What’s the right niche for your business?

As someone who runs a niche business myself, concentrating solely on the financial advice sector, I’m a real believer in the potential to run a niche financial advice business. I’m also aware of lots of financial advice businesses that are pursuing niche strategies.

I’ve written before about how niche strategies can make your life so easy. When you build expertise in a specific target market, you can then market your services to this group with a laser like focus. You have the opportunity to stand apart from the crowd by establishing your credentials as the specialist within that target market. And having that deep knowledge of a client sector and constantly talking directly to that sector enables you to build a deep and valuable connection with them.

One of the biggest challenges that advisers have when going down this route is to identify the best niche for themselves. I personally don’t consider a focus on business owners as a niche strategy as the group is simply too broad to be considered niche.

So how do you identify the best niche for you?

 

Who do you enjoy working with?

This is as good a place to start as any! Working with people you like will result in greater effort from you and it makes your working life so much more enjoyable and rewarding. When I established StepChange, I knew I wanted to work with the financial adviser community. I was fully aware of the value you add to your clients and I wanted to be part of that journey. I can only imagine how difficult it must be to wake up every day and dread conversations with clients that you have no time for….

Of course you need to be confident that the niche you would like to work with is big enough, the chosen target market must be capable of supporting your business at the level you want it to. This requires research and groundwork before you commit to specialising within your chosen sector.

 

Can you add increased value?

Once you know who you want to work with… now how can you stand apart from the crowd? This is typically going to be through deeper and more specialised knowledge of your chosen sector. As an example, let’s assume you have a real passion for the entertainment industry and decide to target freelancers who work within it. To stand apart from other advisers, you need to understand the nuances of this sector better than other advisers – how people in the sector are paid, the nature of contracts, their working environment and unique challenges and what are their specific pain points. When you understand their lives better than other advisers, now you have an opportunity to stand apart from the crowd and become the go-to person for that sector.

 

How can you demonstrate that value?

It’s all well and good knowing who you want to work with and building the expertise in the sector, one of the biggest challenges is establishing your presence as the best adviser for your chosen sector. This is where the hard work really starts, as there is no single silver bullet to demonstrating that value. Instead it’s going to come from many small activities executed well and delivered consistently over time.

Testimonials from existing clients within your chosen target market, case studies of work you completed that demonstrate your specialist knowledge of the sector and an online presence that speaks directly to your target market. These then need to be supported with a regular stream of fresh content that speaks to your target market about their specific challenges – maybe in the form of blogs, videos, podcasts or webinars etc.

 

What’s your route to your target market?

Then you need to build your presence within your target market. Of course, this will include working from the “bottom up”, one client at a time. However, you also should be looking at getting out in front at an industry level too – this might be through partnerships with other sector specific professional firms (accountants who specialise in the sector, agencies etc.), industry bodies, trade associations, sector publications and any centre of influences within the sector. Building links with them takes time, effort and patience, but if done well it will deliver strong dividends over time.

 

Does a niche strategy rule out other clients?

The bottom line is, no it doesn’t. A niche strategy enables you to narrow your focus in terms of the clients that you are going after, but it doesn’t prevent other clients from outside your niche approaching you about your services. From my own experience, people from outside the financial adviser community have approached me over the years to determine if I’d be willing to work with them. You are then in the fortunate position of deciding who you want to work with.

 

I’m a fan of niche businesses. Do you know who you want to work with?

 

Are you pulling the strings for effective partnerships?

Business owners and wealthy individuals today utilise the services of a whole range of professional service providers. They often have relationships with an accountant, a solicitor, a tax adviser and a financial planner. Pulling all these disparate pieces together into a coherent strategy is a tricky business, and I suggest that the person best placed to complete this work is the financial planner.

The financial planner is the only person who tends to have oversight of everything that is going on in a client’s financial life, both within the client’s personal life and their professional life. The other professionals tend to work with clients on a more transactional basis, while the financial planner’s relationship is different. He / she understands the long-term financial objectives of the client, completes a very detailed factfind of the current circumstances and develops a roadmap to achieve those financial objectives. And the financial planner works with the client year after year.

