I think we'd all like to be recognized for making singular contributions. Only a rare few ever win a Nobel or a Pulitzer Prize, but any of us can aspire to be standouts in what we do. We love to hear prospects say, "I came to you first," or see our names on the list of the top 10 or top 25 in our field (as in this month's cover story on the IA 25).
But in the crowded arena of financial services, how do you get to the front of the pack? Whether you're new to the business or have been working in your market for years, the age-old problem is distinguishing yourself so that you attract all the business you would like.
A lot has been written about the importance of specializing in a market segment. However, finding a way to stand out that lets you stay true to yourself isn't quite that easy. Here are some situations that involve making a name for yourself, and suggestions about how to do it well.
Q: After five years at a large brokerage firm, I'm thinking of going on my own. But I keep hearing that to stand out from the crowd, a solo practitioner should become a specialist in a particular niche to attract clients from that category. Isn't there a place for an advisor who simply wants to help all kinds of clients achieve their goals?
A: There's definitely room for generalists who like the challenge of taking on a wide variety of tasks for many different kinds of clients. That said, are you sure there isn't some special gift or affinity that would allow you to differentiate yourself more clearly?
Before you make your move, it could be wise to take an inventory of yourself. I would suggest getting three viewpoints of yourself: your own opinion, feedback from trusted colleagues, and comments from clients.
First, try to identify your own strengths and weaknesses as an advisor. Do you have areas of particular expertise, ingenuity, or creativity? Any blind spots?
Next, go to colleagues whom you know to be fair and honest. Ask for their views on what you do well and where you need to improve.
Finally, invite your best clients to get together with you. Tell them you've decided to assess your capabilities and services so you can figure out how to serve them better. Ask them to share with you what works well in your relationship, what disappoints them, whether they like the way you communicate with them, and how they feel about the work you've done. If they've dealt with other advisors in the past, find out how you compare.
By asking deeply honest and detailed questions of yourself, trusted colleagues, and cherished clients, you can make the decision about going solo with enhanced self-knowledge and confidence. You'll be more comfortable communicating to prospective clients where your uniqueness lies. An understanding of your strengths and expertise should also be a good antidote to the pressure you feel to find a specific niche for your work.
Q: In the affluent suburb where I'm located, speaking to business groups and clubs is the most popular way for investment advisors to become better known. I've tried to follow suit, but public speaking is a nerve-wracking ordeal for me. Should I keep plugging away at it? I'm much more comfortable sending letters to a local mailing list, but that doesn't generate as many leads.
A: Public speaking is the number one fear for many folks. As Jerry Seinfeld recently noted in The Washington Post, "If you're the average person, if you have to be at a funeral, you would rather be in the casket than doing the eulogy."
I tend to think that almost anyone can benefit from learning to speak comfortably in public. Whether you're treasurer of the school PTA or the president of the USA, people will have more confidence in you if you stand up and speak with confidence in yourself.
If you decide to pursue this, a good starting point is The Washington Post article I just mentioned ("Scared Speechless? Public Speaking Doesn't Have to Be So Terrifying," February 18, 2007). It's full of research, tips, and sources of information and support. Also, many formerly inarticulate orators swear by their local Toastmasters International club (www.toastmasters.org), where they were able to practice public speaking and get feedback from other learners and pros.
Of course, speaking to groups may never feel completely natural to you. In that case, I would work on developing a method of outreach that suits you better. I once knew a skilled acupuncturist whose extreme shyness kept her from speaking to local groups interested in her subject. Since she enjoyed writing, she launched a wonderful quarterly newsletter that was informative about the process and benefits of acupuncture at each season of the year. Referrals flowed in from this medium of communication, which was more comfortable and enjoyable for her.
Letters may be a good alternative to introducing yourself in person, but it's not always easy to craft them in language that communicates your energy, enthusiasm, and commitment to your work. You might consider supplementing them with an online blog, which allows more freedom to share thoughts and feelings while interacting with your readers. Or you could go with an eye-catching series of small-space ads in local publications.
Once you settle on the best way to communicate what you love and enjoy about your work, I believe you'll start generating success stories that will get others on board with you. Then, you'll just need to be eloquent enough to thank everyone at your client appreciation dinner.
