In a different age, alchemists claimed they’d mastered a secret formula that turned base metals into gold. Fast-forward to today. Senior advisors are regularly bombarded with promises to turn sales leads into solid customers. Is it a different form of alchemy or is there truth behind the formula?

There are always senior producers who outpace the pack when it comes to sales numbers. They convert more prospects to clients. One point all of them make – the tip that helps them regularly reach into the seemingly infinite sea of leads and come back with a fistful of sales – is the skill to educate the prospect with a promise to make his life better.

“You’ve got to enable the prospect to see the promise of a better tomorrow,” says AG Edwards & Sons’ perennial top producer Shaun P. Golden, CRPC, based in rural Riverhead, N.Y.

Golden, a regular on the seminar circuit, criticizes many advisors for giving away too much free advice and then complaining when leads walk away. “My seminar goal is to educate the attendees by identifying a problem and letting them know I offer ways to fix it. No one’s ever made money off a tire kicker, which is why I do not answer questions at seminars.”

“Representatives who regularly turn leads into clients obtain the client’s trust,” says Jim Freeman of Cantella & Co. Inc., in Boston. “The best way to earn trust is to show the client that you care about them and their financial well-being. Successful reps convey in simple terms their expertise and how their skills can benefit a client.”

“To convert leads into clients requires you to absolutely think like a marketer,” says Russ Story, a Certified Senior Advisor at Story Wealth Management Group in Douglas, Ga., who regularly targets high-net-worth leads. “Word of mouth, direct mail and even referrals are no longer enough. To move from a cold lead to a warm one to a close, you need as much client information as possible.” Story examines prospects’ tax returns and current investments before providing cash-flow and risk analysis and making recommendations.

Sensible strategies

Every piece of your business communication should lead toward the same goal: educating prospects about how you can help them. This is the key way to move them from the lead file to the client list, according to advisors interviewed here. Remaining on topic and delivering a concise, factual message and respecting their time is usually a good, sensible strategy.

“Seniors often need long-term income solutions,” says Christopher Genovese of Fixed Income Securities in Melville, N.Y. “A Certificate of Deposit or bond is easy to understand and may solve their problem. Is it the best solution for a complex retirement planning challenge? Might the client be better served with structured products such as reverse-convertible notes? Subsequently, advisors need to be educated on these products to determine if there’s a proper fit and how to market them.”

Due to projected 20- to 30-year retirements, finding income solutions for seniors has indeed become complex. Genovese notes that new financial solutions come through seemingly every day, yet advisors often fail to learn about how they can utilize them to help their clients and subsequently grow their businesses.

“Many seniors wanted to get involved with commodities,” Genovese recalls.

“Unfortunately, many became interested when prices were very high. In some cases, a principal-protected note could have offered this exposure while providing downside protection.”

“When trying to turn a lead into a client, it’s vital to get as much information as you can before making that first phone call,” says Mark Hall of Market Street Advisors in Smithfield, N.C. Hall, who says about 60 percent of his 600-member client base has come from referrals provided by local banks, offers a proven but rigid lead-to-client recipe.

“I try to learn as much about the lead as I can before that first phone call,” Hall says. Key data are age and marital, employment, and health status. “The worst starting position is to have only a name and phone number,” says Hall, who once got information on a prospect by visiting the prospect’s company’s Web site. “The first telephone call is all about introducing yourself, stating how you got their name and scheduling a face-to-face meeting, preferably in our office. For the meeting, I ask them to bring statements and other pertinent material.”

It’s at subsequent meetings that Hall makes recommendations. “We may start with something simple, like consolidating IRAs to reduce expenses and enable us to better manage their money. There’s absolutely no pressure. We want them to feel comfortable.”

Hall also recommends that advisors study the quality of the leads they receive, pay attention to client detail and deal with good quality companies.

The personal touch

“Understanding senior needs is essential in lead generation and prospecting,” says John Olerio, senior vice president and sales manager for Webster Investments in Kensington, Conn. “Senior needs are complex and need to be personalized to individual circumstances covering income, security and simplicity. We also involve other family members or other professionals when recommending investment decisions for seniors.”

It often takes more than in-depth knowledge or technical expertise to make a sale. While you’re discussing return rates and withdrawal options, they’re thinking, “Can I trust this person? Does he know what he’s talking about (or do I understand what he’s talking about)? Do I actually need this?”

“Rarely do prospects commit to doing business on the first call, and why should they?” asks Cantella’s Freeman. “The first meeting should be about learning a potential client’s needs, wants, desires and financial situation in order to return with a comprehensive solution. This requires a potential client to leave their comfort zone. Be sensitive. It often helps to state that you won’t make any recommendations until returning with a comprehensive solution.”

By presenting yourself as a creative marketer, you’re also viewed as a clever problem-solver – one who truly thinks out of the box. As people’s business lives become increasingly complex, someone who is able to offer sensible problem solving is offering a truly valuable service. Backing it up with cutting-edge technology or in-depth knowledge can tilt the scales in your favor, but never forget: No matter your specialty, the market will always be open for those who brand themselves as problem-solvers.

Know thy client

The most productive marketing resources each of us has are our own time, experience and ability to communicate effectively. Getting in front of prospects is hard work, which is why it’s equally important to remain in touch with existing clients as you work to target new ones. Staying in touch with regular clients and consistently doing a good job will produce strong referrals and stronger target markets.

Informed clients usually are the best clients. While there’s nothing wrong with a “gee-whiz” presentation or mailing, the bottom line can never be forgotten. Regularly put yourself into your customers’ shoes by asking: What can all this neat stuff do? Can it provide reliable, long-term income? Can it help someone send his grandchild to college or get more out of retirement?

Steve Mannato of William Tell Financial Services in Latham, N.Y., often transforms leads into clients through his multigenerational approach and prefers a proactive, knowledge-based, low-pressure style.

“If I’m meeting with a senior couple, I’ll ask how their children and grandchildren are doing. If they say one was recently married, bought a home or is expecting a child, I’ll mention services that may be useful and ask if I can call on them. They almost always provide the contact.”

Since the names come from family members, Mannato considers them warm leads, ones for which his closing percentage is very high.

Each week Mannato calls about 25 clients. “No one likes to feel like you’ve forgotten about them. During these calls, I not only point out items in their account that should be addressed, but also ask for referrals.”

Realizing that young prospects are often reluctant to make large financial commitments, Mannato positions 529 plans as “door openers” and offers in-home seminars at the prospect’s home or office.

“The ability to make low deposits and get a tax break while helping provide for their children’s or grandchildren’s futures can appeal to both the parent and grandparent,” says Mannato, who has given talks at preschools. “From there the relationship and referral base can build.”

To grow your business, you also must seek new relationships with target groups. Describing to prospects how you best serve current clients, such as small-business owners, creates a comfort level since you can authoritatively describe clients facing similar circumstances and separate yourself from a generalist. Prospects can see the value in your experience.

“We start with an in-depth financial questionnaire that provides a basis for decision making,” Cantella’s Freeman says. “This identifies where the client may be inefficiently investing, either by not first filling tax-advantaged buckets or by placing the wrong investments in taxable vs. tax-deferred or non-taxable accounts. The confident closers explain to potential clients that when they return, they will work together with them to map out a solution and decide whether to go ahead or leave things as they are.”

Thoughtful and thorough profiling of seniors is essential to making sound and suitable recommendations. Marketing efforts should be designed to invite seniors for a confidential, comprehensive and complimentary data-gathering session.

“We spend too much time chasing bad leads.” Story says. “We don’t need to do business with everyone.”