I personally see my financial planner as the hub of my financial affairs because he provides a broader range of value to me. Yes, he has of course developed my financial plan and ensured I have the right investments, retirement planning and protections in place – I’d expect no less. But he also guides me in relation to much broader financial-related issues.

I’ve written on many occasions about the range of value-added services that you can provide, beyond the basic plan and products that you arrange. Just to mention them again, these include supporting your client or referring them to a specialist in the areas of,

  • Budgeting
  • Cashflow planning
  • Tax advice
  • Advice about bank accounts
  • Wills and Enduring Powers of Attorney

All of them are really important to get right for your client. And then there’s also the big opportunity for your business…

 

Build effective collaborations

It’s equally important to carefully manage the relationships with the other professional advisers. Firstly, you want everyone to collaborate effectively in the very best interests of your mutual client. Then with a more self-interested hat on, you also want to really impress these other professionals, with a view to them seeking out your services in the future. In my travels in out of the offices of financial planners across the country, it’s in this second area that I sometimes see planners selling themselves a little short and not driving home their potential future opportunities…

Here are a couple of ideas to help build stronger collaborative relationships with a professional network.

 

Communicate your value time and time again

A goal should be to get in front of the network partners time and time again to remind them of the value that you can add and to get regular client referrals. There are many ways you can do this; here are a few examples;

  • Add the partners to your own communication programme: Connect with the partners on LinkedIn and also get their permission to be added to your newsletter subscriber list. Let them see the expertise and thought leadership that you have to offer.
  • Develop bespoke presentations: These are for the initial meeting with the partners and should focus very much on the role of the accountant and how you can assist them in their own role. Personalise each presentation to the role of the particular partner’s area of specialism – for example the presentation to a tax partner should focus on pension reliefs, tax efficient protection products, tax efficient investing and other tax angles that you can bring to the table. This shows knowledge, understanding and willingness to engage in their areas of challenge with their clients.
  • Case Studies: Prepare a number of case studies of innovative solutions that you’ve implemented and know are relevant to challenges that are typically faced by these professionals. Don’t leave them guessing as to how you can help, join the dots for them…
  • Briefings for partners: Keep your network briefed on issues within the life and pensions industry that they need to be aware of, but may not be that knowledgeable. This can be through email contacts, lunchtime meetings or other such channels.

 

Develop joint marketing activities

And then you need to also promote your network and help their bottom line. First of all, refer clients to them whenever possible. If you give them new clients, they are certainly going to try harder to reciprocate. Then offer them the opportunity to include guest posts in your newsletter. This gives them welcome exposure to your clients. You can then look at hosting joint events to which you both bring clients, take a speaking slot to impress the guests, all of this with a view to both you and your network partner meeting the other’s clients and building new relationships.

 

Prove your value with clients

Of course the biggest barrier to professional network partners referring clients to you is fear. Fear that you will somehow mess up and as a result cause difficulties for them with their client. So when they do take the leap and finally refer a client to you, it’s imperative that you do a good job (as you do) and then make sure your partner is aware of it. How do you do this? You might seek a testimonial from the client, which you then share with them. Alternatively you can email the client a few weeks after the end of your work with a short client satisfaction survey – again you will share the results with your network partner.

These are just a few thoughts on building profitable and lasting relationships with a network of professional partners. Build their trust, remove their fears, align yourself to their proposition and demonstrate your value time and time again. And then you will be well on the way to breaking the back of that search for new clients.

Why your clients leave you.

A previous article that we wrote about when it’s time to fire a client drew a fair bit of comment… It proved to be a situation that many financial advisers have experienced. However, now it’s time to take a look at the flip side of the coin – when clients leave you.

We’ve set out below some of the reasons that clients might leave you, and what you can do to prevent it happening.

 

They lose the feeling of love

You are busy, lots of new clients coming through the front door and business is great! However at the same time, you need to guard against existing, valuable clients quietly slipping out the back door. Have a really clear activity plan for all of your valuable clients, making sure that all of them continue to feel the love every year.

Make sure your ongoing support packages are really clear in the eyes of your clients. Manage their expectations on what they can and should expect, and then deliver a quality service time after time. Should they expect an annual face-to-face meeting or will you meet them remotely? Or should they expect an annual meeting at all?

