Impressionists

There’s plenty that’s out of your hands, but you can control your appearance and that of your staff, your office’s layout, and the client experience.

By Kara P. Stapleton

When it comes to how advisors market themselves, they shouldn’t neglect an obvious yet somewhat overlooked first step. “People size you up within 10 or 12 seconds of meeting you,” notes Christopher P. Jordan, president & CEO of LEXCO Wealth Management, Inc. in Tarrytown, New York. “That’s just the world we live in. Why not tip all the odds in your favor?” What Jordan means is improving your chances of projecting a positive first impression via your personal external appearance and that of your workplace. These externals, such as how you and your staff dress, the size of your conference table, and what literature may be on that table will all influence how a client views you and your practice. Take a step back. Look around your office space. Look at what your co-workers are wearing. Think about how you’re greeted each morning by the receptionist. Are you satisfied with what you see and hear? If so, your clients may be just as content.

“You never get a second chance to make a first impression,” warns Chris Holman, executive coach at ClientWise in Tarrytown, New York. Furthermore, even if your first impression is satisfactory, Holman suggests going further, and making sure there’s something unique about a client’s visit as well. “Advisors have a lot of flexibility and leeway in what they can do,” Holman says, and suggests presenting a very personal image to visiting clients and prospects that they will remember. Independent advisors are first and foremost selling themselves, so clients and especially prospects are continually judging you.To begin, get the office location right. “Office environment is more important than you’re conscious of,” notes Matthew Keeling, a financial planner at Keeling Financial Strategies, in Mashpee, Massachusetts. Since Keeling moved his office about two years ago, he has seen a major jump in client satisfaction, which has also positively affected business. “The old office space was nice, but the building had little maintenance over the years, and things like the elevator and parking became poor,” he recalls. “Upon moving to the new location, we found that our closing ratio went up. I don’t know if it was because we acted more professional in our new building or if it was the better vibe that our clients felt in the new space, but there was a noticeable rise in closing ratios,” he says. Mitch Kramer, principal of Fluent Financial in Dallas, stresses the importance of accessibility. “We’re very easy to get to,” he notes. “We’re near two major highways.” Kramer also mentions the importance of the covered parking his building provides for visitors. “We need the special parking because of our area—we have harsh winters and very hot summers.”

Dressing Client Ready

Beyond the physical space, what about personal grooming of advisors and staff? “Yes, we have an enforced dress code,” says Kramer. At Fluent Financial, men are required to wear a coat and tie Monday through Thursday, and women are required to have on dress slacks or a business dress. “When people dress more formally, it helps enforce professionalism,” Kramer explains. Jordan agrees. “I tend to be traditional,” he says. In fact, Jordan says that almost each day, he says he dresses the way he would if he were meeting his best client ever. Jordan also recently addressed colleagues about this issue, putting into effect a new dress code. “I don’t think men, in general, do corporate casual very well,” he notes. “What I didn’t like was people relaxing the dress code, so I implemented a dress code that does not permit jeans and that encourages, but does not require, everyone to have a sport coat in the office at all times.” Jordan believes that there must be consistency for the client, and although a co-worker may not be seeing a client on a particular day, another colleague probably is. “If there’s no default, people do what they want to do—yet everyone must look client-ready,” he adds. Jordan is also quick to warn that an advisor should not overdo it with flashy cufflinks and monogrammed shirts. “I went with a colleague to see a potential client, and the advisor wore a chunky gold Rolex,” he recalls. “The client, who was very wealthy himself, pointed out the watch and made a comment about how high our fees must be—the man was anything but impressed.”

When meeting clients on their turf, it’s even more important to understand their expectations. Ray Sclafani, president and founder of ClientWise, recalls driving out to a farm in Texas with another advisor to meet that advisor’s client—a farmer who was in the middle of plowing his field. “I was in a suit and tie and was dressed way too far above this farmer,” he notes. “The farmer asked me to take off my tie.” In the end, it comes down to making the client feel comfortable. “Advisors tend to attract and do business with other people who think and look like them,” argues Holman. “Many successful advisors have a niche—CEOs or physicians, or blue-collar workers. Dress code should be a function of whatever that niche may be.” For example, Keeling dresses more casually than most. “Our location has a more vacation-like feel, so I’ll usually wear a button down shirt and a sport coat with no tie, and in the summer, khakis with a polo shirt,” he says.

