On a recent trip to Dubai to visit with Pershing clients, I took time to explore the souks in search of gifts to bring home. Amid the specialized bazaars for gold, spices, and perfumes, vendors also peddled pashminas, rugs, and silver. Three things struck me as I stopped at each little shop:
o How much each store's offering looked like the others;
o How quickly they were willing to negotiate price;
o How likely they were to position their products as superior without any verification of the claim.
Many financial professionals do the same thing. As one advisor wrote to me, "It's clear that using comprehensive wealth management or fee pricing is not unique any more as advisors of many stripes can claim some variation of this. Even the advantage of fiduciary may be eliminated by Congress. What can we do to differentiate our firm from the rest of the market?"
Clearly financial services organizations face challenges in staking out a position that sounds substantially different to prospective clients. Let's take a look at the public positioning of a few examples as of early March 2010.
The Web site of Charles Schwab & Co. tells prospective clients to get advice from Schwab because of a "fact-based disciplined approach, time-tested investing principles, personalized to your situation and goals, premium advice without premium price."
Merrill Lynch, the largest traditional stock brokerage firm, says clients should rely on their financial advisors because of "a one-to-one relationship based on trust, financial advice tailored to your needs, world class research and insights and the resources of Bank of America and Merrill Lynch."
One of the country's largest banks, JPMorgan Chase, says: "J.P. Morgan offers individual and family investors a world-class asset and wealth management platform through our Private Bank, Asset Management and Private Wealth Management teams...We foster long-term client relationships by offering tailored solutions designed to help individual investors and families achieve their unique financial goals."
On the Web sites of some of the country's leading independent RIAs, the language goes something like this: "Everything we do is driven by our clients' financial objectives. We deliver personal wealth strategies and investment management programs tailored to achieve each client's individual goals."
We could continue the comparison by looking at mutual fund companies, insurance companies that offer financial planning, trust companies and virtually every independent financial advisory firm.
Using a Gimlet Eye
Discount brokers, wirehouse reps, banks, and independent advisors have different ways of capturing an economic benefit for themselves while leveraging their unique strengths. Some price by transaction and others by fees, but beyond this, one must parse their messaging with a critical eye.
Notice subtleties like Schwab's emphasis on discounted prices, JP Morgan's breadth of service, and Merrill Lynch's research and insight. Even as the independent advisor tries to come across as more customized and individually focused, the others convey the same message of being sensitive to the individual client's objectives, using disciplined and proven approaches, having relevant experience, and linking everything together. So what are you really known for? Are experience, credentials, ethics, and a disciplined approach true differentiators, or merely a minimum threshold for being in the business of financial advice?
Some independent advisors reading this are probably beginning to feel their blood pressure rise over the comparisons above, but the point is that the message is muddled. The language used on Web sites is repeated in collateral material and in conversations with prospects. Prospects and clients find it difficult to discern a difference. When attempting to appeal to new clients, every advisory firm must answer three key questions: What do you do? Whom do you serve? What makes you unique?
The Flaw of the Negative
But differentiating does not mean denigrating. It has become common practice in the advisory business to characterize one's competitors as less competent, less thorough, and not operating in the best interest of the end client. When the souk merchants used this tactic with me, I began to wonder if anyone in the entire souk was a credible source for the items I was seeking. In spite of their efforts to position themselves as superior, they diminished that perception by giving me a discount to induce a transaction--before I even showed a solid interest in their product!
That is not to say that comparisons with others in your industry are not appropriate. If you can demonstrate qualities like stability in retaining clients and staff, history of the firm, performance, client satisfaction, and other indicators of superiority, then by all means do so. But the comparisons should be translated into a desired outcome or benefit to the client, not just used as a means of trashing your opponent.
When advisors claim that their credentials, approach, and ethics are superior to all others without any validation or verification, clients wonder who can they trust. An extraordinarily common response for advisors when asked about their competition is, "I don't have any." Aside from stretching credulity, this positioning also demonstrates a lack of awareness of the broader marketplace for investment management, financial planning, or risk management solutions. If there was only one credible, ethical, and talented advisor for the entire market, then why doesn't that one advisor have all the clients?
Businesses that focus on criticizing their competitors are not doing anything to compel prospects to do business with them. Your positioning should not be about what you are not, but who you are and why that will be of benefit to the client.
The challenge is how to elevate your own brand without tearing down somebody else's? When you "go negative," how does it reflect on your ethics and professionalism? How does it demonstrate that you are, in fact, superior?
A Strategic Differentiator
Your strategic differentiator is not found in marketing alone. So what does make you unique? Your business decisions in delivering a consistent client experience from the moment a prospect is identified to the delivery of your recommendations and the execution of individual plans. Different types of clients with separate needs and diverse backgrounds will value you in very different ways.
For example, the trustees of a 401(k) plan have different expectations than a high-net-worth retiree in terms of how you report, relate, and respond to them. Lottery winners view their planning and investment needs differently than business owners. Widows and divorcees have a wholly different perspective than that of a young high-tech worker. It's obvious that our communities are filled with diverse opportunities, but the successful positioning of your firm is not always easy. You cannot connect directly with each segment when your language sounds generic.
To be effective at creating a strategic differentiator, the market must eventually recognize you for something. That something could be your firm's low cost, or an advisor with expertise in a niche, or technical superiority in some area such as long-term care, concentrated stock positions, or retirement planning. You could be regarded as an innovator or for having the best trained and educated professional team in your market. Ask your current clients: When they describe you and your firm to one of their friends or a center of influence, how do they position you beyond the fact that you are trustworthy?
Think about how to define your optimal client, not in terms of net worth or investable assets but in terms of characteristics like life cycle stage, location, personal interests, occupation, critical needs, psychology, and behavior. Then create a differentiating message that causes them to believe you built your advice business just for them.