Each of us is familiar with the phrase, “You never get a second chance to make a first impression.” But what if the perception is already formed before you enter the room or have had a chance to meet or even speak with the prospect?

Surely seminar attendees have some preconceived notions when they attend an event, as do prospects obtained by a referral. With a seminar, everything from the mailer to the quality of the venue to how RSVP calls are handled makes an impression on the attendee. Sloppy phone manners or irresponsible seating, lack of parking or poor directions to the venue can create the impression your firm is not good with details and will probably be less than organized in managing financial affairs. Conversely, an office that answers phone calls and e-mails promptly and courteously, returns messages quickly and has a reputation for holding quality events will be perceived as a first-class operation — the first step to sales success.

Taking it a step further, a courteous and knowledgeable advisor who treats clients respectfully will assure that he has taken the first step towards building a solid relationship. Once established, it’s vital to deal from a position of knowledge by learning the client’s long-term goals before suggesting products.

“When I first entered this business I was frequently concerned over how I would be perceived by clients,” says Benjamin Pahl, an advisor with the Tranel Financial Group in Libertyville, Ill. “I was sometimes anxious over how clients, most much older than myself, would feel about me managing their life savings.”

Pahl cleared this hurdle by providing first-rate client service, ensuring the basics such as returning phone calls and being on time for appointments. He supplemented this by arming himself with in-depth knowledge about the clients and services he offered. When he needed help he had a mentor or would contact subject-area experts.

“As I won the mental battle within myself, gradually my worries subsided,” recalls Pahl. “Most clients accept the fact that everyone’s got to start somewhere. The more knowledgeable I became, combined with my commitment to providing first-rate service, the more my confidence and business grew. From the steps I was taking it was apparent that I cared about my clients’ financial futures. They’re appreciative of that.”

When it comes to money, it’s safe to say that no two individuals are alike. Prospects can be understandably apprehensive, nervous or secretive to the point where they withhold information that could be helpful in their financial planning. This raises the question: How does one grow relationships among apprehensive clients?

“People are concerned about a lack of integrity in business and this spills over to include the financial sector and financial advisors. Many worry that advisors are just salespeople trying to make a buck and aren’t really trying to meet each client’s unique needs,” says business consultant David Rendall, author of “The Four Factors of Effective Leadership.”

While the dynamics between money and one’s psyche are too great to adequately address here, there are some points worth considering. Whether your client is a middle-aged professional focused on accumulating wealth or a retiree or pre-retiree working to preserve what they’ve earned, the concept of money automatically involves responsibilities and emotions that are often deflected onto the senior advisor.

The psychology behind wealth and one’s reactions to it are complex and tricky to maneuver. Some who come into money either gradually through their own perseverance or suddenly through an inheritance, settlement or real estate sale, often say once people view you as wealthy, they treat you differently. Others say depending on how one was raised will determine attitudes, perceptions and reactions no matter how much wealth one has.

Understanding feelings about wealth is a key concern and should be addressed early in client relationships.
A pre-retiree who inherits property that her parents bought soon after the Second World War or the 20-year manager who has regularly bought company stock and made automatic 401(k) contributions can very suddenly find themselves with a stratospheric bank account. After they take that trip around the world, then what?

Many of these individuals will need a financial advisor to guide them with conviction. But the advisor needs to make the right impression before being able to move ahead. While referrals from a friend or business associate can go a long way, once in the door, the senior advisor has to prove he can deliver what the client needs.

It’s the listening
“For ages, the sales profession has been plagued by the perception of dubious business dealings,” says Lee B. Salz of Business Expert Webinars. “Yet, for a sales person to be successful in the financial or insurance arenas, they must position themselves as a consultant.” Salz, the author of “Soar Despite Your Dodo Sales Manager” says this is done by mastering not only products but the client’s needs.

The biggest perception hurdle senior advisors face is that prospects feel their advisor wants to sell them something but not necessarily what they need, says Wilma Anderson, RFC, in Littleton, Colo.

“I continue to see new clients who’ve been with other advisors who wanted to sell them something or told them what they needed but neglected to find out what they were really searching for at the first appointment. Anderson’s prescription: Ask questions to learn the client’s needs and concerns.

To help overcome client perceptions, listen more than talk in initial meetings. Find out about past investing experiences as well as future goals and how the client envisions a successful future.

It can also pay to maintain one’s marketing plan during all business climates to keep business percolating even in a sluggish economy. A weak or erratic marketing plan can make your firm appear less secure than it actually is, especially during an economic downturn. Keep your message steady. If you’ve built your practice on retirement planning, don’t suddenly offer yourself as a long term care specialist.

“The media tends to report stories of unscrupulous financial advisors,” Rendall says. “It generally does not cover those with integrity. This causes a harmful misperception because people then fail to benefit from the expertise financial advisors can offer. Their investments suffer because of a lack of knowledge and guidance and their lives become more stressful as they try to stay abreast of changes in the financial world and manage their families and careers.”

“Smart companies know that a solid, consistent marketing plan is a priority in any economy. When consumers pull their purse strings a little tighter, a top-notch marketing plan is needed to keep revenues up,” says PRstore co-founder Kathy Butler, based in Charlotte, N.C. “Unfortunately, some companies don’t think about marketing until the slowdown is well underway.”

Referrals from clients and business associates often promise to be generous when it comes to providing referrals that can aid clients as well. Helping a client’s parent or spouse get into a good nursing home or connecting them with a highly qualified estate-planning attorney or accountant can go a long way toward building a credible reputation. Similarly, professional designations also help build credibility.

Perceptions exist in the financial planning industry as they do in nearly every other profession. The astute senior advisor however, will find ways to leap such hurdles and continue growing his or her practice.