Financial advisors have often been trained to perfect their ‘elevator pitch’ as a way of generating business development opportunities, and leveraging any social situation (even casual ones like a barbeque or a cocktail party) to prospect for clients. This approach created a long-standing negative reputation that financial advisors are only in the business to sell their ‘advice’ that purely serves their interests (and not necessarily those of their clients), ultimately ending with pushing their firm’s commission-based products on a consumer who may not even want or need the product. In more recent years, though, the term ‘financial advisor’ has progressed to refer to those professionals who are in the business to provide financial guidance and advice – not just sales products – and who are held to a higher fiduciary standard. Though there have been significant strides in changing what being a financial advisor means, this lingering sales-centric reputation has often made it difficult for financial advisors to introduce themselves (especially in more casual settings) as there can be an expectation that the elevator pitch is impending.
In our 84th episode of Kitces & Carl, Michael Kitces and client communication expert Carl Richards discuss how lingering negative connotations of the label ‘financial advisor’ can impact introductions in social settings, how to change approaches to introductions and the relationships that follow, and when it is okay to shift the focus from prospecting for clients to simply talking to other people.
As a starting point, it’s important to understand that not all social settings are appropriate to prospect for clients. Once they introduce themselves, many financial advisors may feel pressured to immediately talk about how they can help the person with their finances. Even though many financial advisors genuinely want to do what is best for their clients and hold themselves to higher standards in the ever-changing financial advisory industry (and their own standards), those who may not be as familiar with the financial advisory world may have a difficult time discerning when they can trust the advisor, especially in light of negative media exposure (e.g., Bernie Madoff) that has tainted the reputation of the financial advisory industry. While an advisor may want to connect with others and have a genuine conversation about the good they do for their clients, the people with whom they are getting to know can feel biased by their negative impressions of financial advisors and may not want to engage in the conversation.
Ultimately, the key point is that there is no magic phrase or term to relieve the pressure an advisor may feel is necessary to defend what they do when introducing themselves as a financial advisor. Experimenting with different terms and descriptions, along with getting more specific as to what one does as an advisor (and clarifying who they serve), can connect the listener to more of the positive things and steer them away from the negative misconceptions about what a financial advisor does. For some, the stigma that surrounds the label ‘financial advisor’ won’t be dissolved any time soon, but by engaging in real conversations, advisors can attempt to at least change the perspective of those they interact with by simply focusing on creating better relationships (regardless of whether the goal is to prospect for clients)!
***Editor's Note: Can't get enough of Kitces & Carl? Neither can we, which is why we've released it as a podcast as well! Check it out on all the usual podcast platforms, including Apple Podcasts (iTunes), Spotify, and Stitcher.
- Kitces & Carl Ep 83: When The Big Prospect Doesn’t Want Your Financial Plan
- Ramit Sethi
- Jolt Conference
Kitces & Carl Podcast Transcript
Carl: Greetings, Michael.
Michael: Hello, Carl. How are you?
Carl: I am fantastic. We got all sorts of problems today with blue around here. I got to fix this.
Michael: What's wrong with it? I see the big Blue Couch. It's beautiful. It's a thing of glory. I feel like you're getting so attached to the Blue Couch now, like you're going to have to start traveling with it to speak. It's going to go with you.
Carl: You know what's so crazy is the Blue Couch is getting speaking requests.
Michael: Oh, this makes my branding heart sing. Literally the Blue Couch is going to be on a podium somewhere?
Carl: At a conference. The Blue Couch will be at a conference in May. The first speaking request the Blue Couch has received, so...
Michael: Are we allowed to say what the event is? I'm just surely curious now.
Carl: Sure. The Blue Couch is going to be at Jolt in May.
Michael: Jolt? So, Robert Sofia's marketing conference?
Carl: Snappy Kraken's. Yeah. Which I think we were trying to talk him into calling it Krak Con.
Michael: Yes. Snappy Kraken has Krak Con as the conference. Absolutely.
Carl: Krak Con. Anyway, the Blue Couch is making its first speaking appearance at...
Michael: Literally, you're going to package it and ship the couch?
