There are currently more than 260,0001 people in the United States working as personal financial professionals, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, an increase of more than 50,0002 in the past two years alone. Given the rapidly increasing competition in this field, figuring out how to compete for new clients and establish a reputation as an experienced professional can be overwhelming.
One way to get past that hurdle is to think of it as a two-phase process: branding and then marketing. Start by spending some time determining what makes you stand out in that crowd of 260,000. That’s your brand. Then, in step two, figure out how to put that brand into action through marketing.
In this, the first of two articles on building and promoting your practice, we look at phase one: developing your brand.
Where to begin? With you
The best way to figure out how you stand out in a crowd is to take a step back.
Ann Hughes, executive coach and founder of the Female Affect, a Dallas-based consultancy that helps financial professionals grow sales and better serve female clients, says the first thing she has her branding clients do is work through a self-evaluation exercise of five in-depth questions about themselves. The idea is to get them thinking about their personal strengths, marketable skills, passions, and, ultimately, why people would want to hire them as their personal financial professional.
“It’s a crowded market, and there are lots of good financial products out there,” says Hughes, who spent about a decade working in sales and marketing for large financial services firms. “The only reason people are going to do business with you is you, so you have to differentiate yourself.”
“The only reason people are going to do business with you is you...”
Global Atlantic Consulting offers its own workshop, called , to help financial professionals identify their strengths, but also see blind spots that might be driving potential clients away.
Kirk Bowman, vice president of Global Atlantic Consulting, says the program can be customized for various groups. He has offered the workshop in person to more than 100 financial professionals as well as online to just a few people. It can last anywhere from 30 minutes to a half-day, depending on the group’s interest.
Based on decades of social science research, the workshop asks participants to fill out a 20-question survey about themselves. It’s designed to raise self-awareness with questions about negative behaviors—being late, showing your temper, failing to return emails—that could be affecting how others perceive you.
Participants also dive into their positive attributes—their personal, social, and emotional appeal—that could help them tip the scales in their favor to attract clients.
Then, they learn to apply this greater self-awareness to develop a branding statement.
“Ultimately, you’re working toward developing an answer to the question: Why should I work with you?” Bowman says. “That’s your brand.”
Ask for input
In addition to self-reflection, it’s a good idea to find out what other people think of you, Hughes says. She suggests tapping a half-dozen or so trusted colleagues to answer some questions about you such as: What do they see as your skills and strengths? Why do they engage with you? What do they see in you that you might not see in yourself?
If there’s a big gap between how you would answer those questions and how they answer them, you know you have a lot of work to do, she says. “Understanding how you see yourself, how others see you, and how you want to be seen is what starts to create the brand that you’re putting together.”
Tim Cook, co-founder of the Chicago-based branding agency Keys & Kites, says getting input from clients and potential clients can be worthwhile, so long as you frame your questions in a way that makes it clear that you’re looking for their honest opinion—not their approval. It’s a good idea to also pick their brains about what they would need from you as their financial professional.
“You want to know where their challenges are, how someone could help them, and think about how you fit into that,” says Cook. “Taking the time to really understand them as people, too, is an ongoing, essential process.”
Scope out the competition
While you’re spending all that time looking in the mirror, don’t forget to look around too. Checking out the publicly available information on your competition helps you understand what parts of the market are already flooded, says Cook.
Take a good look at their websites and read their press releases. If they have an online form where you can request more information about their services, you could even “secret shop” by filling it out anonymously. Their response can get you thinking about how you do—and don’t—want to present yourself to potential clients.
Determine your niche
After you’ve gathered all this information, it’s time to determine your niche. “What you’re looking for is the clear space that exists inside of the competitive set,” says Cook.
You won’t be limiting your business-building opportunities by focusing on a niche. For example, Cook’s branding firm has built its own brand by working with startup businesses. “We’ve found that as long as you’re doing good work, you’re building your reputation, and the more generalized business will find you.”
“You need to be able to communicate your brand to others clearly and simply.”
Greensboro, North Carolina-based financial professional Saba Khan describes herself online as a “financial professional and annuity specialist who focuses on helping baby boomers get to and through retirement.” She chose to focus her practice on baby boomers, because those were the people she connected with the most when she was a paralegal for a trusts & estates attorney prior to becoming a financial professional.
At 39, she is old enough to have the experience boomer clients want, but young enough that she’s likely to outlive them and not likely to retire before they do.
“I’m sure there will come a day when it’s time to focus on Gen X, Y, and Z,” says Khan. “But for now, the baby boomers are keeping me busy.”
While it can be a struggle to find something that truly differentiates you, it’s important to resist the urge to exaggerate your positive qualities, because you will inevitably come off as inauthentic.
“You’re looking for something that is true and that is different,” says Cook. “That’s where you are going to double down.”
But it’s fine to get creative. It’s OK if your niche is doing something others also do—but doing it better. If you’re really stumped, consider differentiating yourself through tactics, says Cook’s Keys & Kites partner, Tom Barg, like offering a free initial consultation.
Khan, for example, offers her very high net worth clients free trusts & estates services through her former attorney boss, with whom she now shares office space.
You need to be able to communicate your brand to others clearly and simply. For example, Hughes works with one financial professional who focuses on high net worth widows or couples who are concerned about what happens after one of them dies. Her brand statement: “I work with women and the men who love them.”
Barg suggests boiling your brand description or statement down to no more than 10 words, so you can succinctly articulate it to yourself, your clients, and even the new employees that you hire to assist you with that growing book of business. It’s that statement that you can refer to and refine as you continue to cultivate your brand long into your financial professional career.
Even the most established financial professionals report that they devote several hours each week to marketing their practice. If you spend some time at the outset determining what brand you want to establish through your marketing efforts, you’ll get the most out of those marketing hours.
And you’ll have more time for what you got into the financial services business to do: helping clients achieve financial security and success.
In the next installment of this series, we’ll dig deep into the marketing process: how to take the brand you’ve established and spread the word.