Prospecting Ideas That Work

By Anthony Edwards

Even in an age of CRM software, tweets and texts, it is important to remember that client relationships are just that—relationships. They take time to build and have to be maintained constantly. This observation is neither earth-shattering nor profound, but it should be at the heart of any marketing plan. After all, what is marketing but the first step in building a new relationship?

We spoke to three BlackRock DC Leaders' Circle™ advisors—Jeb Graham (CapTrust Advisors LLC), Paula Hendrickson (First Western Financial) and John Mott (The Mott Group)—about the marketing ideas that have helped them build successful businesses. They often had very different, even diametrically opposed, points of view on cold calling, referrals and other prospecting stand-bys, making it clear that what worked for them was first a matter of personal style. And for whatever methods they preferred, they were willing to put in the work...every day.

But it was also clear that however they approached marketing, it was fuelled by their passion for helping people build for retirement through their DC plans. They understand the value they bring as retirement plan specialists, and that gives them confidence and focus as they strive to get in front of prospects.

Putting Their Specialty Front and Center

Patience, being realistic, and focus are the first items on Jeb Graham's list of advice to advisors. "You have to focus on doing things that work and be able to realistically assess the likelihood of doing business with someone," says Graham. "You have to be patient. The sales cycle in our world is a long, long cycle."

For Graham, part of the process is establishing his bona fides. "There's an awful lot of noise in our industry," he says. "Plan sponsors get a lot of calls and many of these callers can't spell '401k' if you spot them the '4' and the 'k'." According to Graham, being a retirement plan specialist gives him credibility. "I have a distinct advantage over someone who's not 100% focused on retirement plans," he adds. "If retirement plans are only, say 25% of somebody's business—let's just say that I like to compete against those people."

Retirement plans are also John Mott's focus. "We have a passion for making our clients' plans as good as possible," he says. "We just focus on what the industry is doing and how we can best help our clients."
Hendrickson agrees specialization is necessary. "We really bring retirement expertise," she said. "You can have the best investments inside a plan but if participants aren't utilizing those effectively or you've got compliance issues, the investments become very secondary."

Understanding the value they bring as retirement specialists—and the advantages it gives them over non-specialists when it comes to helping plan sponsors navigate the increasingly complex world of retirement—gives the advisors we spoke to a foundation for their marketing efforts. Simply put, they know that if they can get in front of prospects, their message and clarity will resonate. The question is: how do they get in front of them?

To Cold Call or Not to Cold Call?

If you are looking for proof that it is not the tool or the technique that matters, but rather the conviction and comfort level of the financial advisor, look no further than our three highly successful retirement specialists discussing cold calling. Consider the following two statements:

  • Paula Hendrickson: "Some people would probably really disagree with this, but I tried cold calling and that did not work."
  • Jeb Graham: "You show me someone who's not regularly calling people they don't know, and I'll show you someone who's not very successful."

Who is right? The obvious answer is both of them are—at least, when it comes to their business. Graham estimates that close to 100% of his clients have come from cold calling. "You have to be diligent and patient," he says. "We have someone who makes outbound calls and sets up our initial appointments. That's one thing I strongly encourage—if you're not good on the phone, then have someone who is setting your appointments."

John Mott seconds Graham's belief in cold calling. "We just get on the phone and just call. It's a numbers game," says Mott. He believes time on the phone translates into leads in his pocket. "We spend about one to two hours a day calling and emailing. I know that so many calls will generate so many talk-to's and so many talk-to's will generate so-many appointments," he said.

His goal is simple. He asks for an appointment and promises that he will only be in the prospect's office fifteen minutes. Once in the meeting, he says, "I ask them two questions: tell me why you like your plan and then, tell me why you don't like your plan. If they're happy, I'm out of there in fifteen minutes. If they're unhappy, it stretches into forty-five minutes." Interestingly, it's what he doesn't say that often makes the most impact. "I have found that the more I let them talk, the better chance I have of winning that business."

Even the cold call that doesn't yield an appointment can develop into a relationship that can grow over time. "I recently had an appointment at a hospital that I've been trying to get in to see for five years," says Graham. What started as a cold call from his staff blossomed into a first-name relationship with the CFO and her assistant, and that eventually became an appointment.

Although Mott and Graham agree on cold calling, they still have room to differ. While Graham's hospital appointment is an example of persistence paying off, if the plan sponsor is happy with his or her plan, Mott moves on. "There is so much business in Houston that I rarely call them back the next year," he says.