Carl: Yeah. I'm driving the adventure truck down there. I'm going to throw it in the back of the truck and take it with me, and we're going to have it so that people can take pictures on it. The goal was to get a bunch of pictures so we can troll you with it. That's the goal.
Michael: Oh, fantastic. Because you're not having enough fun trolling me about weekend reading every Friday, every Saturday.
Carl: Yes, exactly. I skipped the last two weekends.
Michael: You did. You did. For those who haven't seen, Carl likes to send out tweets with things like, I'm doing my weekend reading. And it's a picture of him on a hiking trail in nature.
Carl: My favorite one was the page that said this page intentionally left blank, and said weekend reading.
Michael: Weekend reading. Yeah. So, all right. So I can't wait. So I guess anybody who is at Jolt, make sure you got a picture of the Blue Couch and post it to Twitter. So we can celebrate in the trolling glory that apparently is coming my way.
Carl: Yes, exactly.
The Stigma That Still Surrounds The Of Label ‘Financial Advisor’ [02:16]
Michael: So, Carl, for today's episode, I wanted to talk about something that you had made a comment actually in our last episode. That to me just hit home in a very painful personal way, as I suspected. It probably did some consciously for so many of us in the advisor world, which is the point when you had said, if I'm on a plane and I want people to stop talking to me, I just tell them I'm a financial advisor.
Carl: I think I used planner, but yes, same thing.
Michael: Same thing. Well, same thing. All the people who value themselves being planners, not advisors are going to start sending you hate mail for having said that.
Carl: Same thing as far as the person sitting next to me is concerned.
Michael: There you go. Who doesn't understand our industry?
Michael: We actually had had someone separately send this question as well. Like, how do you introduce yourself if you're not going to say financial advisor because apparently that's the bad word verboten term now, or just because so many consumers have so much baggage, existing baggage that has very negative connotations around the label, financial advisor. Indirectly, that's why we started saying financial advisor and trying to put that out there. Just like, for better or worse, we may have to claim a new space. I would love to recover the financial advisor label, I'm not sure we're going to manage to do that. So if we can't do that, I'll consider to continue to beat the drum for financial advisor. But that aside, if you want them to stop talking to you, you say you're a financial advisor, if you want them to talk to you, what do you say? How do you introduce yourself?
Carl: Yeah, this is such a brutal conversation, because I have literally struggled with this for two decades. Because it's like, every term we use, and it's not our fault that the industry did... Look, it's well deserved, because the industry did this to people. I can't blame anybody else for not wanting to engage in a discussion when I say I'm a financial advisor or a financial planner. Because what they think they're going to get...it's interesting, if you watch their hands as soon as you say financial planner, it goes straight to make sure their wallet is still there. So that's what they see.
Michael: It's like, subconsciously, you kind of do a little tap on the purse or the wallet.
Carl: And again, that's because...and again, this crowd that will listen to this, lives in a beautiful bubble. And sometimes we forget that we're a little teeny small piece of a big industry, and that big industry is still doing the stuff they've always done. And so we're out waving the flag and we're trying, and we're trying, and we're going to keep it up and there's big organizations even starting to do a better job of that, we're going to support them. All awesome. What do we do on a practical level, when somebody just says what do you do? And this just brings back almost post-traumatic stress-like symptoms, we're not really comparing it to that, but of elevator pitches.
The Pressure To Deliver The “Elevator Pitch” In Social Settings [05:26]
Michael: Yeah, because the alternative to, I'm a financial advisor, is, I'm a dream solver who makes the dreams of retirees come true. I'm sure someone has a more eloquent version of that than that. Yeah, I guess that's the flip side. It's like, what's the elevator pitch, the thing you can say in the six to eight seconds that you're going up in the elevator to try to make your case that you're valuable to the world.
Carl: Do they still do that like they did it to us 20 years. I had to. I was put in front of a room, I had to, I had to, I had to practice and develop an elevator pitch. Do we still do that to people?
Michael: That may or may not be related to the firm that you chose to work for in the early days of your career who had a particular outbound sales approach. Yeah, I mean...
