, expectations are rising for non-traditional uses of technology, from medical appointments to financial plan reviews. Advisors who use technology to offer their services to clients in real time or through self-service will make the client experience easier, more productive and more enjoyable, leading to greater loyalty and advocacy.
I also believe that many clients, as a result of their experience with firms like Amazon, will welcome a return to the one-stop shopping model, in which their advisor sits at the centre of a “financial expert ecosystem” and acts as a resource for products and services outside but related to their own area of expertise.
For example, that ecosystem might include experts in financial, estate and tax planning; life, health, and property and casualty insurance; mortgages; real estate; and so on. While some advisors currently offer several services and referrals, formally establishing and promoting a broader base of specialists will help you differentiate yourself.
Products and services may have to be revamped as a result of the emotional and, in many cases, practical impact of the pandemic. I suspect many clients will want their retirement plans to include more emphasis on capital preservation, surety of income, contingency funds, family protection, and current and long-term health care.
Caution and encouragement
As noted earlier, our decisions about how to approach the future are based on our beliefs in the moment. The truth, however, is that we can’t forecast the stops, starts and resets that may occur, or how we, our clients and our industry will react.
Despite the uncertainty, we must prepare ourselves as best we can. Given the topics described above, here is what I would suggest today:
- Go far beyond investment knowledge, risk profile and portfolio design to better know your client.
- Narrow your client segmentation based on common characteristics.
- Align products and services with the emotional and practical needs of each segment.
- Create a unique and compelling story, and tell it with passion.
What we do know, above all, is that given the current uncertainty, we should strive to do what we have always done — build trust with clients by making their experience the best it can possibly be. This will require agility, adaptability, open-mindedness, patience, perseverance and courage.
George Hartman is CEO of Market Logics Inc. in Toronto. Send questions and comments regarding this column to email@example.com. George’s practice-management videos can be viewed on investmentexecutive.com.