Ashlyn Hood has an unusual approach to advising her investment clients. A financial advisor who works out of Susquehanna Bank in Reisterstown, Maryland, a suburb of Baltimore, Hood says, "At some point, I try to put my clients into a dream state. I say, "'What would you want to do if you had all the money you needed?' Or I might say, 'What would you want for your family if, say, you passed away?'"
The idea of getting clients to think in this kind of deep and abstract manner comes naturally to Hood, who began her college career in the U.K. studying psychology, before switching her major to finance and accounting. "I initially wanted to be a psychologist," she recalls, "because I wanted to figure out what made people tick. I studied it for two years, and it has helped me in my job as a financial advisor. When someone walks into my office with their walls up, I can figure out how to bring those walls down."
A native of Trinidad, Hood moved to Britain with her family as a child, and later came to the U.S. Her voice still carries some of the lilt of her original island home.
She says it's important to get people to use their imagination when they're planning their investments. Just recently, a woman—a former client—called her to say that her husband had passed away. "She was 47, with children," Hood recalls. "She had tracked me down to tell me that back when she and her husband were in their thirties, I had convinced her husband to buy life insurance. I remembered it. I had suggested to him that with his wife at home with the kids he needed insurance. He had said, 'No, I don't need that. I'm making all this money.' Well, I told him to close his eyes and imagine that he was up in the clouds looking down at his family, and to ask himself what he wanted for them. Did he want them to not just be devastated [emotionally] by losing him, but financially too?"
He bought an insurance policy then and there.
Now his widow was talking to Hood. "She told me, 'I'm devastated by the loss of my husband, but I have to thank you. You really helped us!'"
Hood was silent for a minute and then said, "When it comes to thinking about bad things, nobody wants to, but you have to do it if you want to have the pleasure."
Her training in psychology helps her break the ice with new clients, too, she says. "People, and young people especially, they're very mistrustful," she says. "So I start out by asking them 'What brought you here? Why did you come to me?" I don't just start talking about investments and products. I want to understand their needs and I want to understand why they specifically want me. After all, they could go anywhere."
With women, she will ask about the children in the family. With men, she asks about their jobs. "With women," she explains, "no matter how high their jobs may be, they love to talk about their kids. With men, it's the job. It's all a way of getting them to relax, and of finding common ground." She adds, with a laugh, "I'm kind of a chameleon. I can become whatever person you want me to be."
Asked about her own family, she turns out to be no different than her clients, and begins to talk with enthusiasm about her own daughter, a 21-year-old who is studying at the University of Pittsburgh, and about her husband, who has long been a financial advisor at Wachovia Securities (now Wells Fargo Securities). In fact, that's were they met, before she left for Susquehanna Bank. "We're not competitors," she laughs. "We help each other. He'll come home and tell me about a difficult client and I'll give him some ideas, then I'll tell him about some problem and he'll help me figure out what to do."
Hood left Wachovia about five years ago after meeting the Susquehanna's program manager at a convention. "He called me the next day," she said, "and asked if I'd be interested in moving to Susquehanna. I wasn't looking for a new job at the time, but I did feel that I was kind of stuck at Wachovia, and would have to wait for someone to pass away before I could move up. There was more opportunity at Susquehanna."
The problem at Susquehanna, a community bank with five advisors serving 220 branches (Hood handles six of these herself), is getting known. "I wasn't getting a lot of clients, so I took a step back and decided it wasn't the bank, it was me," she says. "I had done a bit of self-promotion at Wachovia, newspaper advertising, for instance, and a newsletter and a lot of emails. It was hard sometimes financially, but I did it."
She continues, "At Susquehanna, I started a website. I also wrote a piece about myself and gave it to a local magazine called Woman to Woman, and they put it together as an article. From there I went into marketing myself, doing a lot of seminars and networking events."
The website, which is monitored by Susquehanna Bank compliance personnel, is one of Hood's big projects. "I'm the guinea pig," she laughs. "It doesn't take a lot of time, but I do updates on it, it has testimonials from clients." She works on the site in the evening after work. The cost, after an initial setup fee, is just $45 a month.
And to help raise her profile, she also volunteers on a community board that grants permits for events and special activities. She also plays golf. "I love it," she says with obvious enthusiasm. "People talk about all kinds of things on the golf course. Lots of times, it's about the market; they'll say how bad the market is. I'll say something about that, and then they'll say, 'What do you do?' At that point, I just say, 'Oh, I look at the past and try to figure out what will happen in the future.'" The way the conversation normally progresses, they soon realize that she's an advisor.
Hood has also worked hard to make the bank's referral program work. Initially, she says, it was just tellers who were referring people, but that wasn't working so well. "Tellers," she explains, "are not sellers."
"It came to me one day when I was talking with a wholesaler ... I suddenly realized I should be talking with all the people in the bank—from the loan officers to commercial lenders to the trust officers and so on, and not just the tellers. I needed to do what the wholesalers do!" So she started a campaign of taking all these various bank personnel out to lunch.
And of course, she encourages her existing clients to spread the word. "I had a woman ask if she could refer me to someone," she says. "I told her, 'Don't keep me a secret! Spread my name from the rooftops! Tell people what I did for you!'"
Hood's clients—there are over 1,000 of them—come in all ages, from young people to one investor who is 90, she says, but the majority fall in the 50-80 range. That makes sense. Hood says, "I market myself as a retirement specialist."
Typical investments range from $50,000 on up, though she has a number of smaller investors too—most of them children of existing clients. "Parents who are clients of mine will refer their kids to me when they start working," she explains. Her only requirement is that people have to be ready to invest at least $5,000.
That, and they also have to close their eyes and tell her all about their dreams.