There is certainly no shortage of places to get investment advice these days. Turn on the TV and watch Jim Cramer, MSNBC, CNBC or Fox Business and you can learn everything from foreign exchange tips to ETF investing. (And by the way, isn't that E*Trade baby just adorable?) You can "call Chuck" at Schwab; You can follow the "green path" and Fidelity; And don't get me started on the hundreds of blogs and investment sites that are spouting all kinds of advice-some good, some not so good.
On top of all that help, there are some 500,000 FINRA-licensed people, and who knows how many RIAs fighting for business. So it's not easy to find ways to stand out from the crowd. Still, it is possible for FAs to set themselves apart and build their business with a focus that can create a unique identity and provide themselves with a "brand."
When trying to differentiate yourself, I think it's helpful to think about your "elevator pitch." The 10 to 15 seconds you have when a stranger asks you what you do. It should be something every FA knows by heart and is specifically designed to elicit interest in the listener. Every FA can say "I'm a broker," or financial advisor. But to be unique and stand apart you need a hook-an approach that adds value.
Here are several ways you can come up with an intriguing pitch that can help you become unique (and better than the competition.)
1. Focus your business on a group of specific professions like teachers, professors, architects, accountants, attorneys or health care professionals. To do this you really need to understand their business-compensation issues, competitive pressures, retirement, or anything that is relevant to effectively serve the needs of these groups. You build your business by constantly networking, joining the appropriate associations, and going to their events. (Your "elevator speech" would be something like, "I specialize in helping health care professionals meet their financial goals.")
2. Become a product expert. There's been such an explosion in the number and complexity of investment products, that it's become very confusing to most of the public. Whether it's a focus on bonds, VAs, ETFs, REITs or even mutual funds, having an area of expertise beyond the basics is a great way to specialize. Just take your area of specialization seriously and work to become a true expert. Study, take courses (if possible), talk to the appropriate sponsors and issuers. Just saying you're an expert doesn't make you one.
3. Specialize in an investment niche like retirement planning, tax reduction strategies or working with small businesses. With roughly 10,000 baby boomers retiring every day, nothing is hotter than retirement issues. To specialize in niche area, you need the knowledge to really help clients. So, study, learn, get a professional designation and get the expertise you need in your area of specialization.
4. Target a specific group of people: women, an ethnic group (you need to speak the language if there is one), recently or about-to-be divorced people and of course high-net worth people/families. If you are a member of an ethnic group, it's only natural to consider helping people with the same ethnicity. And it is possible to develop investment approaches and strategies that are specific to a group's unique need.
5. Get a professional designation like a CFP, CLU or CMFC (Chartered Mutual Fund Counselor). Having a professional designation can help separate you from the pack, and give you a real marketing advantage. But exercise caution — there are literally dozens of designations out there, but only a handful are "serious" designations with meaningful requirements, testing, continuing educational requirements and codes of ethics.
6. Use the media. I hate to complicate matters by getting compliance departments involved, but it's a must here. Whether it's writing a blog, articles for a personal newsletter or just posting on LinkedIn or Facebook, FAs must get the proper approvals from their Compliance departments. Social networking is hot now and I'm certain that FAs who understand how to use it effectively will benefit in the long run. But don't overlook old technologies like investment shows on a local radio stations or cable TV, or distributing a good pre-written newsletter that you can personalize.
7. Become a "fix-it" specialist. Many investors got hurt in the crash and still haven't recovered. Many people have lost faith in their investments and their advisors. Now is a great time to position yourself as "the" person to help get their investment plans back on track. Doing comprehensive portfolio reviews and personal surveys on investor's risk profiles, needs and goals is a great way to build a business different from other FAs.
8. Become an "asset gatherer." Don't sell investments, sell your ability to find, evaluate and monitor the performance of professional money managers. Most broker dealers have wrap products or asset management/asset allocation programs where FAs can choose asset classes and managers that meet their clients' needs and goals. By focusing on asset gathering rather then asset investment, you put yourself on the same side as your client. Your job is to find the best professional managers, not pick individual stocks or products. This is one of the reasons the RIA area has had such strong growth. It's very powerful to be able to say to your client that you don't earn a commission from the sale of a specific product.
9. Teach a course on investing and investments. Just about every town in America has a college, university, or adult educational program where you could teach a course on the markets, investing and investments. If not, try the local library or even civic groups. As long as you don't promote your own services as an FA, people who attend your courses will naturally gravitate to you with their business or referrals. I once spoke with an FA who taught a high school-level class on basic economics — how a checking account works, what a stock or bond is, how mortgages work and so forth. The kids loved it and told their parents and it did generate new business.
10. Get involved in your community. There are so many areas in every community that need volunteers. Schools, charitable organizations, and churches all need help. Just donating your time with no business expectations is not only rewarding, but it may lead to more business. People respect people who give back to their communities. So just doing the right thing can help you both spiritually and professionally.
Paul A. Werlin is president of Human Capital Resources Inc.