It’s no secret that big opportunities often present themselves in periods of great uncertainty. But when times are challenging, as they are today, it can be difficult to see the path that can take your business to a higher level of success — let alone get on it.

And yet, that’s exactly what elite financial advisors do every day. In our experience coaching hundreds of financial advisors in recent years, we’ve seen that the most successful financial advisors take very specific, deliberate steps to achieve significant breakthroughs in their practices. Specifically, there are four key best practices that top financial advisors in our coaching programs have been implementing in recent years that are yielding big results as they serve their clients well. If you’re looking to raise your game, it’s time to consider the following steps:

Commit to change. The world has changed, and to be successful going forward you must rise to the occasion and commit to doing what it takes to aggressively capture the opportunities. Efficiency — doing more with less — isn’t the answer right now. You’re not a factory with an assembly line that you can shut down during tough times. In fact, clients’ demand for your time has almost certainly soared in recent years — so slowing down or making big cutbacks probably isn’t even an option at this point.

What’s required today is that you do more on less. That means being highly effective in all your efforts by focusing only on those few actions that are going to make you extremely successful — and leaving the rest behind. For example, we’ve discovered that the biggest differentiating factor in the level of success that financial advisors achieve is the business model that they adopt. Specifically, financial advisors who choose a wealth management business model that focuses on a consultative approach earn three times more in net income than those financial advisors who continue to operate using the traditional investment generalist model that favors a product-driven approach –$881,000 versus $279,000. Even better, wealth managers earn their higher incomes while serving fewer than half as many clients as their peers. In other words, they do more on less by focusing on the right affluent clients and delivering the right world-class experience.

That’s what financial advisor Gordon Owens started several years ago, and it helped land him on Barron’s top financial advisors list. But as you’ll see in his profile below, Owens didn’t stop there. He and his team commit themselves each day to taking actions aimed at creating exponential change for their practice.

Conduct rediscovery meetings with your existing clients. At a time when many financial advisors are avoiding their clients, or having quick and superficial conversations with them, top financial advisors are doing the exact opposite. One of the smartest moves you can make right now is to schedule rediscovery meetings with your best clients to review their concerns, their values and their goals — and how those things may have changed in the wake of market volatility and uncertainty. From there, you can determine where your clients currently stand, where they want to go and how you can best help them close that gap.

Rediscovery meetings are one of the most powerful business development techniques we are using in our coaching programs. They will help you reconnect with clients and demonstrate your concern for their well-being, reassure them that you want to understand them on a deep level and — perhaps most important — remind them that you are the best financial advisor for them. If you think such a reminder is unnecessary, think again: A September 2008 study showed that more than 80 percent of affluent investors were actively considering switching their financial advisors. While we don’t expect that level of switching to actually happen (primarily because of inertia), we believe approximately 15 percent of these affluent clients will switch over the next 18 months — which represents trillions of dollars in assets. In normal times, it’s easy to assume that you know everything you need to know about longtime clients and that they are happy with you. Today, however, you need to go the extra mile to protect your client relationships and guarantee their satisfaction.

The best way to “rediscover” clients is to sit them down and ask questions that will enable you to understand their unique situation on a deep level. This means helping them think about their key goals and values, their interests and most important relationships, their assets and how they prefer to work with their financial advisors. Such knowledge will allow you to create an accurate, up-to-date and comprehensive profile of your clients that you can use to design ideal new solutions and solve their biggest financial challenges. And if you’re like financial advisor Armand Del Medico, it will help you hold on to key client relationships that are about to walk out the door.

Offer a “second opinion” service. The opportunity to get high-quality referrals from your satisfied existing clients is enormous right now. The key to success, however, is not to simply ask for referrals. Instead, you must deliver a great client experience and then offer to share that same experience with the people your clients care about most. Any time you meet with clients, offer a value-added second opinion service to their family members, friends and key associates. Of all the strategies we recommend in our coaching program, this second opinion service is the easiest to implement. More importantly, it generates an impressive return on time and effort — as seen in the profile of Eric Thurber.

Start by telling each client how much the market volatility and uncertainty is affecting everyone. One great way to do that: Mention the research, cited above, that four out of five investors are dissatisfied with their financial advisors and looking to make a change. Talk about how frustrating it must be for their friends and business associates who aren’t getting the level of quality advice and service that they need, and have started wondering if they should be looking elsewhere. Then tell the client that you are more than happy to provide the people whom they care about with a second opinion about their investment plans to make sure they are making truly informed decisions about their money and are on track toward their goals.

Make sure to communicate that your purpose in offering the service is to help others in the same way that you have helped your clients. Let the client know that you will assess that person’s current plan, determine any gaps and opportunities and review his or her long-term goals and objectives. If you find that they’re achieving their objectives with their current financial advisors, you will say so. But if they are not getting what they need and require a new approach, you will discuss working with them — or refer them to an appropriate financial advisor if it turns out that you are not the best fit for them.

