There have been a number of studies that show how quickly people form an impression of someone. It can happen in a few seconds; and it can be difficult to change that impression even after numerous meetings.
One study was done with professor evaluations at Stanford. Students were shown a mere 10 seconds of video of the profs for their upcoming classes and asked to make initial assessments. At the end of their courses, they were asked to evaluate their professors. Their 10-second impressions correlated strongly with their end-of-term evaluations, including their comments.
Takeaway: You only get one chance to create a killer first impression.
This research should be sobering for every financial advisor. It means your prospects are judging you quickly and subconsciously and that it will be very difficult for you to change their first impression, even after numerous interactions.
Drawing on my experience as both an advisor and a consultant to advisors, let me suggest some ways to manage those crucial first impressions.
1. Dress Right
Everyone on our team pays special attention to their own wardrobe—even if they are not directly meeting with clients. Every man in our office meets with clients in a suit or a sport coat and tie. Clerical staff adheres to the same dress code even though they rarely meet with clients. Our team even dresses this way for a videoconference.
Many of our clients come to us in jeans, casual clothes and even gym clothes and wet hair. Some advisors use this as an excuse for their own poor professional image. I hear a lot of financial advisors say they feel they should dress like their clients dress. If that were true, I would look like a schlub much of the time.
As a female, I pay extra attention to this detail and make sure I am always dressed in business attire and pay special attention to the haircut, accessories and shoes. I never wear jeans to the office unless it is a day where we have no client meetings and we are doing it for staff morale.
The message: We are successful professionals and we dress for the part.
Contrast this with a wonderful local advisor we helped a few years ago. He really was a loving, kind and smart advisor who always put his clients first. He wasn’t the problem. It was his staff—every woman in his office looked like a candidate for the TV show What Not to Wear. They dressed in baggy exercise clothes, sweatshirts and other items that wouldn’t be accepted by the Salvation Army they were so faded, torn and worn.
Our comments to him: Why should your clients believe your team has any credibility given the way they are dressed? They don’t look the part of a successful, seasoned professional.
His solution: He gave each woman a $500 bonus to buy some better clothes. The atmosphere in the office improved immediately and he had instantly created a better first impression.
2. Emphasize Names
We have found clients love seeing their names. Think about all the junk mail you actually read because it comes addressed with your name and your name is used prominently throughout the letter. We try to put a client’s name in as many places as possible.
In our main office in Minnesota, we have a framed sign on the reception desk that says for example: “Vestment Financial Welcomes Jill and Jon Martin.” My offices are at the top of the stairs, where I have a whiteboard posted. There we write in hand: “Welcome Jill and Jon Martin!”
When we deliver a copy of their financial plan, their name is prominently on the cover. We also use an oversized computer screen to display their financial data. When they walk in the room, they see their names on the screen.
The message we want to convey is: You are very special to us. We are highly trained and experienced professionals who take care of the many details of your financial life.
I know this is important because a few weeks ago I was in the offices of our broker general agent. They had a small tasteful sign that said: “Welcome Katherine Vessenes.” It still makes me smile. Yes I know what they were doing, but I still relished the fact that someone took the time to create a sign for me and to appreciate my business.
3. Play Soft Music
When clients come into our main offices in Minnesota, or our satellite office in Rhode Island, I like to have a Pandora station playing in the background. I have found the classical musical ones are great (as long as there are no words, just music). The music creates a serene atmosphere and is very tranquilizing.
I know people are worried about their money and frequently anxious when they first come to see us. I want them to know that they can be calm with us, and soothing music is one way to do it.
But note—I turn the music off during the client meetings as it can be too distracting when talking about difficult financial concepts.
4. Remove the TV
There are no TVs in our office, and no TV news. Once again, this got me into a fair amount of hot water a few years ago when we were consulting with a large wirehouse on how to transition their reps from over-the-phone stock sales to comprehensive financial advice.
Every one of their offices around the country had a big TV set in the waiting room blaring out the latest news (you could tell their political affiliation by the station). They were addicted to these TV news programs as a way to watch the markets. The volume tended to be loud and blaring.
To make matters worse, most of the reps had another TV going in their offices. Their excuse: We have to see what the market it doing. They fought me long and hard when I suggested pulling them out. My response: Who needs TV news today when you can quietly follow the markets on your own computer, anyway?
I thought keeping the TVs was flawed thinking for a number of reasons.
First, the subconscious message to the clients was all wrong. It implied that this firm lived and died on every tick in the market. It got the clients focusing on something the rep could not control: the market. Instead they should have been focusing on a long-term financial approach that didn’t put undue attention on the daily ups and downs in the market. They should have focused on what they could control: giving the clients’ a great experience.
Second, their receptionists had to listen to this drivel playing all day long in the waiting room, and it was distracting; it made them much less efficient.
Third, many people are highly sensitive to sound. TV news can be very grating or irritating to this group, not the mood you want your clients to be in before they meet with you.
Finally, it actually made it harder to solidify a relationship with a new client. I watched what was happening in a typical first meeting and noticed that depending on how the TV was situated, it either diverted the new prospect’s attention away from the advisor, or if it was facing the advisor, the advisor’s eyes kept moving to the TV screen instead of focusing on the potential client. It seemed rude either way, and the prospect did not feel like the focus of attention—something that is crucial when building a great first impression.
Our solution: We don’t use TVs anywhere in the office. We will never have TV monitors playing the market news. We do use big-screen monitors, though, because we have found it is helpful to project the client reports up on a large screen. It is easier for them to follow and it means we have to print less paper.
5. Decorate With Style
The office décor is another way potential clients are assessing you. This is one area where many wirehouses have excelled. Rarely have I been in one of their offices without being impressed with the marble, the quality of their furnishings and artwork. They clearly shout: We only work with the most successful families in the country—you can’t go wrong with us!
Unfortunately many independent advisors have not considered how important their building, particularly the reception area, is when creating a first impression. One of my assignments was to check out a firm’s Denver office. Now Denver is my hometown, and their offices were in an area that I knew really well.
Yet my experience started badly even trying to get to their offices. There was no signage, so I wasn’t sure I had the right building. There was no free parking for visitors (but there was a slot for the rep of the month, which would have ticked me off if I had been a new prospect).
The reception area had no receptionist, so I walked into an empty area where the lighting was so poor, it felt like a movie house. Since no one was there to greet me, I started wandering around the office (something you don’t want your clients ever doing) only to pass three offices that had pieces of broken furniture in them and one office that looked like it was the newspaper drive for the local high school. There were dozens of stacks of newspapers, some eight feet tall—enough out-of-date newspapers for an entire wing of the Library of Congress.
My impression in about two minutes: This branch is run by a bunch of incompetents and I would never trust my money to them!
Our firm’s solution: When we opened our satellite office in Rhode Island, I found a lovely old prestigious building that is the only office in downtown Providence with free parking for clients. I wanted to make it easy for them to get to see us. The substantial building leaves a message: Our success enables us to work in such a nice space.
We assess everything in our offices from the furniture to the paint color to make sure it is giving the same message—we are successful professionals and will do a great job with your financial future.
6. Keep It Tidy
This last item, keeping the entire office tidy, is another subconscious impact on your clients. We are the only firm I know that has a clean-desk rule. Everyone in the office, including me, is expected to not leave until their desk is clean and all paperwork is put away. Frankly, I don’t care if a team member just shoves everything in a drawer before going home. What I noticed is if they start with a clean slate every day, the whole office stays uncluttered.
The message here: We take care of little things like files and paperwork. You can trust us to take care of big things like your money.