Is Your Marketing Honest? The 17-Point Test
Advisor Perspectives welcomes guest contributions. The views presented here do not necessarily represent those of Advisor Perspectives.
I have a vision of a profession where the most straightforward advisors, not the coolest ones with the best spiel, rise to the top. To achieve that ideal, here are 17 ways that acting more honestly than the competition will win more clients.
To communicate with more transparency, read this article. (If not, get away from other people’s money until you get a life coach and clean up your act.)
The truth never hurts anyone – but deceit does!
Let’s get out of the mindset that marketing is about flexing, being likeable and currying favor. Instead let’s use words to convey straightforward truths, allowing the prospect to be free to make the right decision – whether or not it goes in your favor.
- If somebody decides not to do business with you because you were upfront and direct about something, you were talking to the wrong prospect. The right person will be impressed – go get their attention instead. It’s not honesty’s fault you got the wrong person’s attention.
- Absolute honesty is the hardest thing for the competition to beat because it’s a risk not many will take. If you deliver honesty correctly, it puts you way ahead – not behind!
- Honesty is strength. It dispels confusion. Total clarity is the best possible way to win the deal.
It’s an instinct that we all have – fight or flight – when we’re being manipulated or cornered, whether or not we realize it. Communication that puts people in the position of freedom rather than manipulation is the superior way to market yourself.
Don’t let anyone hijack your brain. Protect your innate wholesomeness from the popular malice of subjective morality.
- “You do what you have to do.”
- “Better to ask forgiveness than permission.”
- “I had the best of intentions.”
Honesty can never hurt you – only deceit can – and it’s a powerful marketing tool. Here are 17 ways to make it work and beat the competition!
1. Your home page should answer three questions
Open the browser and go to your website.
Are you there yet?
Good. Now look at the home page and answer these questions. Can the reader tell, within three seconds, 1) how you charge, 2) where you are located, and 3) who you serve?
We are a flat-fee advisor located in Birmingham, Alabama, serving retired airplane pilots.
This also triggers value in Google, which may send you traffic if these geographic terms come up enough (here are more SEO tips). Never mind the motivational rhetoric and fiduciary jibber jabber.
2. Fees must be clear on your website
Financial advisor: Transparency is a core value of ours.
Me: Why don’t you put your fees on your website?
Financial advisor: Because then I won’t get the chance to make the person like me before I tell them how much I cost.
Gimme a break, bro.
There’s no clearer way to say it: There is no logical reason not to put your fees on your website. If you aren’t doing this, it is because you are trying to manipulate the prospect with Morton’s steak dinners.
And by the way, the fees should match your ADV. No putting the lowest end of the range to obfuscate what you usually charge. Example: “Our fees range from 0.25% to 1% and are negotiated on a case-by-case basis.”
Here are some advisors doing a great job at transparently presenting their fees on their website:
3. Have a website team page
If you’re a small firm, no more dreaming up some “board of directors” or 1099 consultants. Your friends from the FPA conference and your website freelancer aren’t your employees. No use trying to be something you aren’t. The client will eventually find out how deep your bench is. And then what?
Just say it:
I am a solo advisor. To meet my clients’ demands I maximize technology, collaborate closely with outsourced professionals, and utilize vendor resources to the fullest. I have appointed a back-up advisor in the event that I become unavailable for an extended period of time.
If a prospect wants to work with a multi-advisor firm, you’re not doing them justice by trying to seem like something you aren’t. If the prospect is impressed by you, it won’t be an issue.
4. Disqualify bad prospects by using your services page
When you talk about your services, be bold and clearly state who you are and are not good for.
Yes, you will lose prospects.
No, you will not suffer – because they would have been lousy clients who wasted your time.
I started to describe certain services on my website in a way to intentionally exclude lazy people, those who need hand holding or make excuses, and people who can’t follow instructions. Those who made it through this “screen” wound up doing much better.
Use the website services section to fire the clients, in advance, who would have tortured you.
Write it like this:
My services are designed for people who ____
My services are not ideal for people who ______.
Rid yourself of the clutter in advance!