Of course, you’ll want to follow up on each referral and take each prospect through the same type of rediscovery meeting that you should be doing with existing clients (only, in this case, it will be simply a discovery meeting since it is a new prospective client). A conversation focusing on values, needs and life goals is something that most affluent investors have never encountered from their financial advisors. It’s therefore very powerful and it rapidly makes prospects comfortable with the idea of transferring assets to you so you can help them maximize the probability of achieving all that is important to them.

Leverage centers of influence to tap a niche market. Financial advisors looking to move up-market are increasingly targeting specific niches of affluent investors — that is, narrow groups of ideal clients with whom a financial advisor is extremely well suited to work. That strategy has enabled many financial advisors to make a quantum leap in their businesses and lifestyles. The reason: By targeting a narrowly defined niche, you can make more money and enjoy your career more by serving a relatively small number of clients that are a perfect fit for you instead of trying to be all things to all people.

But to nail down a specific niche and become the go-to financial advisor among its members, you must first gain a deep understanding of the biggest financial challenges that niche faces — and that’s where centers of influence (COIs) make all the difference. COIs are the key people — the real movers and shakers–within the community you choose to pursue. As such, they are familiar with (among other things) the key contacts you need to know to effectively serve your niche, the important venues where you might make presentations and the trade press that niche members read.

Interviewing these COIs essentially allows you to conduct highly targeted, first-person market research about your niche so you fully understand the opportunities in it, learn how to best attract its members to your door, and then help them solve their major financial issues. COI interviews therefore result in much better information about your niche than does traditional market research conducted by third parties — and at a fraction of the cost.

If a niche focus is part of your business plan — and it probably should be — start by identifying at least five COIs in your niche and ask to meet with them to discuss the niche’s unique financial needs and challenges. You’ll be amazed by how many say yes. Armed with their insights, you’ll be in an ideal place to position yourself as the right financial advisor to serve your chosen niche. Indeed, as seen in the profile of Buck Olsen, that’s exactly what happened at Foster Group — a pioneer in niche marketing that today works with hundreds of affluent physicians.

The upshot: Don’t allow the challenges of today’s marketplace to push your business off course. By making a few smart, deliberate moves right now, you can take advantage of tremendous opportunities to achieve immediate breakthroughs in your practice — while setting the stage for enormous success in the years ahead.

John Bowen is the founder and CEO of CEG Worldwide.

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GORDON OWENS

Title: Senior Vice President and Portfolio Manager with the Private Asset Management division of Robert W. Baird & Company.

Firm name: The Owens Group/Robert W. Baird and Co.

AUM: $180 million

Breakthrough area: Commit to Change

Having been named one of the top financial advisors in the country by Barron’s, it would be easy for Gordon Owens to slow down. Instead, he’s constantly looking for game-changing ways to build and improve on his success. “I see myself as an entrepreneur within Baird, and that informs everything I do,” says Owens. “So forget incremental change — I’m always asking ‘where are the opportunities for exponential change’ that can really take us places.”

For Owens, those opportunities have meant everything from tapping into a new market through an alliance with an insurer of expensive horses to pursuing an entirely new approach to investment management in an effort to bring more value to clients. “In this environment you can be a victim or you can get into what I call “cause mode” and make things happen. I got my Chartered Private Wealth Advisor, my certificate in alternative investments and am currently on my second level as a Chartered Market Technician. You have to commit to doing everything within your control. I can’t control the markets, but I can upgrade my investment abilities. I can build alliances with other professionals. I can invest in software that allows me to track the ebbs and flows of the market and communicate better with clients.”

That commitment pervades the entire firm; Owens is always asking his team to raise the bar. “Every day I go to my people and say, ‘tell me what you did today that is going to blow my mind,’ because I want to know how each person makes a difference each day,” he says. “If you have a culture of ‘just good enough’ you don’t go anywhere. I assume that my team will get better every day and change people’s lives for the better.”

Owens admits that his devotion to change and improvement can often mean six-day workweeks. But he has no regrets. “We’re getting new clients, better performance results and more referrals in a tough market. But the best part is that I am so energized to come into work each day, which is not something I hear from many financial advisors these days. I don’t even need to set my alarm anymore because I am on a mission now — to protect and serve those people who have put their trust in us.”

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ARMAND DEL MEDICO

Title: Senior Partner

Firm: RMD Wealth Management Group within UBS Financial Services

AUM: Approximately $ 500 million

Breakthrough area: Rediscovery Meetings

Thanks to what Armand Del Medico calls “the seismic events of the past few years,” he has been systematically reengaging with clients through rediscovery meetings — with strong results. “I’m making sure that everything that is important to my clients, from their objectives to their interests, has not changed — or, if it has, that we know so we can address it,” he says. “Everyone appreciates that we are taking the time…to realign ourselves with this new reality that we are in. It’s actually been therapeutic for many clients.”

The major appeal of these meetings for Del Medico is that they’ve helped many clients break out of the volatility-fueled paralysis that was keeping them from making important financial decisions. “By re-engaging in a dialogue with clients and reminding them what their original plan was and what our intentions are for them, we put them back in the driver’s seat to move forward with their plans,” he says. “They’re reminded that they should be making smart moves with their whole financial life — and that we are the people to help them do so.”