Carl: True. Do people still...do you still do that?
Michael: It's still out there. It's still out there at practice management conferences. I don't know that a lot of people polish it and rehearse it maybe the way that you did in the past. But I think indirectly that's part of the point is for a lot of people I know the elevator pitch didn't feel any better than the financial advisor label, it felt fake or it felt canned, or a lot of us are just not, I don't know, not witty enough to come up with the super witty thing that you're supposed to say that makes someone to like, "Oh, tell me more. I'm fascinated by that witty statement. I'm not that witty." So, how do you handle this, if I don't want to talk to the financial advisor, and if I do want to talk to them or want them to talk to me?
Carl: Yeah, let me just...look, I know I'm wrong about this. But I'll just walk you through what I did. Because I remember specifically being at a barbecue and talk...I'd done the elevator pitch thing for years, and tried, and every single social setting was an opportunity to prospect, and all of that pressure. And then I was at a barbecue once and I'm talking to two people, and one of them says to the other, what do you do? And the other person says this. And I was like, well, I didn't know that he just says I'm a doctor. And I was like, "What? Wait. He didn't say I help people fix their knees so they can enjoy time on the trails." He just said, "I'm a doctor." And I was like, wait, that's allowed? You're not out here pitching knee surgery to every single person who comes by, you can just be a thing and then say, how's the weather, or did you like the football game?
Michael: I help people fulfill their lives with able bodied knees?
Carl: Yeah, exactly. I was like, oh, wow. So I just started saying, "I'm a financial advisor. What do you like to do for fun?" I would just shift the conversation. Because it's like, enough with this prospecting thing all the time, and everything. And then something interesting started to happen. Look, these are people who knew me. And their version of a financial advisor or a financial planner, what they've heard about in the news, and keep in mind, we went through a period of time where we had Bernie Madoff, and all the stuff around that. So, this was a well-earned reputation. That reputation didn't match with me. So I would get this look...and I started playing around with this look. Ramit Sethi taught me this, to just try different... He used to say, when people would say, what do you do? He tried writer for a while. And he was like, what I learned was people...everybody would say, oh, yeah, me too. And I'd have to say, "No, not in the basement, in your mom's basement in your underwear. I'm an actual..." So he changed. He noticed when he said author, people reacted different than writer.
And so, I started trying some of those games. I just tried experiments. So I would say, "I'm a financial advisor." And then I would wait for the look like, oh, is there any more chips? Like that look. And I'd say, "But not like that." "But not like that, what do you mean?" "I know this sounds crazy, but I actually help people make smart decisions with money. That's what we do." And so I would practice with those, "I'm a financial planner, but not what you're thinking." And I just played a game with it. Now I have friends. I was having this exact conversation with a study group. And a guy named Justin King in the UK...and Justin's a gem of a person, just a really good...
Imagine this, in my house, in a Zoom conversation. My wife is working about 5 feet away. And I'm doing this whole like, I don't know, self-deprecating thing. And I'm only telling you this because I want to give you permission if that's what works for you. Turns out, you could just be a doctor. You don't have to think that the barbecue is a prospect to me. If you're looking for another way...so I'm doing that whole thing, and Justin's like, hey, "I have an idea." And Justin tells me what he says, like, "I help people make decisions to make work optional," or something. It was really beautifully said. Part of it was the accent. Part of it's just that he's a lovely guy from the UK. My wife literally raises her hand over in the corner, and she's like, "I want to talk to that guy."
So I'm clearly not the expert at this, but I think relieving the pressure valve. Look, you said it. There's nothing you can say, that is like this magic thing. It's back to our earlier discussion about things have to happen in their lives. And you have to be the person they think of. And so if you can just humbly, like a doctor... I heard somebody say, once they were an architect. They didn't say, I build beautiful spaces to make your family enjoy multi-generational love. He just said, I'm an architect. That's all I've got on this subject. Turns out it's really hard. How do you solve it? How do you solve answering the question, what do you do for a living?