5. Get true headshots
Have you ever seen one of these advisors whose LinkedIn or website picture is dated back to when Ronald Reagan was president? Look, ageism stinks, but that doesn’t mean you hide your age.
If someone is worried you may be near the end of your career, that is a valid concern. They have a right to feel that way. The best way to counterbalance any ageism is to appoint a successor and make it clear.
6. Don’t swipe someone else’s content without giving credit
It’s annoying and time consuming to cite your sources properly. However, citation is not just a sweet thing to do; it’s a legal risk not to.
Give proper credit every time you use someone else’s words or ideas.
- It makes you look more professional and credible when you display the research you did. When I see an article with five sources listed at the end, I can see someone worked hard to provide accurate information.
- You are ripping off someone else’s intellectual property and if they catch you, you could get sued.
- It’s a courtesy to the reader. Your citations should be so specific that if they reader wanted to find the exact source, they could do so.
- It’s not just information that needs to be cited. Music and images must also be used with sensitivity to the licensing required.
- Just saying, “Source: Bloomberg” is not a proper citation. There’s no way I can find the source. You could be making it up for all I know.
I use APA format when I cite. Here is a primer on how advisors can cite sources properly.
7. Don’t talk like an economist
When I was in my 20s, I used to work on Wall Street. Not knowing any better, I used to look up to the know-it-alls who spoke “economese.” After the 2007 market crash when they were all wrong, I wised up to a few things, namely the reason economists are so aloof in their speech. Like weather forecasters, they don’t want to get caught making a bad prediction.
The only ones who want to listen to an economist talk are other advisors. Stop trying to be Alan Greenspan. Instead of talking over people and using technical terms nobody can really understand, speak plainly, make your points, and end it.
I started using a three-bullet point newsletter for my clients and it goes like this: Intro line, three bullets, conclusion line.
Example of a straightforward newsletter:
The historically high inflation rate leads us to ask the following questions:
- Are I Bonds a viable investment?
- Does your monthly cash flow need an adjustment?
- What percentage of bonds in your portfolio should be long term?
If you’d like to discuss any of this, give us a call.
Remember, the point is for the reader to get what you are saying as easily and quickly as possible. Follow these newsletter guidelines:
- No PDF downloads (annoying)
- No blathering on and on
- Define each technical term that might be confusing or unknown to the audience, don’t just toss words randomly
- If your teenager can’t get what you are saying, rewrite it.
8. Outline the demographics of your client base
Advisors describe their clientele in terms too vague to be useful to the average prospect. Nobody wants to be the guinea pig.
But the way you all describe your clientele, it gives nobody any assurance they won’t be. “We work with individuals who have more than $1MM in investable assets, business owners, and families.”
Very clear! (LoL)
How about providing actual data describing your client base?
- Graphs showing average client net worth, income, age, or turnover rate of clientele
- Heat map showing geographic concentration across U.S.
- Chart showing highest educational degrees, occupations, etc. of client base
- Pie chart showing what a typical client asset allocation looks like by asset class, indicating what % of assets are typically held away or not managed by you, and what those assets usually are
- Graphic distribution of portfolio size (so they can know if they’re the biggest, smallest, where they fit in)
All of this would have to be based on real data that is gathered from your clients – not just an estimate that you make up. Go ahead – complain about how hard it is to gather this data!
It’s not like you I am asking you to solve the Reimann sum.
You could email them a survey for free using Survey Monkey and get your intern to sketch out the graphs in Excel. These nonsense “top advisor lists” ask you for way more detailed information and you all come running like it is the gravy train.
9. Define fiduciary
How come 100% of advisors – including licensed insurance agents – claim to be a fiduciary?
Even amongst advisors, the definition of fiduciary is not well understood. Can any of you self-proclaimed fiduciaries tell me, from memory, how many fiduciary principles there are, and what they are?
Go ahead – write them all down.
Did you list all five?
Transparently define this term and show how your practice adheres to these principals. You will separate yourself from the “faux fiduciaries” who can’t make these claims.
Consider the difference between these two statements:
We are fiduciaries and always do right by our clients.