Meet & Greet

Sclafani tells of an advisor in Beverly Hills who keeps a personal valet stationed outside his office building each day. The valet has a list of who’s coming to the office and the car they drive, so he is on the lookout for a person in a certain car at a certain time, and greets them. The valet then phones upstairs when the client is on the way up so that the receptionist is in place to greet the client when they arrive at the office. “That’s the most high-awareness service I’ve ever seen,” notes Sclafani. Your clients probably aren’t expecting that level of service, but the way a visitor is greeted has a lot to do with the overall feel of the office. “The simple fact of greeting someone when they walk in the door is important,” says Holman. Jordan concurs. “It’s all about creating a ‘wow’ experience—our receptionist knows who is expected for which advisor, and will offer the client a beverage while they wait.”

The right—or wrong—phone greeting can influence a client as well. “From time to time, we interview clients for advisors,” says Sclafani. “Once, a client said to me that when the receptionist answered the phone, she didn’t introduce herself and the client didn’t know who she was speaking with.” Sclafani stresses that clients, especially older ones, want to know whom they’re talking to. “Introduce yourself—make it easy for the clients,” he says.

As Holman points out, before a person becomes a client, an advisor is more likely to meet on the client’s turf or in neutral territory, but when that person becomes a client, they’re more likely to meet in the advisor’s office. Therefore, for most of the relationship, meetings will be in the advisor’s office. This is why the comfort and professional levels of the office environment significantly affect the way a client perceives you and your work, and how they will physically distinguish you from another advisor. One of the physical details mentioned by each advisor interviewed for this article was the importance of the office conference room. “Corporations are putting the resources into a central conference room and less into separate offices,” says Sclafani. Holman agrees, “This also gets back down to the client experience and the image [an advisor] wants to portray. A lot of advisors use a centralized conference room because their office may not be a space where a CEO of a multimillion-dollar corporation would feel comfortable.” Jordan stresses that he and his colleagues almost always meet new clients in the conference room, especially when the client brings another guest, such as an accountant. “The dynamic of a conference room is more neutral for the client,” he says. “Most of our advisors also have a breakout table in their office for times when an advisor meets a client there,” Jordan adds. Kramer points out the importance of the conference table as well. He holds all meetings in his office at a round 42-inch table. “One thing that’s critical is the 42-inch table—it’s the right distance for people to sit around a table comfortably,” he says. “Any smaller is too intimate for a business meeting and any larger makes it difficult to speak without yelling at each other.”

Although a certain level of professionalism is expected while in an advisor’s office, most advisors agree that a relaxed, home-like feeling is the ideal. “We try to make it more comfortable—like people’s homes,” remarks Kramer, whose office is decorated with French doors, hardwood floors with rugs, and wallpaper. The chairs and couch in his waiting area also make it feel more like a living room. “We try to have a nice environment without being too ornate or overly pretentious,” he says. Tom Henske, a partner at Lenox Financial Advisors in New York, agrees with making the environment less of an office and more of a comfort zone. In order to create that feeling, Henske keeps books for leisure reading on his shelf, as well as financial books, and pictures of his family on his desk. “The home-like feeling allows clients to drop their defenses immediately, getting past the process of having to make them do that in some other way,” Henske says. “Then, we can get right to business.”

The Overall Experience

With volatility in the markets, increased regulation, and constant competition for clients, there are many things advisors can’t control. So why not influence the things that you can, especially when it comes to pleasing your clients? Making small changes to give your client the “wow” experience can set you apart from other advisors and make you a memorable professional in the lives of your clients, which may also lead to good referrals. “Perception is a lot of reality,” Keeling points out. “You can be the best advisor on the planet, but if you’re sloppy, your clients can’t find a place to park, and it’s difficult to find your office, that’s going to affect how people perceive you,” he concludes.

Originally published in Investment Advisor, February 2008