 

They lose sight of the plan

The development of a financial plan is a big deal for clients. They get a strong sense of direction and can see a pathway to future financial success. If required, this often entails you putting products in place.

It’s so important to recognise that you’ve simply started the client on their financial journey. Your role then becomes one of an ongoing guide; keeping the client on track for future success and ensuring the plan is continually pointing them in the right direction. If you don’t keep the client focused on the plan (and not just the products), they can fall off the path. And this is where you risk losing them.

 

They don’t believe in the plan

This is a trickier one as you may be sailing along blindly, thinking the client is 100% committed to the plan. It is worth getting positive affirmation from the client that they are happy with the plan, that it comprehensively covers all of their aspirations and concerns and that they are fully satisfied with the proposed strategies and solutions to achieve the plan.

Of course this becomes a lot easier with cashflow planning as the client can see before them the progress they are making, the further progress needed and whether they are on track or not. This clarity builds their financial confidence.

As part of this, it’s also important to recognise that you may be unaware at this point of significant changes in their circumstances. These changes may require big changes to the plan. Those check-in review meetings are so important, to ensure the client and you remain on the same page…

 

They don’t understand the plan / and or solutions

People don’t like to feel stupid. Some clients may appear to understand everything you tell them, but in fact may be bamboozled by the language and terminology that you use. Be careful that you talk to them as clients, keeping your language simple. Don’t talk to them with language you use with fellow professionals as your client may not understand you. This will undermine their trust in you and rather than appear stupid, they may prefer to deal with someone who they understand and connect better with.

 

They think the grass is greener elsewhere

Some clients leave because they believe another adviser will get better results for them. If another adviser is developing a better, more comprehensive plan for your client, you’ve got a problem. However if another adviser is promising “better returns”, you need to confront this. Clients can get greedy and blinded when confronted with unrealistic opportunities. You need to constantly remind your clients that you (and other advisers) have no control over markets or timing and that your role is identify a portfolio that reflects their specific needs, and not simply to suggest a portfolio with the highest potential returns (and risk). You need to remind them of the valid expectations they should have and how this relates back to the financial plan.

Some clients will leave anyway. Keep the door open to them – they may return when they recognise the grass was greener elsewhere.

 

These are just some of the reasons clients leave you. Ongoing, open communication with your valued clients is the key to preventing them slipping out the back door. Getting new clients into your business is hard work, keeping them there requires the same level of energy and attention.

Are your Calls to Action working?

When helping financial advice businesses review their marketing approaches, one of the foremost digital assets that gets a lot of attention is of course the company’s website. While there are many aspects to reviewing a site – the design, ease of travel through the site, quality of content and search performance being among the main areas, the subject of Calls to Action (CTA) usually is an important discussion too.

CTAs are a critical element of a website. After all, that’s what you want – the visitor not to leave, but to act. Here are a few thoughts to consider, when trying to encourage visitors to your site to move to the next stage through your sales funnel.

 

Remember AIDA

When it comes to the journey a person will go on before eventually becoming a buyer of a good or service, AIDA is an often-used acronym. It stands for

Awareness

Interest

Desire

Action

People will land on your website at different stages of the buyer cycle. Some will stumble across your website and are at the Awareness Stage. Others may be further along – for example they may be ready to do business with you and are at the Action stage. Others again may be at the interim stages of Interest or Desire.

The key for you is that there is a relevant CTA, no matter what stage of the buyer cycle the visitor to your website is at. Think through the various CTA options available to you and seek to provide a relevant action for all visitors. These might include,

  • Subscribe to a newsletter
  • Download a whitepaper
  • Submit an enquiry
  • Book a meeting
  • Speak to someone via phone or chat functionality

 

Make sure your CTAs are seen

This is probably the greatest source of frustration. An adviser goes to the trouble of developing a really engaging set of CTAs and has the resources to fully activate them…. But nobody engages with them because they can’t find them. Don’t hide your CTAs away in the footer of your website, look to have them as visible as possible and across all / most pages. They need to be front and centre for that split second when someone decides to act. If not, the visitor will just move on…

 

Don’t be too greedy

Of course you want to gather as much information as possible about the visitor as soon as possible. I get that. But don’t be too greedy… If your form has too many questions, people will simply not give it the time. Instead at this stage, make it really welcoming and easy for someone by seeking the minimum of information. So for example, if you are looking for someone to sign up for your newsletter, all you need from them is their email address and maybe their name. Moving beyond this will probably reduce your sign-up rates. As people move through the buyer cycle and take further actions, you can then seek more information from them at a later stage.

