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Marketing Rules of Engagement

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Financial advisors and theirclients have a lot to talk about these days–market volatility, historically low interest rates, and a steady stream of corporate, Wall Street, and now mutual fund scandals. On top of that, advisors are operating in an increasingly competitive landscape, as lines blur between the various financial services sectors.

In this kind of environment, effective marketing, rather than traditional sales techniques, can be the key to winning and retaining clients. An effective marketing program for advisors can be built upon six marketing rules of engagement.

Rule 1: Be a Hobgoblin

You know the adage about consistency being the hobgoblin of little minds? Toss it into the trash, because consistency is paramount in maintaining lifelong relationships with your clients.

Think about the two or three companies that you most admire. I’d bet anything that what they all have in common is consistency. Consistency in message. Consistency in look, feel, and tone. Consistency in quality.

Consistency is the hallmark of an integrated marketing program. Every element of your marketing program needs to relate to every other element. Every brochure, letter, advertisement, seminar, or other communication needs to build on the foundation of what came before and needs to serve as a springboard for what comes next.

Consistency requires commitment, but it also pays huge dividends. So the next time you’re tempted to take the easy route towards inconsistency–whether it’s undermining your long-term investment philosophy by pushing the short-term gains of a hot product, or contradicting months of a diversification message with a sudden move out of a troubled asset class–aim a bit higher and be the hobgoblin your clients deserve.

Rule 2: Tell Them a Story

If a picture is worth a thousand words, then stories paint the most powerful pictures. Stories bind together families, communities, nations, and cultures. From the advisor’s perspective, stories are the most effective way to engage clients and prospects, build rapport, and create the foundation for a lifetime relationship.

When people read or hear a story, it has an immediate and lasting impact. On the other hand, when people read virtually any kind of sales-oriented communication, they’re usually skeptical. Stories, by their very definition, are engaging because they’re focused on relationships. Marketing materials are traditionally focused on transactions.

Consider this example. A beggar is standing on a city sidewalk holding a sign that says, “I am blind.” How many people would slow down enough to absorb the full meaning of the man’s plight, let alone toss a few coins his way? Now picture the same beggar standing alongside the Tidal Basin in Washington, D.C. This time his sign reads, “It’s cherry blossom time and I am blind.” It wouldn’t be a stretch to imagine that the second approach would attract much higher contributions than the first. The beggar’s trick was to get his prospects, i.e., passersby, emotionally involved by telling them a story.

The first beggar was selling; the second was marketing.

Rule 3: See the Forest in Every Tree

There’s an apocryphal story that goes like this. A man comes across three men laying bricks and asks one of the laborers, “What are you doing?” The first bricklayer shrugs and, without even looking up, says, “I’m making $15 an hour.” The man then moves on to the second bricklayer and asks the same question. The second bricklayer glances up and says, “I’m building a wall.” The man walks over to the third bricklayer and again asks the same question. That man stands up and proudly points to the heavens. “I’m building a cathedral,” he proclaims. The first two bricklayers are focusing on the task, the third on the vision.

Ask yourself that same question–”What are you doing?”–several times a day. If the response is “selling mutual funds” or “calling existing clients to get referrals,” then you’re focusing on the task rather than the vision. And while it’s vitally important to do every task well, the task cannot become an end in itself. Tasks are the means to an end. They are the building blocks of cathedrals.

What’s a better response to the question? Well, it might be more along the lines of “transitioning to a fee-based business.” Or even better, “reminding my clients why they entrusted their financial security to me in the first place,” or “enabling my client’s special needs.” I know a successful advisor who recalls how early in his career he helped a client establish a nest egg for his mentally disabled son. The goal was to provide financial security for the boy after the client’s death. Focusing on this goal transformed the way the advisor thought about his job.

How? One focuses on the big picture and the other on the small; one sees the forest, one the trees. Successful advisors meld both approaches and have the ability to see the forest in every tree. It’s a rare attribute, but one that’s well worth cultivating.

Rule 4: French KISS

The principle to “Keep it simple, stupid” is probably the most frequently given and least-followed piece of advice that any of us ever encounter, for three reasons.

