Practical analysis for investment professionals
07 June 2017

Differentiate Yourself: Building a Client-Oriented Culture

What do you need to do to survive in the wealth management industry today?

Two words: Differentiate yourself.

That was the message delivered by Isaac Presley, CFA, Blair duQuesnay, CFA, and John T. Elmes II, CFA, during a discussion on building a client-oriented culture at the 70th CFA Institute Annual Conference in Philadelphia.

It was an unusually simple and compelling takeaway coming from such a diverse set of advisers, each working for very different firms serving very different sorts of clients.

Presley’s firm, Oregon-based Cordant Wealth Partners, has a singular niche, managing about $170 million for former Intel employees. ThirtyNorth Investments, duQuesnay’s firm in New Orleans, manages about $130 million, primarily for high-net-worth clients and their families. Elmes’s firm, Pathstone Federal Street, has about $12 billion in assets under management (AUM) and offices in Boston, New Jersey, Los Angeles, Atlanta, and Washington, DC. “What we try to do is create a family office at a reduced price,” Elmes said.

Of course, the two-word call to action is much easier said than done. But the three advisers stressed how critical differentiation is to survival in the industry today.

Wealth management is effectively under siege, the victim of a combination of increased competition, frenetic technological advancement, and slow growth.

The three advisers laid out the challenge:

“If you’re in the business, everyone is getting better and better,” Elmes said. “The biggest threat is not growing fast enough. If you’re not growing, you’re going to get stale.”

Indeed, the average registered investment adviser (RIA) is growing at 2% a year, according to Elmes. “That’s not enough,” he said.

DuQuesnay agreed. In New Orleans, the challenge is especially acute. “In a small market, there are so many firms,” she said. “A lot of consolidation needs to happen.”

Amid such a competitive landscape, the question becomes “What is different about what you’re doing?” said Presley.

Building a Culture: Attracting Clients

How you answer that question determines the culture that you build, who your staff, clients, and prospects are, and how you draw them to you.

“It’s not just about growing a business but finding the right fit,” Elmes said. “How do you attract clients? Find ways to get inside a network that potential clients swim in.”

Being selective about clients can actually make growth easier, according to duQuesnay. She looks for clients who fit into the ThirtyNorth mold. “By dealing with a lot of clients who have similar issues, you can scale,” she said.

Having a vision and a brand story helps.

“What values do you have?” Elmes asked. “That’s going to be led by the founders and leaders of the firm. It’s vital to have people who buy into the culture.”

The order of priority should be, “people, products, profits,” Presley said, paraphrasing Ben Horowitz.

Communicating a Culture: Outreach

The Intel focus of Presley’s firm governs their outreach to clients. “Typically they’re going to find us through a Google search,” he said. “That’s how we try to get somebody in the door.”

To that end, they maintain a blog, conduct webinars, and author white papers to draw potential clients in through online channels.

For duQuesnay and her team, clients tend to come through personal referrals, but getting the message out about their firm and its values requires an embrace of strategies that are both effective and reflective of their underlying mission.

One major differentiator for duQuesnay and ThirtyNorth is the Women Impact Strategy, a portfolio composed of 50 stocks. The companies included in the portfolio each have a board composed of at least 20% women and have at least one woman in the C-suite.

“The press coverage we’ve gotten so far has been pretty successful,” she said.

The vision reflected in Women Impact Strategy extends into the client experience. “I think a lot of women don’t feel advisers are taking the time to listen to them,” duQuesnay said. “They want to be heard.”

DuQuesnay and her associates regularly talk on the phone with clients and have at least one business and at least one social meeting with them each year. Empathy is especially critical to their interactions, and duQuesnay emphasized the importance of eye contact and approachable language.

“We try to have a human touch,” she explained.

Leveraging Social Media

Each panelist described how integral social media is to their practice. Presley and duQuesnay have personal Twitter accounts and their firms use a combination of Facebook and LinkedIn as well. Presley noted that Facebook is weighted towards retirees while LinkedIn is composed mostly of people who are still employed. He has found that paid spends on these platforms can help with prospecting.

“I’m a big fan of Twitter,” duQuesnay said. Generally, she tries to post three times a week on Facebook and LinkedIn and three times a day on Twitter.

Elmes’s social media efforts focus less on prospecting and more on finding talent and for thought leadership.

The Final Piece: Feedback

So how will you know you’re delivering on your mission, that the culture you’ve developed is defined and differentiated according to your vision?

“We always have asked for feedback,” said duQuesnay. The clients can tell you if you’re succeeding, that you set appropriate expectations up front, and will clue you in on where you are falling short.

“Talk to your ideal client. Find out what they like,” Presley said. “What is it they value most about what we’re doing for them?” Defining what you value and delivering those values to clients will set you apart from the competition and help you succeed in a challenging wealth management environment.

“Everything we do,” duQuesnay said, “is about money and meaning.”

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All posts are the opinion of the author. As such, they should not be construed as investment advice, nor do the opinions expressed necessarily reflect the views of CFA Institute or the author’s employer.

Photo Courtesy of W. Scott Mitchell

About the Author(s)
Paul McCaffrey

Paul McCaffrey is the editor of Enterprising Investor at CFA Institute. Previously, he served as an editor at the H.W. Wilson Company. His writing has appeared in Financial Planning and DailyFinance, among other publications. He holds a BA in English from Vassar College and an MA in journalism from the City University of New York (CUNY) Graduate School of Journalism.

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