What's the first image that comes to mind when you hear any mention of our Veterans' Administration? Understaffed? Ineffective? Outdated? Bureaucratic? How would you like to be Jim Norris, the new CFO of the Veterans Benefits Administration? Talk about walking into an image problem. Yet Norris isn't letting the VA's past define him.
In a recent interview relating to his new position, he used a short story about his tour as a Medivac helicopter pilot in the jungles of Vietnam to explain who he is and why he's at the VA. "I was shot down twice by enemy fire, but was lucky enough to be able to walk away from the crash," he recalled. But Norris knew many who never made it back and many who were severely injured and some who were emotionally scarred. He can relate firsthand to the needs of those the VA is intended to serve, and he believes that personal experience will play an important part in helping him make a difference. That short "who I am" story gave me hope for the future of the VA. By defining his own image, Norris was able to re-define the previous image of an untrustworthy system.
What's the first image that comes to mind when you hear any mention of the financial services industry? Honest hardworking advisors doing what's best for their clients to maximize returns? That may be your fantasy image, but the awful truth is most Americans form their opinions from what they read or see in the local and national news. What images do you think most journalists have of our industry? Manipulative salespeople? Greedy brokers stealing from old people? Corruption? What you are up against is your own romantic notions of your own industry. But don't feel alone: Much of big business and government suffer from a negative image problem. Why?
I found some of the answers in Steven Covey's classic book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, in which Covey describes his struggles with his young son. A fairly normal kid, he still had something of a difficult time in school and was somewhat uncoordinated--doing things like swinging his baseball bat before the ball was pitched. Covey goes on to discuss what his son's actions meant to a success-driven father. He tried using all the modern success techniques to coach his son, but they didn't work.
During that same period, Covey had been researching how perceptions are formed, a process that involved reviewing nearly everything written about success over the last 200 years. He noticed a startling shift in the way the foundations of success were described in literature over time: Earlier literature uses terms Covey refers to as "character ethics"--including integrity, humility, fidelity, courage, justice, patience, industry and simplicity. However, about 50 years ago, literature shifted to what he calls the "personality ethic," where success became more a function of personality, of public image, of attitude and behaviors, skills and techniques designed to lubricate the processes of human interaction. Parts of the personality approach were clearly manipulation, even deceptive, encouraging people to use techniques to get other people to like them so they could get out of them what they wanted.
What troubled Covey most was the realization that this was the very advice he was offering his son. And the way he was "judging" his son was more an expression or response to social reward than concern for his son's welfare. His motives were out of harmony with his deeper values. Once Covey recognized this, he stopped trying to change his son and started to see him for the unique person he is. Covey credits this insight as the basis for his best-selling books on principle-centered living and leadership.
The Advisor Connection
If polled, most advisors would agree they want to project a principle-centered, trustworthy image. In reality, however, they operate without any clear picture of the image they project. In the absence of any intentional promotion of the image you wish to project, you default to the industry standard. And while advisors would categorically deny they are salespeople, the truth is that consumers don't know the difference between advisors and brokers. They lump everyone in the securities industry together.
When confronted with this, advisors admit they don't know how to market an image that demonstrates their commitment to serving their clients' best interests. There are people we trust absolutely because we know their character. But truly getting to know someone's character can take years, and as an advisor, you don't have that much time. You need a shorthand method to convey your character to prospects.
Many advisors turn to marketing experts that offer a multitude of services which, if examined closely, are mostly tactics designed to manipulate one's public or social image. There is an extraordinary mystique that has always surrounded marketing. How does it really work? As I uncovered the foundation of marketing strategies and tactics I made a discovery similar to Covey's realization.
Selling--generally and appropriately--employs some form of pursuit. Even when it's presented as, "I have something you want," you're still sending the pursuit message of, "I want something from you!" This runs counter to the classic idea of the trusted advisor role. Unfortunately, most marketing strategies are also based on pursuit techniques when they should employ the art of attraction illustrated by: "This is who I am." Then, prospects decide whether or not to work with you based on whether they are attracted to your image; thus, presenting the wrong image could become the most costly error you make in your practice.
Marketing your image is a dynamic process that involves communicating the story of who you are to position you as a trustworthy expert and to make you familiar to your target audience. The "who I am" story shows rather than tells your core beliefs and values. When all aspects of your business are aligned with your core beliefs and values, it proves your story and extends your marketing reach.
The awful truth is people can't differentiate between who's competent and trustworthy and who isn't. The only strategy they know is to choose who is the most familiar. Instead of spending time getting to know your target market your efforts should be focused on getting them to know you and who you are.
What are the best methods for marketing? I offer the following five points as a guide.
1. Define Your Own Image. What is important to you? Take some time to write down the story that best describes who you are. Think of turning points in your life. Each of us ends up making a unique set of choices (or non-choices) that influence the course of action we took (or didn't), and our personal stories reflect those choices.
2. Develop a Simple Message. Your message should showcase your expertise and the benefits of working with you--not just list your education or the age and size of your business. What is the real-life value of the advice or solutions you offer?
3. Market Your Credibility. It is my contention that the fastest way to build trust is by letting people come to their own conclusions. Someone will trust you only when that trust becomes real for them personally. I also believe that the most powerful form of credibility is in the printed word. Why? When somebody is trying to sell you something, the mind puts up defenses. But when you read about a problem being solved, those defenses dissolve. I found that writing a problem- solving type article or book, or an advertisement--based on a true personal experience--was the ideal method to reach inside my clients' minds.
4. Use Credible Distribution Channels. These might include industry trade magazines, shows and book publishers. Appearing on the cover of a consumer magazine may make great bragging material for Mom and Pop, but will probably do little for the prosperity of your business. Whereas, speaking directly to the needs of your market trade group or appearing in its trade magazine in their specific venue will more likely put you on their radar.
5. Build Familiarity with Repetition and Reach. Send out reprints--often. Consumers base their purchases on familiarity, even whey they know little about the company itself. Familiarity is comforting; the default position is confusion.
People choose you based on a certain feeling they get from the image you project in an article you wrote, when you walk into a room through your demeanor, handshake, voice tone, vocabulary, appearance . . . essentially every action (or lack thereof). Don't let your profession define who you are. The image that you want to project should echo throughout your business, its philosophy, employees, materials, presentations and client experience. Good luck and thank you for your attention.
Larry Chambers, once a successful stockbroker, lost millions in oil and real estate development after following the advice of the top self-proclaimed "expert" of that period. Now he serves the financial services industry as a coach writer helping organizations build a credible image and gain visibility through article and books. He is the author of Credibility Marketing and The Guide to Financial Public Relations, plus 47 other commercially published books. He can be reached at (805) 640-0888 or Larry@Lchambers.com. His Web site is www.Competitiveforce.com.