We are fiduciaries. We follow the 5 fiduciary principles of:
- Putting your interests first
- Acting with prudence
- Not misleading you
- Avoiding conflicts of interest
- Disclosing and managing all conflicts of interest
Here’s how it affects the service you get from us:
- We don’t accept kickbacks or referral fees.
- Although we make every effort to minimize conflicts of interest, if one were to occur we would disclose it to you in a clear and forthright manner.
- If a recommendation that is in your best interest has adverse consequences for us financially, we still make it.
- We must follow the fiduciary standard 100% of the time in all capacities in which we serve you, for as long as you are our client.
- We must conduct diligence to uncover what is in your best interest, not just suitable.
I’m not a fan of beating the fiduciary drum as the sole driver of your value, but there are a ton of faux fiduciaries. Clarify the difference between you and them, and it’ll put you at an advantage. Get it approved by compliance first because this is highly legalistic.
10. Disclose all fees
According to Michael Kitces, “A recent financial advisor fee study from Bob Veres’ Inside Information reveals that the true all-in cost for financial advisors averages about 1.65%, not ‘just’ 1%!” (Veres, as cited in Kitces 2017)
Bite the bullet and tell them the whole truth: all the fees across the entire lifecycle of the product:
- Custody fees
- Trading fees
- Fees passed to the client for the advisory platform (technology + platform services)
- Avg cost of underlying mutual funds, ETFs, etc.
- Direct indexing program costs
- Cryptocurrency program costs
- Wrap fees
- Account opening or closure fees
Explain to the prospect that this is something they face regardless of who they work with, and they should ask the other advisors (who won’t be prepared to answer) what their additional fees are. In fact, give them a worksheet with your complete list of fees and blank columns for them to use to compare other advisors to you. Get it all out in the open.
They’ll be flabbergasted.
You’ve opened the dialogue from a position of strength. If they have fee objections, it’s better to address it right then and there.
11. Define custody and discretion clearly
Establish clarity about where the client’s money will be held. Not knowing this upfront will be a source of anxiety and fear about having someone steal their money.
Take these questions off the list ahead of time.
Something like this:
Our clients’ assets are held at Fidelity Investments, one of the world’s largest third party independent custodians with over $7 trillion in assets. We do not take possession of your money.
We will have discretionary authority over your assets, meaning that we can trade without notifying you. However, by law, we will not have the ability to move accounts, set up new accounts, or make transfers without your consent.
All our employees are bonded and have passed a background check, and access is restricted to those authorized to work on your account.
My partner and I are the only ones who have a key to the office.
Just say the words and take fear/doubt out of the equation.
12. Flaunt your ADV
The ADV always gets hidden on the most obscure part of the website.
As the first line of your biography and your home page, say these words.
Advisors are required to disclose their full work history, including any regulatory disclosures, in their Form ADV. Here is mine (insert hyperlink).
See? Totally upfront.
Volunteer this information. By being so straightforward you’ll send the message that you aren’t one to hide anything. If there is a disclosure, explain it. If they discover it on their own, their imaginations will run wild.
Just say the words:
When I was in college, I used my brother’s fake ID to buy some liquor for a frat party and got caught. You’ll see this reflected on my ADV and I hope you don’t hold it against me that I was young and restless 25 years ago.
13. Encourage prospects to interview other advisors
It is the ultimate sign of confidence when you are willing to surrender your prospect to the hands of the competition. It also shows objectivity – you are saying that you want the best for them, even if it goes against you.
Don’t flinch and say this with absolute conviction:
We suggest that, even if you intend to sign up with us, you speak with a few other advisors first so you can be fully aware of other options. Since you live in Bayside, I’d try X and Y firm.
Non-graspingness is a highly attractive quality!
I have won deals just by virtue of the fact that I said those words. It shows a complete lack of need to manipulate.
14. Take yourself out of the deal
I was in a meeting with someone who was busting my chops. Maybe I was in a feisty mood because the next thing I know I blurt out:
Are you sure you need a marketing consultant? It doesn’t really sound like something you are that jacked up about.
You should have seen the look on his face.
Then after a 30 second pause, he explains that he was worried about the commitment of a month-to-month engagement. We set it up as a one-time project, and I closed the deal.
