Anybody following the latest politico-celebrity-insider trading scandals via Twitter, WikiLeaks or Facebook might well assume that everyone in a position of authority has feet of clay. That assumption sometimes carries over to financial advisors—and it's serious enough that advisors themselves need to consider addressing it up front.
The problem is that while the great majority of independent financial professionals are dedicated to serving their clients' interests as skillfully and impartially as they can, many find it difficult to communicate this in an effective way. Some actually regard the need to "sell" themselves with distaste and disdain.
But it's vitally important for prospects, new clients and the general public to know what you stand for and how you do business. Perhaps this is a good time to revisit how to get off on the right foot when introducing yourself. To complement my own viewpoint as a therapist and coach, I invited comments from Mike Patton, founder and president of the RIA firm Integrity Wealth Management LLC in Baton Rouge, La., and a contributing editor for Investment Advisor (and blogger for AdvisorOne.com). Here's how Mike and I would suggest handling certain situations.
Q: I have a good business and know that my work helps people become more financially secure. But when I'm asked, "What do you do?" by a stranger, I feel guilty about blowing my own horn. I hear myself saying dopey things like "I help keep people from losing too much money in the markets." Why do I keep shooting myself in the foot like this and how can I stop?
A: Most likely, you're being sabotaged by old internal messages that are telling you it's wrong to brag about yourself. You may even believe deep down that it's evil to want to make money. These "scripts" can prevent you from sharing what you do in an open and honest fashion.
I've been consulted by a skilled financial planner who believes wholeheartedly in her work, but old scripts like these have made her hide her powerful light under a bushel. To help her understand and get beyond them, I suggested that she record "money dialogues"—conversations between herself and Money about these troublesome old messages. She then records what her mother, father and other authorities in her early life would say about each dialogue with Money. The exercise has helped clarify her internal conflicts and shown her ways to move beyond them.
It may also help to practice writing or role-playing with a friend or trusted colleague a new response to the question, "What do you do?" When I asked advisor Mike Patton how he answers this question, he replied, "I say that I offer comprehensive financial planning and asset management services in a non-salesy fashion." Something like this can make sense if, like Patton, you want to distinguish yourself from the sales orientation of a traditional broker.
Q: I would like more business, but I'm feeling ambivalent about a new client who used to be a do-it-yourself investor. Since following the "old rules" cost him years of portfolio growth, he wants me to tell him what the "new rules" are. After quizzing me for 40 minutes about my contract, he finally signed it. How should I adapt my style to work with a controlling guy like this? Or am I just setting myself up for trouble?
A: I suspect that you are, in fact, setting yourself up to be drained by a difficult client. Anyone who interrogates you in such detail about your contract will probably carry that challenging vibe into every corner of your relationship.
In your shoes, I would be sure to tell him exactly what you do and don't do. If he is still interested in working with you, consider taking him on provisionally for three or six months to see how it goes.
Of course, it's often smart to trust your instincts. If you're wary of getting into this relationship, it may be a sign that you should refer him to a colleague who would be more comfortable working with such a demanding client.
Mike Patton's perspective on this situation is quite different and very interesting. He told me, "I probably wouldn't reject him right off the bat because I find that often these controlling types tend to be insecure at their core. Depending on his personality type, he may need his ego stroked to feel validated and important. So I might try that first and see how he responds instead of rejecting him out of hand. If you win him over, he may end up being a very loyal and long-term client."
Q: I congratulated myself recently on signing up a wealthy woman who used to work with a local broker, but she's driving me crazy, calling almost every day to discuss whether to buy something new or get out of a particular sector. Since she always thanks me for being so available, I'm hesitant about refusing to take her calls. How can I get her to back off a little without offending her?
A: Think about whether you made your way of working clear in your first meeting with her. Did you spell out how often you generally communicate with your clients and how available you would be to serve her needs? If you didn't, this anxious client may not think her behavior is unusual. She may also be testing you to see how much you will be there for her.
You might consider inviting her in to discuss how you can meet her need for reassurance without constant phone calls. If you explore her anxieties and fears with her (maybe her former advisor made decisions without consulting her?), you may be able to suggest a number of things you could do to allay those fears. For example, perhaps you'd be willing to schedule a weekly "check-in" phone call, email or letter to let her know how her money is doing.
Mike Patton asks, "Is this client actually a do-it-yourselfer? Or is she just very concerned and feels the need to be closely involved with her finances? Once you find out how involved she wants to be, you can see if it's a good fit for the way you work." He adds, "I often feel that at the beginning of a new relationship, the client may need to meet more frequently. Then as they come to know and trust you, they are comfortable meeting much less often."
Q: I'm a little burned out these days, and a conversation with an affluent business owner was the icing on the cake. When I broached the topic of investing, he complained that making money in the financial markets was "an inside job" because "everybody's hand is in everybody else's pocket." He brushed aside my protests about my own integrity and that of my profession. The sad thing is, I know he's not the only one who feels this way. What can I do to push back against this perception?
A: I truly feel for you. In these days of continuing disillusionment with the financial industry, you and your colleagues are probably hearing complaints like this more often.
First, I would listen to and empathize with this business owner's anger about the greed and conflicts of interest that contributed to the market meltdown. If you happen to share his opinions, tell him so.
Once he feels better understood, he may be more open to changing his negative view of your role. You can tell him stories of satisfied clients, of course, but I would suggest asking him what he would need you to do in order to earn his trust. Assuming that you are an honest practitioner who wants to serve him well, it's crucial to find out what it would take for him to differentiate you from the "bad guys." Be transparent about how you are paid and about any conflict of interest that might be perceived, no matter how small. Slowly but surely, I believe you'll be able to earn his trust.