Michael: So I will say, it has definitely evolved for me as well. Part of that just literally, like my role evolving, but also just, I don't know, what I find works or what I care about. Early, early years, I started out life insurance company, and apparently, I didn't have the quality of sales training that you did. So I didn't even get trained well on an elevator speech. And I sucked at it, and it was horrible. And I failed out that side of the business, which is why I left the prospecting side and spent eight years in employee jobs, where I wouldn't have to do business development.
Carl: That thing.
Michael: And so, just in practice, what that meant was, my introduction kind of got to find, I guess, I'll just call it in employee context, the way a lot of us do in an employee role, which is like my... What do I do? It's my job. It's my job title. So it's like, what do you do? I'm a director of financial planning for a private wealth management firm. That was literally what I did, I'm a director of financial planning for a private wealth management firm. And just that carried me fine for years. It at least didn't create the same kind of like, people step back sort of thing that financial advisor sometimes does. It didn't create them to make a step forward, which was fine, because I wasn't there to do business development, because that wasn't my role at the time. And I didn't want to be doing business development. I manage a team that was building a planning process. So it was lower stakes. I wasn't trying to sell anything.
Getting Specific To Describe The Financial Advisor Profession [13:04]
Carl: Let me ask you a question, because it's really important right here. Because you essentially said, I'm a doctor. Like, I'm an architect. Just like that's what it is. Well, you just said something, it didn't cause them to take a step forward, which is fine, because that wasn't my role. Let me just ask you a question. You've seen a lot, right? You've talked to a lot of advisors more than maybe anybody else. Have you ever seen something that you could have said that would cause them to take a step forward?
Michael: Yes. Of course, now I'm blank on a good example of it. I have heard a few. They're almost always…not, alright…anybody who wants to, take the drink now. So they're almost always built around a niche. There it is. But because the ones that I've heard that work are really specific to the particular audience group they're trying to reach. I'll butcher this, and often they're not even all that witty. It's just like, I work with recent divorcees, and I help them get their financial life back on track.
Carl: Yeah, there's nothing terribly sleazy, weird, witty about that.
Michael: Just something like that. It's not super witty. The implicit thing is like, if you are a recent divorcee whose life is off track, or you have a friend who's a recent divorcee whose life is off track, I help them get on track again. It's just kind of setting up a value prop. It is super clear about who they work with. So in essence in that, one of three things happens in a couple of seconds. I am one of those and I start talking to you. I know one of those, I'm like, "Oh, my sister just got divorced. I should introduce you because she's in a tough spot right now." Or, it doesn't apply to them and they just move on. It's like, I'm a doctor, like just move on. I find even doctors are the same thing. A number of our family members are doctors. I've watched this. Like, what do you do? I'm a doctor. And people are like, oh.
I don't think they actually expect the doctor to diagnose their elbow on the spot, but you still get this thing of like, "You're a doctor, I have a thing that hurts. I should tell you about it for a moment." And you possibly volunteer more personal information that's appropriate in this setting. Our brains start making those connections, so if you just say the thing, they'll make their own connection. I think the fundamental challenge when you just say something as generic as I'm a financial advisor is the only thing they can associate it with, like, that doesn't solve a problem for them. At best, it just ties to an association of the last financial advisor they interacted with, which unfortunately, given the general breadth of our industry was probably a below average experience, which is why they take a step back.
So when you just get to something straightforward like, "I help recent divorcees make the transition back to being on their own again," or something along those lines. "I help optometrists who are getting ready to exit their practices to a private equity firm," a shout out for our advisor friend who does that. One of the things that he thinks happens, I'm an optometrist who's about to exit. That sounds cool. My friend or family member is an optometrist, I should probably introduce you. Or, like, oh, neat, I have no idea what that actually means. And they just move on.
Carl: To me, even that last one is really interesting. Also, I could find myself saying, even if I wasn't any of those things and I didn't know anything about, I could find myself saying, "Oh, that's interesting. Tell me how you do that." So I love the, who is it for, and what does it do?
Michael: And it's a lightweight version of an elevator pitch, and maybe the people who'll have some of those, refine them and focus them a little bit more, to like, the point is not to draw someone in to be witty. The point is just like, here's what I do that's either interesting and useful for you, or you know someone for whom it's interesting or useful, or not. And any of these things are okay. We're not in a high stakes sales situation. It's a cocktail party.
