“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 recently attended a high-profile social event as the guest of a friend. I was quite excited to be there because the room was filled with business leaders and successful entrepreneurs. While I did not expect to go around handing out business cards, I did hope to make one or two connections that I could follow up on later.

What I quickly discovered, however, was that the group was somewhat “closed to outsiders,” in that most people seemed to know each other and much of the talk sounded like a continuation of previous conversations, probably from the last time they were all together.

At one point, I ended up alone beside a successful looking gentleman, so I used the opportunity to introduce myself. It didn’t take long before he asked what I did for a living, so I told him I was a financial advisor.

“Humph,” he said. “I’ve had three financial advisors over the years. They all said the same things and made the same promises – couldn’t really tell them apart. What makes you different?”

I was taken back by both his abrupt cynicism and the opening he gave me to tell him what might make me a better advisor than those he had worked with previously.

However, as I described my background, my approach to investing, our great team and our wonderful service, I could tell he was thinking, “Yeah, I have heard all this before.”

Eventually, he made an excuse that he just spotted someone he hadn’t seen in a long time and wandered off – taking my opportunity to make a favourable impression with him.

As I stood there alone again, I wondered what I could have done to set myself apart from his previous advisors. But here’s the part I am reluctant to admit: I don’t know what else I might have said. What do I really have to offer that other advisors don’t? My newfound friend was right. We do all look and sound pretty much alike to prospective clients – same products, same processes, same promises. Is there a way to stand out and be recognized as unique or, at least, somewhat special?

Coach says: If it is any consolation, I have had advisors say the same thing to me about coaches: “Aren’t you guys all the same?”

It usually doesn’t take me long to dispel that notion because relative to the advisor population, there are only a handful of coaches out there and most have done a pretty good job of communicating their value proposition in a meaningful way.

You, on the other hand, are one of tens of thousands of advisors across the country who, essentially, all make the same proposition: we do good planning; we follow a disciplined process; we offer a wide variety of products; we care for our clients; we have a great team. When consumers cannot distinguish among products and services, they reduce them to commodity-like status.

When that happens, the only real way to compete is on price, and that is not something you ever want to try to do in our industry. It not only devalues what you do, it is also a “no win” game. In a commoditized market, there is always someone willing to offer a lower price to attract business.

So, how do you stand out in a “sea of sameness?” Do you have to be extraordinary or outlandish or have some “secret sauce” to set yourself apart in a world in which there is a lot of similarity between what you offer and your competition offers? I don’t think so.

In fact, I believe that almost every advisor can find a point of differentiation that they can promote to their target market in a way that captures attention by speaking to the interests of prospective clients.

The process starts at a high, general level and then narrows itself down to an intense focus. Here is how I suggest you proceed:

1. Start with research

If I were to ask both you and your clients what sets you apart from other advisors, do you think I would get the same answers? Chances are good that there is a difference between your perception of the value that you bring to the table and your clients’ reality. The best way to find out what clients value most from their relationship with you is to ask them. I recommend you engage an independent third party to conduct a survey among your clients with only a few, simple questions, such as:

– What do you value the most in our relationship?

– What do you perceive our special expertise to be?

– What needs of yours do you feel we address best?

– Why do you choose us over the competition?

You can position the survey by saying that you are reviewing your brand and message to ensure it accurately reflects what is important to your clients.

Using a third party encourages more honest responses and removes your biases from the findings.

2. Develop your “big idea”

The next step is to determine how you will position yourself. What is the “big idea” that you want people to associate with you? The survey results give you a better understanding of what your clients value most in their relationship with you. Those things represent competitive advantages upon which you can build. The survey results also highlight opportunities for you to align your message with the key issues that are important within your target market.

For example, if the survey reveals that your retired clients most value the peace of mind they have in knowing that you make sure they receive a consistent monthly income from their investments, your big idea might be: “Become known as an expert in retirement income generation.”

3. Identify key issues

For each big idea, first think about key issues of importance to your clients surrounding that idea. What could have an impact – positive or negative – on your big idea? Then, do the same for issues surrounding that idea that are important to you and your business. Think about issues such as your personal interests, passions, capabilities and the resources that you can apply to the key issues.

Almost immediately, you will find common ground – issues that are of high importance to both you and your clients. Those overlapping issues are the ones on which you are going to focus.

Ideally, choose issues on which there is no consensus regarding the solution, so you can establish a position and defend it. Look for issues that will not fade or disappear quickly.

You should aim to be able to represent your position over the long term. Also, look for issues that are broad enough to have multiple topics within them on which you have a valuable perspective and you can be the “voice” of your firm. In our retirement income example above, key issues might be sustainable withdrawal rates and coping with inflation.

4. Choose topics to address

Within each key issue, select three or four topic areas in which you can showcase your deeper understanding and highlight your expertise through marketing materials, writing, speaking, publishing or broadcasting (podcasts and webinars). Create a library of articles, presentations, case studies and other references that demonstrate the depth of your knowledge and the seriousness with which you address these key issues.

5. Communicating your differentiators

This narrowing process will naturally lead you to your differentiating factor. It’s not that what you do is necessarily unique, but what you say about it and the passion with which you apply your expertise will be. So, instead of describing yourself as a “financial advisor,” say something like: “I am a financial advisor who specializes in ensuring clients receive the monthly income they are expecting from their retirement fund.”

By starting with research to determine what really matters to your clients, choosing your “big idea,” identifying the key issues surrounding that idea and developing a knowledge base, you will be able to express yourself with confidence that your differentiation is relevant, true and deliverable.

You then will be prepared to give your “differentiator talk,” so that the next time you are at a cocktail party and someone asks what you do, you can describe it in a compelling way that encourages the person with whom you are conversing to ask for more information rather than heading for the bar.

George Hartman is CEO of Market Logics Inc. in Toronto. Send questions and comments regarding this column to george@marketlogics.ca. George’s practice-management videos can be viewed on www.investmentexecutive.com.

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