Often, says Del Medico, the rediscovery meetings reveal important changes in clients’ tax or insurance situations that require Del Medico and his team of experts to take action. That reassures clients that Del Medico is staying one step ahead of their financial needs. “No matter how well you know a client, there is always some new piece of actionable information that you can learn, and the rediscovery meeting is the best way to get that information.”

Perhaps most important in the current environment, rediscovery meetings have enabled Del Medico to retain some important clients — and even win back a few who were ready to defect. “During the cratering of the market, some clients were very panicky. The rediscovery meetings helped me reinforce that we were OK and show them how we are different from others, and in the end allowed me to save those assets.”

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ERIC THURBER

Title: Founder, Managing Director

Firm name: Three Bridge Wealth Advisors

AUM: $250 million

Breakthrough area: Second Opinion Service

Three Bridge Wealth Advisors has used the second opinion service to create a true win-win for the firm and its clients. Eric Thurber, the firm’s founder, and his team recently brought in two new affluent families that together have added some $4.5 million in assets. Impressively, both those new clients have already provided him with second opinion referrals of their own. “Investors’ uncertainty about their financial advisors is high right now,” he says. “There are a lot of people out there who don’t feel that they are getting a unique experience and a strong level of service, which makes now a great time to invite people in for a review through new eyes.”

What’s more, the second opinion service has also benefited the firm’s existing clients. “By getting second opinion referrals from clients, we get to focus on doing what we most want to do — adding impactful value to clients’ lives — instead of spending a lot of time marketing and being away from clients. They’ve really appreciated that, especially lately.”

Thurber says there have been several keys to making the second opinion service work well at Three Bridge. For starters, he educates clients in advance about the specific type of investors the firm prefers to work with — boosting the likelihood that clients will suggest only highly ideal prospects for second opinion meetings. Second, the firm makes sure it offers real value to those prospects in the form of a deep understanding of their situations and a recommended action plan. “Your second opinion service must be a consultative analysis, not just an obvious pitch to try and win business. If you aren’t focusing on providing real value and assistance and caring about the person across from you, clients generally won’t have the desire to introduce you to those people who are most important in their lives,” says Thurber.

To fully leverage the opportunity, Three Bridge is consistent and highly systematic about offering the second opinion service — asking each new client for names when they first sign on, as well as at every quarterly meeting thereafter. “Asking for referrals in this way is on every agenda that involves client contact,” says Thurber. “Clients learn early on that we will be coming back to them repeatedly and asking if they know people who could find value in the work we do. That’s made us comfortable with asking for names, and made it very easy for our clients to be ready to provide us with ideal candidates.”

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BUCK OLSEN

Title: Partner

Firm: Foster Group

AUM: $854 million

Breakthrough area: Niche Marketing/COI Interviews

Foster Group has focused on serving Iowa physicians since its inception in 1989, when it formed an alliance with the Iowa Medical Society (a professional organization representing more than 5,200 doctors across the state). From that point forward, ongoing contact with important centers of influence in the niche — such as executive directors of multi-specialty clinics — has given Foster Group the deep knowledge needed to serve its members extremely well and has opened the right doors to win their business. Currently, the firm serves 367 physician clients. “There is constant interaction with the people at our firm and COIs, and that’s critical to our successful operation,” says Buck Olsen, one of the firm’s partners. “Our relationships with COIs have been instrumental in helping us build trust with physicians much more quickly than we could otherwise.”

One key to Foster Group’s success with COIs and physician clients has been the understanding that the right approach is all about gaining knowledge and focusing on relationship-building — not making a sales pitch. “Our credibility is strong because we go into interviews with the intention of learning all we can. The goal is to gain knowledge about the key issues that the medical community or a specific clinic is dealing with, so our interviews are always about who we are talking with — they’re never about Foster Group,” says Olsen.

The advantage of that approach has come into sharp focus recently. “One COI told us that other financial advisors during the crisis came out of the woodwork asking for lists of members so they could do some fast marketing. He turned them away and told them they weren’t in it for the long-term like Foster Group is,” adds Jerry Foster, the firm’s founder. “That was a defining moment for us.”

COI relationships have also been crucial in helping the firm narrow its niche focus even further to identify those doctors who are truly ideal for the firm. “Talking regularly with key players helped us recognize that we aren’t the right fit for every doctor in all practices, but that we are a great fit for those physicians who want to delegate and look to us to be their personal chief financial officer,” says Olsen. “That’s made it more fun to come to work because we serve only the best people for our unique strengths.”

Even though Foster Group is firmly established in its niche, Olsen and the team intend to keep leveraging their COI relationships and accelerate their growth going forward. For example, Olsen is currently developing new COI interview questions that will help him create a series of credibility-building white papers about the specific challenges faced by the medical community. The end result, he predicts: “Thanks to our COI relationships, we’ll be even better positioned as experts in our niche than we are today.”