 

Give visitors comfort

One concern I always have when signing up for newsletters and giving out my personal data is how it is going to be used. Am I suddenly going to start receiving a barrage of emails instead of the weekly newsletter I was expecting? Or worse again, is my data now in the hands of other 3rd parties and I’m now receiving emails about goods or services in which I have absolutely no interest. All very GDPR unfriendly… but it happens.

Be very clear about how a person’s data will be used. Don’t leave them wondering if they’ll be spammed by you… and worse still by others. Their data is a very valuable possession that you are being entrusted with, so treat it with the respect that it deserves.

 

Calls to Action are a critical element of your website. Get them right, and your website can deliver a steady stream of engaged visitors, and hopefully enquiries in time.

Do you do business with family?

This subject came from a conversation I had recently with a young adviser – well at least he’s a good few years younger than me! As we were discussing target markets and where his clients come from, we had a very engaging conversation about doing business with family.

This adviser has actively steered clear of doing business with his family. His thinking was that it’s just not a good idea to mix business with family and he likes to keep the two parts of his life separate. While I understand this viewpoint, I don’t agree with it.

I completely accept that financial planning is a very personal exercise and that some of your family members may not want to share their intimate details with you. Of course that’s their right and if that’s the case, you should do your utmost to point them in the direction of another planner who you are confident will look after them well. In fact I’d go further and suggest that before you engage at all with a family member, make it crystal clear that you will be delving into the intimate details of their financial life and also potentially their health. Don’t spring this on them later in the process, as this will cause awkwardness and potentially worse, they may withhold some information from you. This is a potential disaster for everyone.

But don’t close your door to them just because they are family.  Here are some reasons why I believe your door should be open  and the choice should be theirs as to whether they walk through it or not.

 

Your proposition will benefit them

If your proposition is very good and positioned openly and honestly with family members, why would you not make it available to them? Be crystal clear about what you influence and control (the plan and their behaviours) and what you don’t (the markets). Make sure they know fully what to expect in advance – avoid surprises. But don’t refuse them access to your valuable proposition.

 

They trust you

So much of financial planning comes down to trust, having a deep belief that the adviser is in their corner and has their best interests at heart. This is sometimes a lengthy process, building up this position of trust. Hopefully with your family members, you have it from the outset – they just know that you will do everything in your power to see them right.

 

You have each other’s backs

We all want the best outcomes for our family and will go the extra mile. They will probably want to do business with you and help you grow your business. They know you’ll earn money from the work, but will usually be happier that this income is going to you than to some unconnected third party. Likewise, you’ll pull out all the stops for family members, you are very likely to go the extra mile to achieve the best outcomes for them. On top of this, you may transact business on “mates rates”, providing value for them too. The chances are everyone will be a winner…

 

You can cut to the chase

An advantage that you hold over all other financial planners is that you begin the process with lots of intimate knowledge of their situation. Of course you need to fully validate your information through careful questioning of objectives and factfinding, but you’re not starting with a blank page.

Indeed you have the added advantage of understanding any unique dynamics at play and also being able to cut to the chase… You know if pictures are being painted in strange or maybe over-optimistic hues and can gently call out your family member when this happens, as opposed to blindly accepting it as another adviser inadvertently will. With your prior knowledge, you can help to shape the most accurate picture, which in turn will help to ensure the best possible plan is developed and the best outcomes achieved.

 

A great source of referrals

Excellent financial planning transforms lives. Do this for your family members and they will be forever grateful, as you help them improve the quality of their lives. They’ll also tell other people and will be a great source of other new clients. Your family are happy to help you grow your business, their friends who become your clients experience the benefits of your excellent proposition and you grow your business. Winners all around.

Is it time for you to mix family and business?