Hendrickson is obviously successful; so if she doesn't cold call, how does she find new clients? "Our lead generation comes from both client referrals and our sales force. Our associates have existing business relationships with clients through the firm's multiple service areas. She says, "Getting your name out there and communicating your thought-value proposition through numerous sources is also necessary." She also cites newsletters, seminars, writing papers as sources of referrals. Her firm receives referrals from portfolio managers, bankers, CPAs, and ERISA attorneys, among others.

That's by design. "My relationship managers need to bring back referrals from their current clients, so they're part of the sales team and they're given incentives for new business," she said.

Getting "Out There"

Hendrickson has had success finding prospects by speaking at or hosting seminars or conferences. She notes it can take time and effort to put on a seminar, but with the right research into who to invite, it can be a great way to find new clients. Recently we had a seminar and targeted plans that we knew were not working with an advisor," she said. We sent out 70 invites, had 25 attend, and we had 25 meetings from that seminar."

When Graham goes out to speak, he takes advantage of the opportunity to broaden the reach beyond his immediate audience. "When I do a speaking engagement, I'll probably send a flyer out to 30 different plan sponsors, even though I know these people aren't going to come," he said. "It's not so much because I want them to attend, but rather I want them to know that I'm speaking at this conference."

Along with seminars and conferences, another way to keep existing clients informed and to engage potential clients is the use of newsletters and other materials as part of a comprehensive marketing plan. CapTrust has tried different approaches, including newsletters and advertising and the like. For Graham, it has not always been worth the money invested. "There's very little return and you can't really track your effectiveness," he said.

While Mott tends to focus on what he calls the "soft sell" of taking people out to lunch and getting to know prospects and clients on a personal level, he sees the benefit of attending conferences. He believes they help build credibility. "It lets them know I am serious about my business," he explains. They also present another marketing opportunity. "Some of the investment managers at these conferences are very well known. I'll follow up with prospects and say, 'I talked to so and so. Would you like to get together and hear about his views on the market?'"

Keeping What You Got

Once a firm lands a client, the relationship is only beginning, according to Jeb Graham. "You really have to take good care of your clients," he says. "That has to be your focus because it's a lot easier to keep a client than it is to get a new one."

Graham estimates that he spends more than 65% of his time in client service. His team develops a specific marketing plan for each client. He thoroughly tracks each piece of material that goes out. "I have a detailed tracking methodology about when materials are sent and to whom," he said. "I send out articles and a monthly newsletter." Overall, he estimates each client receives four or five pieces of material from him each year, in addition to his monthly newsletters.

What Mott's experience has taught him is that everyone in an organization matters. "If you get to know every single member of every investment committee you work with, you take the time to get to know them, and you send them birthday cards—you do those little things we're always told to do—when they leave the company, they're going to remember you and they will call you."

Mott says that a fair amount of his business comes from investment committee members who leave a company to go elsewhere. One example of this is a recently obtained client, where a woman on the investment committee of a small start-up left to become HR director of a company with a $120 million plan, who are now also working with Mott.

Graham. "You really have to take good care of your clients," he says. "That has to be your focus because it's a lot easier to keep a client than it is to get a new one."

Graham estimates that he spends more than 65% of his time in client service. His team develops a specific marketing plan for each client. He thoroughly tracks each piece of material that goes out. "I have a detailed tracking methodology about when materials are sent and to whom," he said. "I send out articles and a monthly newsletter." Overall, he estimates each client receives four or five pieces of material from him each year, in addition to his monthly newsletters.

What Mott's experience has taught him is that everyone in an organization matters. "If you get to know every single member of every investment committee you work with, you take the time to get to know them, and you send them birthday cards—you do those little things we're always told to do—when they leave the company, they're going to remember you and they will call you."

Mott says that a fair amount of his business comes from investment committee members who leave a company to go elsewhere. One example of this is a recently obtained client, where a woman on the investment committee of a small start-up left to become HR director of a company with a $120 million plan, who are now also working with Mott.

No "Golden Key"

Paula Hendrickson reminds financial advisors that there is no "golden key" when it comes to marketing—other than consistent, persistent effort. "I think you really have to get in front of people and that involves a lot of meetings, seminars, breakfasts and lunches. That's what's worked," she explains. Or by asking for the referral and for some, a lot of cold calls, depending on where your comfort zone is.

Getting back to the concept of relationships, she makes a final point that should be obvious but perhaps isn't: you have to be likable. "People talk about trust," she says, "but you don't get to trust unless they like you first. It's that first impression. I tell prospects that they are going to see us every quarter, so if it comes down to us and a competitor, pick the one you find more likable. After all, it's going to be a long relationship."

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