You and the Obligation to Put Yourself First

Journal of Financial Planning; November 2014


Catherine M. Seeber, CFP®, is a principal and senior financial adviser at Wescott Financial Advisory Group with offices in Philadelphia, San Francisco, Boca Raton and Miami.

Why is leading with yourself so important? Isn’t it our fiduciary obligation to put our clients’ interests first? I submit that your responsibility in providing “appropriate advice” is a result of exhibiting and examining your own practices and personal behaviors first. Success or failure is a direct result of certain actions you choose to demonstrate. We must remember that we bring ourselves—our styles and attitudes—into every relationship, responsibility, and client opportunity. Before you can stand in your client’s shoes, you must be comfortable in your own. 

What do you have to offer to draw that perfectly suited client to you? What actions are required to cause both an intentional and unintentional effect on someone else?

Before you can establish a trusting relationship, you must be authentic. In order for a client to express a particular need, you have to communicate. Before you can garner confidence in what it is you do, you must clearly define yourself. To encourage the best client for you, you need to lead with the following: 

Being Authentic Builds Trust 

Trust is absolutely something that every adviser should pursue, but trust is not the central reason for being authentic. It’s all about being the person you know in your heart you have always been destined to be. It does not originate from your title or from the amount of revenue you generate. Success is wonderful, but significance is even better. Truly authentic advisers are constantly building their legacies by adding deep value to everyone with whom they interact and leaving the world a better place in the process. 

Clients tend to gravitate toward advisers who seem trustworthy and authentic, who share an engaging or persuasive story, and who seem to have things in common with them. When you are truly authentic, you enhance your ability to make eye contact, smile naturally when you talk, and convey warmth and enthusiasm through your mannerisms.

If you don’t know yourself and what you have to offer, fears and insecurities will overcome you. Rather than pursuing your purpose using your unique talents, style, and convictions, you’ll constantly be comparing yourself to others, trying to guide your career path by someone else’s ways and standards. Alternatively, when you know and accept yourself, you can be authentic, leading from your own internal compass. Objectively knowing your strengths gives you confidence. When you are authentic and confident in your skill, you become likeable.

For clients, deciding on an adviser is not the same as choosing a good cardiologist. Financial planning is a very intimate experience. People need to like you. They want to feel an immediate personal connection. Authenticity offers not only trust, but a sustainable uniqueness about who you are, and when you put that uniqueness to work, you achieve success.

Effective Communication Improves Your Client Knowledge

One of the most important attributes of a successful advisory business is effective client communication. The ability to hold a natural conversation is the key to success in our profession. Knowing when to initiate a discussion, keeping it interesting by asking effective questions, sharing your own stories, and ending the dialogue with kindness is a true art form. 

Good communication also builds trust. Too often, advisers mistakenly believe that communicating means doing all the talking. On the contrary; it’s asking the right questions and listening to what your prospect or client has to say. To fully understand their wants and needs, one must probe, then listen. Communicating enhances your relationship, building trust and respect over time. These are patterns of behavior that need to be constructed and remain consistent throughout your relationship. The length of your conversation doesn’t matter, but regularity does.

Defining Yourself Builds Self Confidence 

No one has ever labeled me lazy, but I must admit that I find it much easier and quicker to reach new clients using the principle of attraction rather than going on endless (and often fruitless) client scavenger hunts of a particular market niche. I’ve noticed that advisers who struggle to fill their books of business do what is considered “spray and pray.” They research and market to an underserved population, keeping their fingers crossed that they can appropriately service them, and then panic when they realize they are not equipped to do so. Yes, you can possibly cobble something together as market share-driven advisers often do. And sure, some are extremely successful. But looking at retention, quality of service, sustainability, and self-preservation, I think, “How can being anything other than yourself be worth it?” 

Growing your business haphazardly doesn’t just affect revenue; it can erode your confidence. It’s demoralizing when you know you have a particular skill that can make a huge difference to others, and yet you can’t seem to find the clients with whom you want to share it. So examine your qualities carefully. Get to know each one. What is your passion? What do you value? If the idea is to be who you say you are, the first step is knowing who you are. 

The good news is, there is a way to consistently attract the clients you want without changing or commercializing yourself. First, get really clear on what it is you do. The more specific you are, the easier it will be for clients to find you. In doing this effectively, over time, people will come to see you as the expert. Then, instead of you chasing after them, they end up chasing after you, because they’ve decided you are the person they need to solve their problems and help them achieve their goals. Thankfully, you are probably already an expert at something related to what you do, otherwise you wouldn’t have the business you have today, right? So all you have to do is become known as the expert you already are and share it. How? By offering solutions to your prospects’ and clients’ problems. 

Let’s face it, no one looks like you, has the same talents, life experiences, or perspectives as you. You are unique and are therefore here to make your unique contribution. If we each focus on what we bring to our clients, there can be no comparisons or confusion over who we are.

I’m not a huge proponent of some of the philosophies in Sheryl Sandberg’s book, Lean In. Gender focus, in my opinion, is overrated. I mean, every bit of career advice she gives to women can certainly benefit a man. What resonated with me, however, was the section “Sit at the Table.” There are situations where some people jump at new opportunities and challenges while others hold back. You must take more risks and either gain confidence in your own abilities or act more confident than you feel. I think the key here is that to be successful, you must stop internalizing failure. Frankly, there are times when I catch myself thinking I shouldn’t or can’t do something and I ponder, “What would so-and-so do in my position?” The answer is usually, “Not too sure, but I’ll find out.” 

Assuming you can be all things to all people is a myth. We all make tradeoffs, but we sometimes struggle with the perception—internal and external—that we need to devote our full attention to everything.

Sharing your truth about your own abilities is one of the most difficult recommendations I can make. There’s only so much embracing the being “everything to everyone” that you can do before it all becomes impossible. Instead, make sure your practice is capitalizing on your unique skill set. Find it, study it, refine it, make it great, and then broadcast it. Speak about it, become the go-to person for anyone who wants to learn from you, and become that adviser who draws clients to you. What an honor! Garnering business by simply being who you are.

Putting clients’ interests first does not become relevant until you are functioning in a way that establishes trust, confidence, and knowledge. Lead by continuing to put your best self forward for the benefit of your client or prospect. Make it become more than what you say you do, but something that you do every day. You have to come first, otherwise, you have nothing to offer.

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