Q: Several national brokerage firms are battling over our fast-growing market. Their ads are on local TV and radio, in the newspaper, the city magazine, you name it. They have several locations, while our three-partner firm has only one. We feel like pipsqueaks in a house full of giants. Should we move to another town?
A: Before despairing, it would be worthwhile to do some research about other small businesses that are succeeding in spite of the big guys. How do they manage to draw customers and keep them loyal with only a modest promotional budget and a single location?
There's a bookstore like this in our community. Something about the atmosphere and the owners and employees keeps customers coming back. In your area, interviews with small business owners who are prospering may elicit information you can translate into your own mode of working with clients.
If you try a strategy suggested by your research and still can't keep up with the big dogs, it may be time to think harder about moving to a less competitive market. The risk, of course, is that after all the expense and upheaval of a relocation, your rivals could move in right after you.
Remember, the key issue is earning enough money to satisfy yourself. You don't have to sign up as many clients, gather as many assets, or turn as substantial a profit as the big guys. They may need 200 more clients per office to meet their goals, while you need 12. That's a big advantage for you. So I'm in favor of trying to succeed wherever you are by positioning yourself as creative and resourceful, with a personal reputation that's on the line in every relationship. Make your small size an asset, not a liability.
Q: I retired in 1995 after more than 30 years as an independent financial advisor. My question is why do so many advisors these days constantly blow their own horns? Is it ego that makes them want to be more visible than the next guy, or are they just greedy? My focus was always on doing the best possible work for the clients who relied on me, and new business came in as a natural result.
A: It's true that some people tout themselves out of ego, greed, or both. On the other hand, keeping your head down and doing good work often isn't enough to ensure success in a very competitive marketplace.
So while I applaud your core values of quiet integrity and dedicated client service, judicious horn-tooting is a valuable skill in today's world. If this feels shameful, abhorrent, or overly difficult, it's easy to find someone who can help you blow your horn -- if not a marketing expert, then satisfied clients who can recommend you to others.
Personally, I've always enjoyed working with people who are confident enough to claim their strengths in a hearty and healthy way. In an advisor, this confidence communicates a gusto for one's work that appeals to many potential clients.
So when you see others tooting their own horns, try to draw a distinction between those who are merely on an ego trip and others who are justifiably celebrating their expertise.
Q: I have a hard time asking clients for referrals. It seems tacky somehow, as though my business isn't successful enough to keep me busy. Also, I worry that the client will see it as diluting our relationship if I say I want to work with other people. I know this is probably irrational. How can I get myself over this emotional hump in order to leverage the good work I do?
A: To begin with, I'd try to find out more about why you're so resistant to asking for referrals.
Did your mother, father, a teacher, a priest or rabbi, or someone else in your past strongly discourage you from either showing off or seeking help? It may be useful to write down an imagined dialogue between this person and your youthful self about the idea of approaching clients for a referral. Then review and comment on this dialogue from the viewpoint of a trusted mentor or your more adult self.
Performing this exercise may help you see where your blocks are and how you can transform them into a more productive attitude.
There may be some clients who in fact do not want to "share" you with others, but the only way you'll find them is to ask. If clients do react negatively to a request for referrals, from then on you'll know not to push or encourage them to recommend you to others. But for every client who feels possessive, there are probably two, three, or more who would enjoy sharing the wealth, so to speak.
One way to broach this topic is to say to favorite clients, "I enjoy working with you so much, I would love to find more clients like you. Do you have any ideas about where to find these special folks?" You can even volunteer details about the qualities or characteristics that make such clients a joy to work with. If you're sincere about this, many of your current clients will enjoy finding others like themselves to fill up your practice.
In this age of huge advertising budgets, goliath mergers, and multiple denominations of financial advice, it's important to step back and analyze what you have to offer. Determine your strengths and weaknesses, assess your passion and enthusiasm, and ask people you trust to help identify the unique qualities that can attract clients, no matter who the competition is.
Once this assessment is done, you'll be able to create a marketing or referral strategy that not only suits your personality and temperament, but allows you to stand out from the crowd in your own best way.