“Sell” Is Not a Four-Letter Word

How to use conversational selling to boost success

Journal of Financial Planning: July 2015



Have you ever wondered why the adviser down the street seems to earn more business, more quickly, than you do—even though you are at least as competent, ethical, and committed to doing right by your clients? Chances are, the adviser down the road has created a great public persona and mastered the fine art of conversational selling.

We are all selling something, whether we want to admit it or not. Some of us are just better at it than others. Typically, those with the stronger sales and marketing skills win in a service business—even if they have a less-than-ideal business model or inferior service—and once entangled, it may be hard for the client to terminate an existing relationship, even if you have a more compelling value proposition.

Steak and Sizzle Needed

Think about the most successful advisers in the profession. They have learned how to serve up both “the steak”—the professional substance—and “the sizzle”—meaning that sometimes you need to add a healthy dose of razzle-dazzle.

The industry icons who come to mind probably have the one special thing that’s hard to describe; a leadership personality that works like a magnet, drawing the right people to them every time. The words often used to describe this quality are “presence” and “gravitas.” Gravitas is a serious quality of manner that commands respect. Presence is the bearing, carriage, or air of a person with a noteworthy quality of poise and effectiveness. Think of “gravitas” as the “steak,” and “presence” as the “sizzle.”

We can all remember an upsetting time when we lost business to someone with more sizzle than steak. Although it’s easy to become jealous or begrudging, the smarter move is to up your game.

Let’s assume you are highly competent and ethical. You’ve got the substance, but you may be lacking the sizzle. Maybe you left an organization to get away from a pushy sales culture, but it makes sense to ask: has complacency set in? Is it more comfortable to rationalize natural shyness rather than challenge it? If we’re honest with ourselves, we’ll know when it’s time to hone our communication skills, and sometimes a little bit of “authentic acting” helps.

Practice Authentic Acting

President Reagan knew something all of us should embrace: leadership and business success are about influencing and persuading. Getting others to understand and buy into you and your point of view is, at least in part, acting and improvisation (two skills some would say he used well during his presidency). Listening, adapting to change, responding with agility and nimbleness, and managing both planned and unplanned events are all improvisation techniques. But being fully present and in the moment is also key. It is the foundation of executive “presence”—a quality Reagan most certainly possessed.

Advisers who are good at influencing and persuading others know how to uncover needs, create a sense of urgency, and then map a path from the prospective client’s needs to their solution.

Here are some tips from Top Line Talent’s sales training course (see the sidebar for additional information):

Be totally present and in the moment. Be completely engaged in what is happening in the here and now.

Be genuine. People respond to authenticity with trust and respect. It’s okay to admit to a foible or poke fun at yourself. You are human. So is everyone else.

Be positive. Your sales conversations should express joy, pride, hope, compassion, love, awe, and curiosity. When you authentically feel these emotions your audience will socially model and feel them too.

Use your natural strengths and communicate from there. If you are funny, be funny. If you are more of a wise old soul, play into that strength. If you are a quant geek or a deep thinker, fully embrace that.

Let your message inspire you. See the higher, more divine purpose in what you are conveying. Tie your message to something big. When you are around someone who speaks passionately and from the heart, doesn’t that inspire you too?

Reagan once quipped: “How can a president not be an actor?” He understood that being an actor isn’t being inauthentic, and that in order to be persuasive, certain dynamics need to occur. Being aware of these dynamics and using them in an ethical and genuine way will increase your power to influence and persuade.

Listen with Empathy

Most people aren’t as good at listening as they think they are. We often multi-task. While we’re listening, we’re also concentrating on what we want to say next. The cost of not listening is almost always lost opportunity or forced damage control.

We should all work on our ability to listen and actively seek out opportunities to listen with empathy. Here are some best practices gleaned from watching master communicators including George Kinder, Ron Carson, and Susan Bradley over the years:

Learn to expand the dialogue by asking great open-ended questions.

Try to hear not only the words that are being said, but also try to understand the complete message.

Even when you have limited time to talk, practice listening so well and communicating so clearly that the other person doesn’t realize your time is short (and even if they do, they are not left wanting).

Lean in. Nod your head. Open your eyes wide to express extra interest. If possible, sit to the left of the person you hope to influence.

Speaking only when it is contributing to the conversation is not an easy skill to acquire, but if you practice this in your daily conversations, you will become increasingly aware of how speaking less will result in conversations that are deeper and richer.

Try these two exercises with a partner at home or in the office:

  1. Listen carefully to a short sentence. Repeat back verbatim exactly what the other person said.
  2. Listen carefully to a one- or two-minute synopsis of a business or life situation. Paraphrase back to the person what you think you heard them say.

Watch Your Body Language

Your body language shapes not just how people perceive you, but how you feel about yourself and how you act in business situations. Your mother was right: sit up straight and look people in the eyes.

Subtly mirroring the other person’s gestures, posture, tone, volume, and facial expressions can also help build rapport and a stronger connection; if you are listening empathetically and are conscious that subtle mirroring is a good thing, this should happen quite naturally. Mimicking, which is a kissing cousin to mirroring, can backfire—it can be seen as clownish or manipulative and can drain your cognitive abilities because you are simply trying too hard. Google around to learn more about mirroring and reading the body language of other people.

