When staffers at Quantuvis Consulting answer the telephone, callers are routinely greeted with this cheerful refrain: "How can I make your day great?"
Engaging. Pro-active. Supportive.
Exactly what a lot of advisors are not these days.
With the economy in a tailspin, skittish advisors are running for cover. And that's too bad because this is just the moment you could be executing on marketing strategies that can deepen existing client relationships and bring new ones to the door.
As Stephanie Bogan, president of Redlands, Calif.-based Quantuvis, puts it: "There is no better time to market than when markets are turbulent, when returns are down, when client goodwill is gone. You should be out there promoting your service, your objectivity, your long-term relationships. This is when people are actually going to listen to that message."
Yet the knee-jerk reaction of many advisors in a challenging market environment is to cut back on public relations and marketing dollars.
Bill Blase, president of W.T. Blase & Associates in New York City, has this advice: Don't.
"People who run their own businesses are acutely aware of every dollar they spend. But the smart guys don't look at this as an expense but as an investment. You're investing in your business, yourself, your future. You can't be so risk-averse and cost-conscious that you never take that larger step forward," says Blase. "And for all those financial advisors who are no longer marketing aggressively, that just leaves the field open to you. There's less competition for your marketing dollar -- that's one way of standing out."
The bottom line? Use the downturn as an opportunity.
"Don't cut back. Don't hunker down. This is the time to rise above it," observes Peter Kaufman, founder of The Hoople Group in Richmond, Va. "It can be counter-intuitive for a lot of financial advisors. But when the tide goes back up, clients will remember the advisors who were there when things were tough."
Here are 15 suggestions to help you step up to the plate:
1. Stay visible. First, anticipate that clients are going to be anxious. Find out what they are worried about. Let them vent. "Clients need to know the advisor is still steering the ship, even when the going is rough. The economy is the No. 1 topic today. I can't think of a better marketing plug than clients saying: 'I was speaking with my financial advisor the other day and while my portfolio is down my goals are still on track.' That's powerful these days," observes Libby Dubick, president of New York City-based Dubick & Associates. "You really need to be out there."
2. Contact your clients. Touch base with your clients in the way they prefer, whether it's by e-mail or a phone call. Invite them in for a financial plan review, if that is their wish.
3. Host a breakfast. Handholding letters can be impersonal. Now is the time to look your clients in the eye. "People want to see that you're out there smiling and not on a tall building ready to leap," says Kaufman. He suggests hosting a breakfast for top clients with guest experts who can talk about the economy, the domestic equities market, the housing slump. "Bring in three experts and talk about it," he adds. "If you don't, it's like the elephant in the room. It gets bigger and bigger."
4. Negotiate marketing rates. Advertisers are as interested in doing business with you as you are with them. With newspapers and magazines discounting their rates, it's a good time to negotiate a media deal. If you advertise in a newspaper, Kaufman advises bargaining for an online tie-in so that you can track results on your website.
5. Consider outsourcing. If you haven't institutionalized your marketing process, it could be an appropriate time to outsource. Virtual PR teams and small boutique agencies, for example, will work on a per-project basis rather than requiring a retainer. However, as Blase notes: "The firm has to offer a real return. They need to know your business and your space. Getting a consumer products specialist, for example, to help with your PR is not a good bet."
6. Become an industry leader. Touch base with the media who cover your space. Offer an insight or benefit that will make your relationship with them stronger and more valuable. "Everybody talks about thought leadership, but few do it well," says Blase. "If you have something to say that is insightful and gives pause, people will take notice."
7. Nurture your niches. Consider how the niches you serve are likely to be impacted by the current climate and address that head-on. As Dubick points out, a dry cleaner and a car dealer are probably going to be affected differently in a down climate than a dentist and an accountant. "It's good to be sensitive," she says.
8. Build your brand. The biggest misconception advisors have is that they define "marketing activities" as having lunch with a CPA, according to Bogan. Brand-building requires systematic and disciplined marketing that isn't dependent on founders or partners but systems and processes that promote a firm. As an example, Bogan recently created a series on how to manage wealth through the generations for an advisory firm that's targeting high-net-worth clients. The "series" includes white papers and conference calls to clients, prospects and centers of influence. As Bogan frames it: "It's about rising above the noise."
9. Uncover your passions. A lot of advisors tell Kaufman their business model is "different" because they cater to pre-retirees, age 50-60, with $1.5 million in investable assets. Different? Not at all. Kaufman's response: What are you passionate about? Kaufman says the best marketing he has ever done has paired an advisor with hi s or her passion. In one instance, he connected an advisor who raises and jumps horses with a prominent hunt club event. "It combined her passion with her business. It simplifies everything, and she's gotten business from it," he says. "It's a magic bullet that makes marketing worries go away because you're speaking the same language."
10. Heighten your community profile. Whether it's hosting a 10-K run or addressing a local civic organization, you're creating a win-win in terms of goodwill. "Community service is such a good way to go. When you do this, you meet the best possible clients -- people who care about other people," says Dubick. "And when people meet you in those surroundings, you have instant credibility. When people see you, they already have a comfort level. In this day and age, that's a nice thing to think about."
11. Review your website. Does your website still reflect your marketing message? A lot of advisors fail to shift content on a timely basis. Does your positioning reflect your current strengths and services? Is it true to your mission and vision? As Blase observes, "Is there a way to make it more relevant to people? Is there a way to make it resonate better so that people can see that you do have your finger on the pulse?"
12. Become network-savvy. Get familiar with business networking sites like LinkedIn and Plaxo Pulse. Once you input your profile, it takes minimal effort to participate -- and it's free. Blase says it's a great way to make and get referrals. "Not only can it lead to new business," he adds, "but you're helping other people too, clients among them."
13. Focus on key clients. It's no secret that it's easier to get new business through current clients than through working prospects. "Picture your top 10 clients and then picture what it would look like if one of them walked out and got better service somewhere else," says Kaufman. "If that gives you a stomach ache, it should. Make sure that all your clients are taken care of not just well, but exceptionally well." Take a good hard look at the "client experience" and make sure it's shooting on all cylinders.
14. Refine your marketing message. There's no better time than in a turbulent market to rethink how to connect with your clients. How can you use the downturn to build a better mousetrap? The starting point, according to Blase, is trust. How do you communicate trust? "The important thing is for the client to say of an advisor: 'This is a guy I can rely on, a guy I can trust.' It's not about getting it right 1,000 percent of the time," he says. "We wouldn't have weather forecasters or economists if that were the case." As you refine your marketing message, think in terms of benefits to the client, not features. "The core of any marketing program is what's in it for the client," Blase adds. "What are they getting from you they can't get anywhere else?"
15. Build up your centers of influence. It's a good time to partner with experts on other concerns your clients may have: health care, educational funding, the housing malaise. Invite your clients, their CPAs and their clients to an event that showcases common concerns. "How is your market feeling and what can you do to communicate with them confidently? What you are communicating here is an advisor you can count on, service you can count on and relationships you can count on," says Bogan. "That's the message people want to hear."
Freelance writer Ellen Uzelac is based in Chestertown, Md.; the former West Coast bureau chief and national correspondent for The Baltimore Sun, can be reached at email@example.com.