Carl: That's right, you're at a barbecue. So I think that that, to me, just relieving a bit of the... Oh, the other thing that's interesting here is, oh, my gosh, how much easier does all of life get if you have a niche? Everything becomes easier. What I always struggled with was the more like, I don't know, I was going to say, I help people make work optional. But I couldn't even think of that in a niche context. "I work with senior partners at local law firms to help them make work optional." That's interesting. It's much better than, "I work with people to help make work optional." That just is like, whoa, what is that? So that's where I always got in trouble was when I heard these fancy things. So I think, for me, relieving the pressure, like there are no magic words.
But if you want to find something interesting like, who's it for, and what does it do? Is a really interesting model to take. If I were building another business, I've said this publicly 100 times, I would be focused on entrepreneurs with a successful exit. Not because it's a good market, but because it's my market, because I like those people. That's an interesting problem. It'd be really interesting to say, "Look, I help entrepreneurs who have had a successful exit, figure out what's next, or plan for what's next." And that doesn't feel super cheesy. And I could see somebody going, "Oh, that's interesting. What do you do?" But anyway, that's all I have to say about my favorite subject.
Why Honesty Beats “Elevator Pitches” And Can Lead To More Fruitful Conversations [18:42]
Michael: And mine, for me, it has evolved over the years. I started with that same thing. Like, "Here's my job. I'm the director of financial planning for a private wealth management firm." I kind of talk about dirty money things. And some would either say like, they make some connection because they're into money stuff too, or they wouldn't and we move on, because it's cool. It's a cocktail party. I keep saying cocktail party, I don't go to cocktail parties. Barbecue is probably a slightly better example.
Then my career moved forward, and suddenly I was a partner at the firm, and I do business development responsibilities. And I felt more of that way. Then the language started changing for me at the time, and this was 10 years ago, as that transition came. Becoming partner was kind of an upgrade in status, essentially. And so I tried to upgrade my status. And so like, my introduction back then, "I'm a partner with a private wealth management firm here in the Baltimore-Washington area." So, I'm a partner. We do private wealth management. We're here in the Baltimore-Washington area, so anybody in the greater metropolitan area, I got about 9 million people on the table now. I was trying to define, like, I'm going to get in as quickly as I can. I have status. Here's what we do. And here's where we are. So if you want to do some private wealth management, let's chat over there after that.
I know what I was going for, and I don't think I thought about it that polished. I do reflect back, like the language changed. I started doing that. And it produced nothing. It produced no outcome and results to the point that after a couple of years, I did actually just fall back, and say, I don't give a crap about trying to get someone that wants to do business with me based off a random introduction at a barbecue. So I actually went back to the same thing, like I'm a financial planner. This is not how I try to get business. So I'm just going to de-stress this whole situation, like I'm a financial planner. And at least it makes people take fewer steps back than I'm a financial advisor. And I moved on.
Now, I will say, the version of this that got interesting was, there was a brief stint where I decided to play with this further. And so I started going with, I'm a blogger. Which, if you're ever curious, basically ends the conversation pretty much as quickly as I'm a financial advisor, because people are conjuring up a lot of like, typing in the basement sorts of things, as Ramit went through in saying he's a writer. But then I actually changed it all. I started saying, I write a blog for financial advisors. And even that, I have had a number of really cool conversations over the past couple of years, from saying that. I've made career changers, like, "I'm actually thinking about becoming a financial advisor. I should check your thing out. What's your blog? What do you write about?"
I've had like, "My brother is trying to become an advisor. He's over there. You should meet him if you do things in the financial advisor world." I've had introductions come. And it's even just a version of the same thing. It's like, I help recent divorcees making a transition to independence, whatever it is the thing. It defines a group, like I write a blog for financial advisors. If you are one, you tend to ask a follow-up question. If you know one, you tend to introduce. And if you don't, then you just move on because it's a barbecue. It's cool. Even just getting it down to that level, it's still another version of... It's just about getting in, who you would serve, who you help. And they're either going to open a conversation or not. I'm not doing it to get blog readers. It's not a very efficient way to scale a blog. It's fine, because this is not how I grow business and develop business. I have a lot of other marketing channels. Growth has been really good. It doesn't come through my introductions, so I'm just not going to try to make it happen. So, I write a blog for financial advisors.