If you are feeling insecure or anxious about a presentation or a meeting, it may sound crazy, but striking a “power pose” can help. In her popular TED talk and speeches, Harvard social psychologist Amy Cuddy explains how sitting and standing in ways that expand and open the body can actually build confidence and bolster courage. Just two minutes of striking a “power pose” can significantly lower levels of cortisol (the stress hormone) and raise levels of testosterone (the dominance hormone). The result: a more positive, confident “presence.” Presence and confidence are essential when selling services and intangibles such as peace of mind.

Mind What You Say

Research and communications firm Maslansky and Partners wisely reminds us, it’s not what we say but what others hear that really matters. During interactive panels held at industry conferences, investors interacting with Maslansky delivered these messages to advisers:

Stop using jargon. It’s off-putting and hard to understand. Investors don’t want to risk looking stupid, so they sometimes will just nod and play along. If you don’t think you use industry jargon, check by telling a teenager what you do. If the teen understands, you’re in the clear. If not, well, you’ll know quickly.

Focus on future trends. Investors are not impressed with historical data, established theories, or Nobel prize-winning academic research. Focus on upside potential and positive trends, not past performance or historical norms.

Word things positively. When asked what they found more appealing: an investment that (a) helps them avoid the risks and threats to retire any way they want, or (b) one that helps them take advantage of opportunities, one investor panel unanimously picked the positive statement. If you’re trying to motivate people to act, do it with a positive solution rather than avoiding a problem. Be careful talking about risk. The panel responded well to the phrase “risk protection and growth opportunities” versus just “protecting against risk.”

Share a clearly defined process. Investors may be reassured by a thoughtful, articulate plan. Knowing that there is a specific set of steps and related activities mapped out and ready to go builds confidence and engenders trust.

When it comes to fees, give the number without elaboration. Don’t waltz around the costs. Slipping back into marketing mode at this point in the conversation is detrimental—it looks like you are trying to hide something or are insecure about your pricing. When people perceive value, they will pay for it.

Never Be Closing

A good sales conversation is always a two-way exchange. If you’re doing it right, people get and stay engaged. You will be opening up a relationship, not closing a sale.

The financial planning process in and of itself is a marvelous client engagement tool. There’s a great deal of trust built along the way.

You should never ask for business—it’s just bad form. Your goal should be to get the client to ask you: “What are the next steps; how do we get started?” That’s when you will know you’ve truly done your job and will have the opportunity to win over the client’s assets over time. If you really feel you must test the waters or ask for the business, an elegant set of “closing” questions might be: “So, what is your thinking at this point? Ready to move forward?”

Marie Swift is president and CEO of Impact Communications Inc., a full-service PR and marketing communications firm.

Marion Asnes is president of Idea Refinery LLC, a consultancy offering strategic marketing, communications, and content-generation services.


Do You Need to Work on Your Communication Skills?

Here is a quick self-assessment of your sales and communication skills, compliments of Top Line Talent (TopLineTalent.com).

  1. Have you ever been surprised by an objection that arose at the 11th hour?
  2. Have you ever neglected to ask probing or difficult questions? 
  3. Did you ever know there was a difficult issue that would eventually surface, but you chose to avoid having the conversation? 
  4. Did you ever miss something important because you either weren’t paying attention or weren’t really hearing what the client or prospect was saying?
  5. Have you ever presented your solution before you fully understood the problem?

If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, you probably need to polish up your public persona and work on your communication skills. 

Top Line Talent, founded by behavioral scientist and sales trainer Dr. George W. Watts and former financial planner Laurie Blazek, CFP®, offers a self-directed, online sales training program. After personally taking the TLT course and learning so much from the process, I thought planners could benefit so I asked the creators to offer a discount to planners looking to improve their consultative selling skills.

They’re offering $75 off the cost of the four-month program (with code “Friends of Swift”), which consists of an audio book, videos, interactive journal, and personalized eBook. Participants also have access to resource materials, periodic webinars, blogs, and a forum.

—Marie Swift

Recommended Reading

Here are some of our favorite books on developing a thriving
service business, with great tips and insights for financial planners:

  • Purple Cow: Transform Your Business by Being Remarkableby Seth Godin
  • The New Gold Standard: 5 Leadership Principles for Creating a Legendary Customer Experience Courtesy of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company 
    by Joseph Michelli
  • Selling the Invisible: A Field Guide to Modern Marketing by Harry Beckwith
  • Conversations with Prospects: The First Step to Sales Success
    by Bob St. Meyer and Jack Hubbard
  • The Language of Trust: Selling Ideas in a World of Skeptics by Michael Maslansky
  • Never Be Closing: How to Sell Better without Screwing Your Clients, Your Colleagues, or Yourself by Tim Hurson and Tim Dunne
  • You Are a Brand: In Person and Online, How Smart People Brand Themselves for Business Success by Catherine Kaputa
  • Platform: Get Noticed in a Noisy Worldby Michael Hyatt
  • Executive Presence: The Missing Link between Merit and Success by Sylvia Ann Hewlett Stop Asking for Referrals: A Revolutionary New Strategy for Building a Financial Service Business that Sells Itself by Stephen Wershing

—Marie Swift and Marion Asnes



General Financial Planning Principles
Practice Management