10 years later and I’m still here…

Passing the milestone this month of 10 years of self-employment looks like it has taken its toll on me a bit… Ok in truth I’m not quite that old looking or worn out by working for myself. In fact, I’m not worn out at all, as the last decade has been by far the most invigorating and rewarding period of my career. And that’s down to all of you.

Just after the financial crash, I left a secure, well-paid job and set up my own business. This was something I’d wanted to do ever since doing an MBA at the turn of the century. So what have the last 10 years taught me?

 

Clients make it all worthwhile

Just as you get a buzz from providing excellent financial planning solutions to your own clients, I get the same from dealing with you. Financial planners, financial brokers, life & pension providers, trade associations and other industry players have generously supported StepChange over the last 10 years. You’ve challenged me, kept me on my toes, encouraged and helped me to deliver my best work and been my source of income, and for all of that I’ll be forever grateful.

Just as important, because of you I keep learning every day and you’ve brought about the most enjoyable days in my career. I haven’t regretted the move to self-employment for a single day, even though running a business is seldom a smooth path.

Thank you.

The amount of goodwill out there is unbelievable

This was the first welcome lesson I learned as I started out – the amount of goodwill out there is incredible. This started on day one, and is still the case 10 years later. If people can do you a good turn, they usually do. This might be a word of advice, a cup of coffee, an introduction and sometimes placing your faith (and your wallet) on my judgement of the need for a piece of work to be done.


You must be willing to learn

Not learning new skills and picking up extra knowledge is simply not an option when working for yourself. If you go stale and start coasting, soon you won’t be eating. Clients rightly deserve your very best work every time and if they don’t get it, they will go elsewhere. Keeping your skills up to date and knowing your market is critical to staying sharp and adding value.

What I probably hadn’t realised when I started out though was the array of skills you need when working for yourself. Apart from needing my planning and marketing skills for working with clients, I soon realised I’m the IT department for desktops, printers and devices and the finance department who manages cashflow, issues invoices and ensures accounts and tax are submitted and paid on time. And guess who the office cleaner is…


You need courage and to back yourself

I could spend my life second guessing myself and getting nothing done; who should I be approaching, is my proposition right, is my pricing right, are the suppliers I’m dealing with the right ones? Yes, I’ve made mistakes in all of these areas, but hopefully I’ve learned from them. Navel gazing and doing nothing is a luxury I just cannot afford, as doing nothing doesn’t move you in any direction…

This was a big lesson, as in corporate life you tend to get more time to carry out proper analysis before a decision is made, there are lots of people to bounce ideas around and you still get paid during this time. Not so in your own business. So often I’ve found I just need to back myself and go for it.


You must never neglect business development

2013 was a really difficult year for me in my business, but it turned out to be the best thing that could have happened to me. I had a pretty poor year in terms of income, and it was all down to neglecting my pipeline of potential new business. I was really busy with lots of projects underway going into 2013, I put the head down and delivered these as quickly as possible over the first few months up to the middle of May. And then nothing happened… I had completely neglected business development and didn’t really secure any new business until after the summer. Then that work had to be delivered of course before I saw payment for it. It meant a poor year but a brilliant lesson. No matter how busy I am now, business development is a constant activity…


Social media really works

I believe 100% that without LinkedIn and my monthly newsletter, I wouldn’t be working for myself. If used properly, LinkedIn is unbelievably powerful in helping SMEs to build effective networks and generate new clients. It has been a constant source of new clients for me. Do you want to know how? There’s a first project we could work on!

Email newsletters help you stay on the radar of contacts and clients too. You don’t know when a need might arise for your services – the key is to be top of mind when it does. A regular newsletter helps you achieve this.


Listen to wise people

Listen to your clients, they teach you most of what you need to know. My best business initiatives have come from discussions with financial brokers and planners, from having a coffee with a provider or from having a pint with an industry contact or friend. Your wise words or sometimes a gentle kick in the backside to get me to take a chance on a business idea have helped me no end in terms of developing new services and increasing the value I can add. So many of you have made an enormous difference to my business, and that is never forgotten or taken for granted.

 

I wouldn’t change my career for the world and here’s to the next decade together – thank you.