Carl: I love that. I love this subject, because I still struggle. I literally don't know what to say today. It's gotten harder. I still do a version of that, which I'm just like, I almost roll my eyes, like I did with a financial advisor. And it becomes obvious, and people are like, what? I'm like, this is just such a...like, "Do you have an hour, or do you want like the hour version, or do you want like...?" And my wife sometimes even when she's involved in this conversation, she'll say something like, "I'm so curious to see what he says today?" Well, do you draw with a Sharpie? Do you write books? So I think, to me, at least for me, it was really valuable to relieve the pressure.
And so I love the idea of getting clear with a niche or a niche, as you would say. And relieving the pressure, realizing this isn't what you've been told. If you're in one of those places where they've trained you that every single social interaction has to be a prospecting thing, like I wish I had my permission granted wand out. Not that you need permission from me, but we'll jointly grant you permission, like, you don't have to do that anymore. Come up with other ways. And I think once we relieve that, then it can just become a game. And hopefully some of these things have helped.
Michael: I think to me, that's the biggest thing, and what at least took me a long time to adjust and get over as well was, we so got trained. At least to our folks of our generation who came in when we did, like, we so got trained, you're supposed to have the elevator pitch that you explain what you do. And then people are intrigued and want to learn more. And you get them as prospects. And then they become clients and you retire successfully, so you better get the introduction right in the elevator. We put so much pressure on it. And I guess to me at a high level, it's not how I get clients. So I don't give a crap about coming up with the magic thing to say at the barbecue that's going to make someone want to become a client. At best if I want to go that route, I just want to get clear, like here's the thing I do and who I serve. "I write a blog for financial advisors, or I help recent divorcees make a transition."
They'll do with it what they're going to do with it if they want to make an introduction or reach out, or have a conversation. Just take it down a notch. I guess, if you truly have a gift at uncovering these conversations, coming up with the witty elevator thing and uncovering the conversation, more power to you. You probably stopped listening to this podcast 20 minutes ago, if that was you. But if you do that, more power you for all the rest of us. I think you framed it well, Carl, with the wand, like just you know what, it's totally cool to have a not witty interesting thing to say. And just get your clients some other way that doesn't involve trying to turn barbecue into random introductions, into multimillionaire clients. There are other ways to do it. I would even suggest, there are probably better other ways to do it. So it's okay, just take it down a notch and prospect some other way.
Carl: For sure. And then there's that last category of people that just never talk to strangers.
Michael: Yeah, the truth is you basically won't find me at very many cocktail parties or barbecues. If you do, I'm the person in the corner so that I don't have to talk to any other people except the ones I already know who come and talk to me because strangers are scary. But that's a whole separate introversion bag of baggage I carry around.
Carl: But if that's you, permission granted to be that.
Michael: Permission granted to be that.
Carl: Amen. Thanks, Michael.
Michael: Awesome. Thank you, Carl.
Matthew Jarvis, CFP(r) says
Totally agree that leading with ‘financial advisor’ (the modern day version of ‘stock broker’ or ‘insurance sales’) is a bad idea, and the traditional elevator pitch of “i provide comprehensive strategies to a select group of wealth families” (bonus points if you can name the industry expert who recommends that approach), is also a bad idea.
However in my experience (I get 1/3rd of my new clients each year from networking), when everyone else at the cocktail party has a one word answer such as ‘doctor, pilot, teacher, attorney, accountant,’ etc and you launch into even a sentence of scripted response, you’ve now abused the very limited social permission that was given to you. MAYBE your catchy phrase resonates, or maybe everyone’s ‘i’m being sold’ radar starts going off, in which case you are back to ‘financial advisor.’
Curious to hear what Kitces and/or Carl say to a group of strangers when asked what they do?