In some cases, it takes being so honest that you risk losing the deal for the prospect to be truthful with themselves about whether or not it’s worth it. In the case just described, my brutal honesty and ability to be vulnerable moved us into a state of real communication.
15. Be clear about who has decision-making authority
I was doing some research for a client, looking at website of the biggest RIA firms by AUM. I was shocked to see the lack of transparency about roles. I understand this “feel good” slogan about how we’re all teammates and nobody is more important than anyone else, but here’s the catch:
If I’m trusting you with my life savings, I need to know who is going to be making decisions about what happens to it, because I don’t want to eat cat food when I’m 65.
If you are managing assets, make it clear who the chief investment officer or the investment committee is.
If you offer financial planning, designate a chief planning officer. Despite all the virtue signaling about how advisors put planning first, I practically never see a CPO appointed – get one!
Identify these roles in each person’s bio, and on the services page.
16. Put your code of ethics on your website
Saying “we follow a strict code of ethics” is one thing. To actually show a prospect the letter of the code is another. Link it to your website.
17. Describe precisely what is in your financial plans
Financial planning is not well understood, or valued, by the public. Can you blame anyone for being confused? The insurance industry has been giving away basis-less “plans” for free in exchange for the opportunity to recommend annuities.
Most of the time, advisors explain it with some abstraction like, “We provide financial planning to help you reach your life goals.”
Prospects are left wondering:
- Is this a plan (a written document) or a planning process?
- What if I don’t want to follow the plan? What if it says I have to quit Starbucks and I don’t want to?
- What exactly is included?
- Wow, there are so many things listed. What if I don’t need everything?
- Why do some advisors include a laundry list of services, and others just send a print out?
- How there be any validity to planning out three, five, or 10 years ahead when so many variables can change?
Increase transparency by including a sample plan or screenshots, and describe what the concrete deliverables are.
Are we who we say we are?
The issue of non-transparency is multi-generational in this profession. Disappointingly, the new guard’s “leaders” are defining innovation as cryptocurrencies, DeFi, and “cutting-edge” tech stacks.
They are wrong.
The issue that the profession has never been able to overcome, over decades and decades, is not being what it says it is. Until that changes, all the things we view as progress will just be confidently presented gimmicks. “Next gen” will be “last gen.” Cutting edge will be blending past mishaps with the future. Breaking the mold will be blurring past ways into new indistinguishable forms of the same. New guard will mimic old guard, with only marginal improvements.
Wherever we go, we’ll still be running into the same image of ourselves, year after year, generation after generation.
What is going to bring the industry to a place it has never been before is honesty on an absolute level, so far reaching that we face the risk of not being able to get what we want. I’ve listed out 17 ways here, but that can’t be the extent of it. Transparency has to be absolute, all pervasive, and a complement to rather than the result of regulation. This has to be the dominant philosophy followed by all of us – the advisors, vendors, consultants, media, etc.
“Integrity has no need of rules.”
“It can ruin your life only if it ruins your character. Otherwise it cannot harm you – inside or out.”
-Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
Be bold and communicate with total transparency to all prospects – and beat the competition by honesty. If the prospect can’t handle it, they wouldn’t have been a long-term match. The ones who are a match will be impressed beyond words.
Finding those who are a match may mean you have to expand your network.
I teach other people how to communicate in a straightforward and clear way. Here’s how I can help.
If you’re trying to get new clients using LinkedIn, here’s an ebook I wrote.
If you want LinkedIn coaching, join my membership.
Sara Grillo, CFA, is a marketing consultant who helps investment management, financial planning, and RIA firms fight the tendency to scatter meaningless clichés on their prospects and bore them as a result. Prior to launching her own firm, she was a financial advisor.
Goodreads. Marcus Aurelius Quotes. Retrieved from https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/7728398-8-it-can-ruin-your-life-only-if-it-ruins
Kitces, Michael. (2017, July 31). Financial Advisor Fees Comparison – All-In Costs For The Typical Financial Advisor? Retrieved from https://www.kitces.com/blog/independent-financial-advisor-fees-comparison-typical-aum-wealth-management-fee/
Kennedy, Vincent. The Daily Stoic. Integrity has no need of rules. https://dailystoic.com/integrity/