The commoditization of financial services can be seen almost everywhere you look. Banks are offering brokerage services. Brokerage firms are launching banking platforms. Even Wal-Mart is getting into the act by launching an in-store bank.

This commoditization has put enormous competitive pressure on firms, which in turn has put pressure on reps to ramp up volume–particularly among high-net-worth investors. With more and more reps seeking to land business from an ever-shrinking subset of the population, it is crucial that reps make a great–not just good–first impression. And if the results of our research are any indication, most advisors would benefit from a crash course in Sales 101.

This is not to say that advisors are not doing their jobs or shirking their duties to clients. We simply question whether the majority of advisors are shortchanging themselves by putting on poor sales efforts and thus missing out on business opportunities.

Over the past 10 years, the research my firm conducts has led us to open literally hundreds of brokerage accounts–in person, over the phone and online. In fact, last year we completed a comprehensive account opening study that researched the in-branch sales experience through account opening at the top 25 brokerage firms in the country.

Following are some suggestions gleaned from our research that you may want to consider when first establishing relationships with prospective clients. The focus here is from the point when you have a prospect in your office; it is not about setting up an initial lead-generating marketing campaign. Some of these may sound like common sense–and they are. What is surprising is how few reps actually employ these tactics.

Prepare a unique selling proposition

Who are you? How are you (or your firm) different from the others? During our account opening study, when we asked reps how their firms differed from the competition, most said that there was no difference. “ABC Brokerage, DEF Brokerage and XYZ Brokerage are all the same. What’s different is me and the attention I give to each client.” This is, essentially, the same story we heard from every rep we spoke with during the study.

Imagine going to buy a new car and being told that all cars are the same, and what’s different is the quality and honesty of the salesman. While many people would probably agree that establishing rapport with a car salesman is somewhat important, most would also concur that a Lexus is different from a Chevrolet and prefer that the salesman promote those differences.

Granted, a tangible object such as a car is a lot easier to differentiate from the competition than a financial services company, but the message is no less important. As potential clients, we did not find comfort in the fact that brokers could not verbalize–if indeed they even knew–what their company stood for, or what its unique selling proposition was.

To merely toss away your firm’s rich heritage (and the products it has worked very hard to give you) is doing your firm and you a disservice. Don’t say your firm is the same as all the others; use the history of the firm and its products and services to help you make your case.

Of course, your service may be what separates you from the competition. But that’s doubtful since everyone else is saying exactly the same thing. Regardless, provide specific examples and, if possible, referrals or testimonials. Your relationships with advisors in different channels may be what separate you from competitors. If so, center your materials around this and provide bios or profiles of these other relationships.

The important thing is to be able to articulate to prospects why they should work with you and your firm and not anyone else.

Prepare for the meeting

Assuming you have advance knowledge of the sales meeting (i.e., it is not a walk-in), you must prepare for it. Don’t rely on your charm to see you through. And when the prospect sits down at your desk, don’t ask, “So, what are you interested in?” (This happened to us on more than one occasion.)

Prior to the meeting, consider what triggered it. If the prospect reached out to you, what event caused him or her to take this step? If the meeting is a result of your own marketing efforts, what prompted the prospect to agree to meet you?

Prepare information for the prospect to take home and focus the first part of your conversation around that. Only once have you addressed the initial need should you proceed to discuss other areas.

Prepare a “sales kit”

In this world of e-mail, e-documents, iPods and all things electronic, it is often nice to have something tangible that can be referred to without turning on a switch or rebooting. Independent business consultants are encouraged to develop sales or press kits, which show off the consultant’s expertise. Financial consultants should have their own version, as well. Things that should be included in the kits are:

o The relevant topical materials you prepared specifically for the meeting. These might be education materials about products (e.g., annuities), market commentary written by your firm or other experts, etc.

o Your bio, including years’ experience in the industry, certifications, college attended, etc.

Articles you have written

Case studies–here is another marketing item you can borrow from the consulting industry. Write case studies about clients who had specific challenges and how you helped solve them. (Merrill Lynch’s Website employs case studies and provides a good example of how you might create one.)

Firm marketing literature

We would caution that you put some time into preparing this kit. Don’t simply go into the back room of your office and grab every piece of marketing literature you can find. What is important is relevancy, not quantity.

Probe for information

The convergence of financial services presents both opportunities and challenges for reps. On the one hand, you have more products to sell and can serve your clients better. On the other hand, you now need to be versed in multiple products and know how and when to sell them.

Assuming you understand what you are selling, it is impossible to do so without being proficient in probing your prospects and clients about their financial situations and needs. During our research on account openings, we were surprised at how little the brokers we met with probed us for information.

The first few conversations you have with prospects are mutual interviews. They should be asking questions about you to determine if they think you’d be a good fit for them and you should be asking as many, if not more, questions.

Follow up and don’t be afraid to ask for the business

It was surprising how many times during our research we were able to leave an initial meeting with a broker and not be asked for contact information. How can you follow up with the prospect if you don’t know how to reach him?

Of course, when you do get the contact information, it is imperative that you do follow up. Send a handwritten thank-you note the day of the meeting. The note adds a personal touch that is too often missing from this business. If you can include additional thoughts, ideas or materials about topics you discussed, all the better.

This should be followed up a couple of days later with a phone call asking the prospect if he has any questions. Suggest what the next steps should be. Don’t be afraid to ask for the business; if the prospect is not ready to move, find out why and figure out a way to help him overcome his reticence.

The bottom line: The initial prospect meeting is one of the most important components of your sales toolbox. Preparing for the meetings ahead of time and conducting rigorous follow up will help you be more successful in standing out from the crowd.