For advisors in particular, image can be a balancing act. If your surroundings are shabby, clients may be skeptical about your ability to build wealth. But too much sparkle (in the parking lot or on your fingers) could raise suspicions about your financial habits - and perhaps the source of your fees.
"People do judge," says Kevin Cusack of TriCor Financial Services in Las Vegas. "If we are spending a lot of money, they are thinking, 'So that's where my fees are going.'"
Financial Planning asked several planners to tell us how they walk the line between looking sharp and avoiding ostentation. Here's what they told us.
URBAN AND CAR-FREE
Prospective clients frequently quiz planners about the kinds of cars they drive, as a kind of a litmus test. But Philadelphia-based Christopher Dylan Morello has an easy answer: I don't.
"I live in the city. I rent cars when I need them," says Morello, a financial planner with myCIO Wealth Partners, which has $5.4 billion in assets under management. "Most times, to see clients, I take trains," Morello says. In fact, with many of his clients residing in New York, Amtrak often provides the best transportation option.
Back in Philadelphia, however, Morello thinks a great deal about the impression he's making on his clients. His office is in Philadelphia's pricier Center City neighborhood, where he believes the urban setting leaves a positive impression on clients who hail from smaller cities in Pennsylvania and Delaware.
And Morello says he adjusts his attire based on his clients and the current dynamics of his relationship with them. When he meets a prospect for the first time, whether in his office or theirs, he usually wears a suit. But for a second or third meeting at a client's home, for instance, he will wear a less formal look.
"You don't need to knock 'em dead with your fashion sense. You just want to convey a professional attitude," he says.
AIMING FOR CASUAL
In Las Vegas, Cusack says, casual style rules. "It's very difficult to get me into a long pair of pants," he says.
Cusack works from a virtual office and has found its flexibility useful and his clients unfazed by it, even complimenting his approach. His ride, too, is low key and low cost: He drives an older model, relatively low-end SUV.
All that modesty matches the lifestyles and attitudes of his clients, who have about $800,000 in assets on average. Cusack believes they prefer his lack of opulence. "I have people say, 'I'm glad you are not driving an expensive car.'"
As for the shorts, he adds: "Never has anyone made a comment about what I was wearing. That's one of the things about Vegas. People would think you were a CPA or something if you wore a tie around here."
When Orange County, Calif., planner Junette McCarthy began a recent project to redecorate her conference room, she thought seriously about the visual impressions the space made on prospective and existing clients.
Years earlier, McCarthy - a partner and owner in Ferree & McCarthy in Santa Ana, Calif., which has $100 million in assets under management - had chosen a mahogany-and-cream wall scheme for the rest of the office, explicitly because she thought it would appeal to clients, particularly elderly ones. McCarthy hired a decorator for the conference room renovation who affirmed her instincts, particularly the expensive-looking design scheme and decor.
With her own attire, as well as that of her employees, McCarthy also seeks to maintain a formal, understated, but definitively well-heeled look. "We are fairly conservative. We don't wear jeans; instead we wear either business suits or slacks and a nice silk blouse," she says.
Even occasional casual days can have unintended consequences. A few times, in between cleaning service visits, she wore jeans to the office so she could do some dusting and vacuuming. On two of those occasions, one of her best and wealthiest clients happened "to pop in," McCarthy recalls.
On his next visit, that client brought McCarthy a feather duster as a gift. "It was just embarrassing," she says. Although the client did it in jest, McCarthy swore off denim and dusting in the office forever.