After a long and challenging 2009, Senior Market Advisor’s readers are beginning this year on a conservatively upbeat note. The results of SMA‘s 2010 Advisor Survey are in and according to the more than 500 advisors who offered their opinions, there’s a mood of optimism and opportunity in the air as they look forward to regaining their business foothold in the coming year. They also admit they face great challenges addressing a client base that’s pessimistic, distrustful and still financially hard-hit by a down economy.

Conducted online this January, our survey asked readers to provide their thoughts on the state of the industry, including specific details on what marketing methods, lead generation strategies and even electronic tools are producing the best results (or, not doing so). We also polled them on their biggest concerns, and whether or not their relationships with their longtime clients and prospects had changed in the past year.

We were pleased with the breadth and scope of the responses, including hundreds of personal comments; in this special feature, we’ll try to capture some of that dynamic commentary. Be sure to check out our Web site for an expanded version of the story, with full survey results.

It’s hard to think that anyone in the United States wasn’t personally impacted by the multiple financial crises of 2009, and our readers shared that sentiment. Overwhelmingly, 46 percent of respondents said that it’s still the embattled economy that keeps them up at night, although a nearly equal number (44 percent) said that the challenges of lead generation are their primary business concern.

What keeps you up at night?
“We’re all going to need to run a lot faster to keep up with the changes just over the horizon,” offered one respondent. “The vulnerability of everyone’s finances is somewhat disturbing. And waiting for the cycle to change is tough.” Another reader was obviously more optimistic: “I sleep well since I control my destiny.”

“Competition, new tech and legislation have always been factors,” said reader Rick Lidinsky. “Change will always prevail. I worry about who I will talk to tomorrow.”

Others, such as Christopher Richter, put things in a broader perspective: “Qualified leads are harder and harder to come by nowadays, as many people are bombarded by information that oftentimes doesn’t even relate to their personal situation. On top of unscrupulous sales practices and with the huge economic downturn, people are wary of trusting anyone, and rightfully so.”

The ever-evolving nature of industry regulation also remained a serious concern. To that end, nearly two-thirds of our respondents say that they do not support the SEC’s 151A legislation, suggesting that the federal government’s since-delayed push to securitize fixed indexed annuities promises to cause more problems than it seeks to fix.

“Laws should not be changed just because someone sees them as an inconvenience,” said reader Vicki Guy. “Laws are laws. Additionally, the SEC oversees hedge funds, stocks, securities, etc. And look where they’re at now!”

The power of community
When it comes to making in-roads with clients old and new, 57 percent of our survey takers said that an altruistic marketing strategy – community involvement – was working best for them in the current economic climate. This far surpassed more traditional methods, including direct mail (36 percent), seminars (27 percent) and print and electronic advertising (23 percent).

“Community involvement helps because I am able to reach those that are in need of my services, faster,” explained Al Aldrete. “Also, the more often they see me, the more likely they are to think of me when it comes time.”

“Getting to know people personally works for me,” added Karen Boehm. “My clients realize how valuable my services are, (they) appreciate what I do and refer me as a great advocate for what they need.”

“I compete against reps who show little willingness to get out of their offices and be where people are,” said advisor James Oiler. “I love to be ‘on the scene’ with my logo t-shirt on, telling people what I do to help families.”

Others said that old-fashioned hard work, especially cultivating and following up on referrals, remains the cornerstone of their business, especially in tough times. “(It’s all about) picking up the phone and making those calls on a disciplined, regular schedule letting those I meet and those I know what I do for a living,” said Victoria Keiffer. And as another reader noted, “Advertising you can buy. Referrals have to be earned.”

On the flipside, when asked what marketing efforts are specifically not working right now, readers said they were dissatisfied with direct mail (42 percent), print and electronic advertising (41 percent) and social media (30 percent). Those methods, many argued, have become too expensive and are lost among the clutter of people’s busy lives.

“Direct mail was great 18-20 years ago, but now most people (including me) sort their mail over the trash can,” said Dennis Eckmeyer. “E-newsletters, like community involvement, help because of the number of times clients and prospects see my name, my company’s name and my contact information.”

