From the July 2004 issue of Investment Advisor • Subscribe!

July 1, 2004

Talk Therapy

There's an art and a science to speaking to wealthy people, and if you're sincere, you're on your way to success

Building a high-net-worth clientele is often based on developing relationships that start as acquaintances, develop into friendships as trust is established, and finally become business relationships when a need is identified and addressed. Many advisors feel this approach is flawed because it takes such a long time. But that mistaken sentiment is good for you: In a crowded field, most of your competitors eliminate themselves voluntarily.

Here is a systematic process to meet wealthy people in social situations, learn about their interests and needs, develop social relationships, and then build business relationships with them when appropriate. The objective is not to meet wealthy people in social situations and then call and ask for their business. If you're not sincere and forthright, most people will quickly divine it and reject you. That's especially true with wealthy people.

So where do you start? Developing relationships with wealthy people involves three steps: meeting the right people in low- or no-pressure social situations, discerning their interests, and then meeting them again. If this process sounds like the rules for dating, you're right. Most of the rules for developing friendships with wealthy people are interchangeable with the basic rules of dating.

Step 1: Meeting People

Let's assume that you've done your research; you know that wealthy people belong to the local art museum, for example, and you've joined, too. After reviewing the museum's annual report, you have identified the people you want to meet. You attend a reception and see a wealthy person who heads your list. How do you meet them?

First, look around the room to see who's present that you know and who also knows that wealthy person. This is easier than it sounds. After all, you have probably already met the membership director, development director, and publicity director of the organization. They could make the introduction for you.

Remember that there's a considerable difference between referrals and introductions. When you ask for a referral, the intermediary must "sell you" as a prospective advisor. Introductions are much easier. You are a peer, another member of the same organization. The intermediary can easily mention a few things you have in common.

So what happens if you don't see a familiar face? Then figure out who you know in common. If it's a golf club, the person may play with the same people you do or serve on the same committee. You introduce yourself and say: "I believe we have a friend in common." You mention the person and explain how you know them. The conversation's started.

Does this sound contrived? Remember another rule of dating: Everyone knows what everyone else is doing. There is an accepted set of rules to follow.

What happens if you don't have a common friend? Remember one of the key rules in the non-profit world: "You can never thank people enough." Paradoxically, the people who give money to cultural institutions are rarely if ever thanked by the intended recipients, the membership. Take the initiative and thank those people yourself.

You may be wondering why these wealthy people would be interested in talking to you, but remember another rule of dating. The person who is doing the talking is the one having a good time. You are interesting because you are interested in others. Stop talking and listen.

Step 2: Topics of Conversation

Once the introduction is made, it's wise to have a few open-ended questions in mind to get the conversation going. Among the safe topics to discuss are where they live and where they like to travel. This will give you clues as to their passions as well as their financial pictures.

Sometime during the conversation the other person will want to know what you "do." This is not a buying signal--"Thank you for asking! I have a short PowerPoint presentation. Did you see a plug somewhere?" is the wrong response. Less is more.

One way to respond, and a strategy often favored by established, successful advisors, is to simply recite your title and name of your firm: "I'm a vice president with ABC Securities," or "I'm a financial advisor with Smith Life Planning."

Why keep it so short? For one thing, the other person may not care what you do for a living, and was only asking out of politeness. Alternatively, they may be actually interested, but can sense when a person starts "selling" them. You can provide more detail if the person appears really interested: "I'm a vice president with ABC Securities. I work with a small group of successful executives and families in the area." Using "small and successful" implies exclusivity, while "in the area" provides local flavor.

You could add a third sentence, "I'm a vice president with ABC Securities. I work with a small group of successful executives and families in the area, helping them with issues like maximizing the value of their stock options." The object is to get them to ask questions.

Like any good speaker, remember to tailor your remarks to your audience. If a retired person in their 80s asks what you do, you shouldn't give the same answer as to a 40-year-old successful business owner. Have additional responses ready.

Finally, recall that you have many roles in the community. When people ask what you "do," they aren't necessarily asking what you do for a living. If you meet the person at a museum reception, answer the question in that capacity. "I'm a volunteer here at the museum." After all, they may volunteer as well, and the discussion may turn to how you both got involved. Later in the conversation, you can introduce your career.

Discover what you have in common with this person. Ask them about their work or a job-related question to determine if they are successful or have authority in their position. Ask about the town or neighborhood they live in. Ask about their leisure activities--where they play golf, what other organizations they belong to, which events they attend. Wealthy individuals tend to congregate with other such people. Literally and figuratively, find out where they live.

Remember that your objective is to get people talking about their passions. Once they realize you are interested, a bond starts to develop. The quietest person in the room can be the most interesting person once you get them talking about their passion.

Step 3: The Follow Up

The evening is over. How do you lay the groundwork to see those people again? First, help to establish your value by reminding them of the things you have in common. They may be wine buffs, and you may know some stores with a good selection that are new to them. Remind them of your shared interests, and mention that you would like to stay in touch. Instead of just passing along your business card, I often use a business card with my name and number handwritten in large letters on the back. Presenting it handwritten-side forward indicates this is a social contact.

Cultural organizations often have scheduled events that active members may attend regularly, so mention that you're looking forward to seeing them at the next scheduled event. And since people attending a reception often don't have specific plans for after the event, invite them to join you and friends for lunch or dinner.

Like dating, you should make the first move to see them again. Call about the next event, contacting them a week in advance: "We met at the last opening. Are you going to the opening on Friday? We are heading out to dinner afterwards. Want to join us?" You can also invite prospects to your home, which speeds up the process of getting to know them. It's best to invite another couple you both know in common, which makes accepting the invitation easier for them.

Developing personal relationships with wealthy people is a slow process. Many others want to do business with them and use a direct, sales-oriented approach. But remember that wealthy people (like most people) enjoy doing business with people they like. Your objective is to meet them, take a genuine interest in them, and determine if you have enough in common to develop a personal relationship. That's an approach that will yield a rewarding relationship for advisor and client.

Bryce Sanders, a 20-year financial services veteran, is president of Perceptive Business Solutions Inc. in New Hope, Pennsylvania, which trains advisors on how to identify and meet high-net-worth individuals and transform them into clients. He can be reached at brycesanders@msn.com.

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