First, it’s difficult to keep things simple. It’s hard to pare down 500 words of drivel into 100 carefully selected words that would make Shakespeare gasp with joy. Second, obfuscation of any kind creates a type of security blanket. Third, advisors often equate simplicity with dullness.

The first two issues can be dismissed with three words–”get over it”–while the third provides the inspiration for the French KISS principle.

Like its physical namesake, French KISS improves upon the original by adding some spice. It’s not afraid to be a bit daring, and it’s comfortable exploring the nooks and crannies of your imagination. Moreover, like all good marketing efforts, it’s totally focused on the target audience.

My own encounter with French KISSing in preparing this article provides a perfect example of how to bring the principle to life. When I first made a list of the various rules of engagement and outlined the key tenets of each, I realized that I had violated the core message that I was trying to communicate. The approach I was taking was not going to engage a single reader. The root of the problem was the rule titles. They were short, descriptive, and simple. They embodied every aspect of the KISS principle. Unfortunately, they were also impersonal and indifferent. So I changed them. One that began life as “Consistency” transformed into “Be a Hobgoblin.” And “Integrity” became “Liar, Liar, Pants on Fire.”

When communicating with clients or prospective clients via direct mail letters, brochures, Web site, newsletters, or whatever, strive for simplicity, and don’t forget to include a healthy dash of personal style.

Rule 5: Sign an I.O.U.

Have you heard the saying that “No one cares how much you know, until they know how much you care?” It’s a truth that is particularly relevant to the business of providing financial advice. And it can be boiled down to three letters: I.O.U.

Think about every way you communicate with your clients and the content of those communications. Then ask yourself whether you’re focusing on an “I” topic or a “you” topic. If it’s the former, then you’ve fallen into the old trap of focusing on features. You’re spending too much time talking about you, your product, or your company. You’re taking an egocentric approach to relationship-building.

“You” topics, on the other hand, are focused on the customer’s needs and the benefits accrued by utilizing your products and services. The thing to keep in mind is that even the most difficult and least profitable client is a human being. And like all humans, the only thing they enjoy more than talking about themselves is having someone else talk about them. Identify a client’s problem and offer a solution, and you’ll create a client for life.

Rule 6: Liar, Liar, Pants on Fire

Someone once said, “Character is how we live our lives when no one else is around to notice.” Whether you define it as integrity, trustworthiness, honor, or reliability, character is an essential ingredient of success at any endeavor. And it’s especially important to being an effective financial advisor. Keep your promises, and you’ll keep your clients.

What’s so hard about being trustworthy or keeping promises? From a marketing standpoint, it runs counter to everything we’ve been taught. Traditional marketing revolves around hyperbole, and it never lets the facts get in the way of a catchy tagline. Just capture the consumer’s attention, lock him into a purchase decision, and wish for the best. It’s an approach that works fine for a transactional relationship but yields disaster for the kind of lifetime relationship that successful advisors strive to create.

Traditional marketers spend far too much time policing the fonts and colors of their brand’s logo and not nearly enough time worrying about their brand’s character. They should be focusing on how to turn their trademark into a trustmark–a brand that stands for uncompromised integrity, a brand that will never mislead or disappoint and, most important, never take itself or its customers for granted.

All of the above applies just as strongly to you and your personal brand as an advisor.

General Norman Schwarzkopf, of Desert Storm fame, noted that “Leadership is a potent combination of strategy and character. But if you must be without one, be without the strategy.” Substitute “effective financial advice” for “leadership” and the sentence reads just as true.

When it comes to marketing financial advice, consistency and character reinforce each other over time. Every advisor could benefit from a reputation for an ethical approach to problem-solving. Consistency and character are the bedrock qualities that you are marketing to clients and prospects. But it is not a static process–you need to engage your clients with meaningful stories, told with style, and always with the goal of providing solutions to their problems.

Effective marketing in these challenging times requires a dialogue. Sometimes you talk, and sometimes you listen. But most importantly, when it is your turn to talk, you’d better be sure that your words reflect what you’ve heard. The bottom line is this: Listen to your customers and they’ll open their ears to what you have to say.