“People get too much junk mail,” added Laura McReynolds. “Electronic or snail mail – unless they are already a client, they just don’t read what we send.”

(However, for ideas on successful and strategic niche market usage of direct mail, please read Ed McCarthy’s “The Check is in the Mail,” starting on page 67).

Advisor Alan Campbell also suggested that electronic communication is not for everyone. “I find that seniors, while having some e-savvy, still prefer the face-to-face meeting, so they can feel confident in their decisions and advisor.”

Changing strategies
And what have our readers done to change the ways they do business, following 2008′s stock market collapse? The largest percentage (35 percent) said they’ve continued what they were doing all along, although many have worked to find new lead-generation techniques (30 percent) or have begun to offer new products (31 percent).

For many, that’s included a bigger emphasis on fixed annuity products that emphasize safety; a new focus on LTCI; and a generally tighter control on risk management when working with clients’ assets. They’ve also placed more weight on referrals and upped their personal contact with their existing client base. Constant vigilance, they say, is the best strategy.

“I’ve been through (times like these) before, and I plan to be through them again,” said Greg Chimner. “So when times are good, I remind clients there are cycles and we prepare the investments according to their needs, while prepping for the worst.”

The electronic advantage?
Opinions were split on the role that new technology has played in advisors’ lives. While 50 percent of respondents say that computers, social media and Web sites have increased their productivity, 34 percent said the labor-saving devices and communications tools have taken away the personal touch, and aren’t always compatible with many of the older clients they seek to assist.

“Seniors 70-plus aren’t part of the tech revolution and it is a sore point with many,” said Earl Melin. “We take it for granted and expect them to do the same. Not so.”

“Above all, technology has increased productivity, but it has taken away personal interaction,” said Dennis Eckmeyer. “Computers are great when they work, but I’m an insurance salesman. Why do I have to know how to defragment a disc or download new anti-spy software? I used to spend a lot more time prospecting, but now it’s e-mail and Webinars.”

Many advisors themselves have also experienced a disconnect from much of the technology.

“I would like a really simple explanation of how to use Twitter/ LinkedIn/Facebook,” admitted Romeo Raabe.

Changes in attitudes
Over the past year and a half of bad economic news, advisors say they’ve also found their role changing as they have been forced to deal with an increasingly embittered, pessimistic and distrustful clientele. While retirees, especially the new and financially hard-hit boomers, are increasingly scared, confused and angry about their economic plight, 41 percent of our advisor respondents say that their relationships with their clients have actually improved, thanks to the services they’ve been able to offer and their reassuring personal approach. But there’s still a lot of bad news out there to contend with, they admit.

“There’s a serious aura of distrust,” says advisor Michael Vicchiarelli. “The media has done an exceptional job of painting us as ‘Wall Street predators.’ It’s tough after addressing all of their needs and concerns, your clients speak to their friends and without knowing those needs and concerns, nor the product, nor me, the friends explain how they think my clients are being robbed of their money.”

Many advisors, however, have been able to use their knowledge and resources to calm those client fears.

“They are asking me questions that they have not asked before,” said Dorothea Cole. “They are keeping me honest and on my toes.”

Roger L. Dearwester, LUTCF, agrees. “As time continues, senior clients become more receptive to someone who is consistent with their efforts and approach. They begin to know you by name and see those contact approaches as being informational. I noticed that seniors are always wanting to be educated.”

A time to teach
Finally, our readers told us, overwhelmingly, that the current economy has transitioned their advisor-client relationship into more of a coaching and educational role, and even more.

“I am more of a comforter and consoler and motivator, calming people’s nerves from market volatility,” explained David Driggers. Another respondent was to the point: “My role as an advisor is always about coaching AND educating. If you’re not doing that, you’re not an advisor.”

“I’m actually more of a psychiatrist,” noted Tom Doncaster, CLU, CWM. “In the early part of the year, I had to take much more of a leadership role with stronger encouragement and confidence. I had to display more of a ‘take-charge’ role to quell the clients’ fears.”