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The Perfect Host

You want to make a good impression with clients, so you upgrade your wardrobe, polish your speaking skills and refine your mannerisms. But what about your office? What does it say about you?Your furnishings, desk, knickknacks and filing system all affect the way clients see you. And as you strive for an edge in an increasingly competitive field, office ambience can be a critical component leading

You want to make a good impression with clients, so you upgrade your wardrobe, polish your speaking skills and refine your mannerisms. But what about your office? What does it say about you?

Your furnishings, desk, knickknacks and filing system all affect the way clients see you. And as you strive for an edge in an increasingly competitive field, office ambience can be a critical component leading to success or failure.

"You walk into an office and get a vibe," says Esther Berger of Berger & Associates, an investment advisory firm in Beverly Hills, Calif. "You form an immediate impression, consciously or subconsciously."

Does your office encourage pleasant, constructive meetings to which customers are happy to bring spouses, children and referrals? Or do clients mark you down mentally for making the investment process even more tedious or intimidating? There's no single right way to structure an office since each work space should partly reflect individual preferences and tastes. Yet several important tips can point you in the right direction.

The Desk The position of your desk and its use can endear or alienate your guests. Berger says she normally prefers to meet with clients in an adjacent conference room, where there's room to spread out and sit on the same side of the table. "I rarely meet with clients when I'm sitting behind the desk because I don't enjoy that arrangement when I'm the client," she says.

Kevin Bertis, an Edward Jones broker in Oroville, Calif., encourages clients to sit around the rounded arm of his U-shaped desk, while Jeff Young at WestAmerica Investment Group in Scottsdale, Ariz., likes to conduct meetings at a big, round table.

Such arrangements are a wise way to make a potentially stressful situation more casual. "When you're sitting behind a desk, you're more intimidating," says Judi Craig, a clinical psychologist and business coach at the Coaching Connection in San Antonio. If necessary, she recommends placing your rectangular desk against a wall, so you must turn to face visitors.

What should you have on your desk? In short, as little clutter as possible. "If you have piles of stuff, it creates a psychological feeling of overwhelm and isn't attractive to visitors," Craig says. "Clients will wonder whether you can readily find things, and they'll wonder if you'll lose their paperwork."

When dealing with clutter, Craig emphasizes that the solution is to create a regular system that promotes order. For example, you might tidy up during the last five minutes of each workday. Also, it's best to place messages and sticky notes in a file-rather than have them spread out on your desk or adorning your computer. "It's all right to maintain a file of things you don't have any idea what to do with," she says.

The key is to strike a balance between order and having a few items on your desk. You want to make visitors feel comfortable and perhaps a bit curious.

David Lane, an Edward Jones broker in Paducah, Ky., keeps a small crystal ball on his desk (for making light of stock market predictions) and a small brick with lettering that says "1 in 4/ask me why." That's a reference to the market's tendency to slump now and then. "In roughly one of every four years, clients will want to throw a brick through my window," Lane says, with a laugh.

Bertis sometimes likes to create displays to drum up interest in his stock picks. For example, he has arranged piles of Campbell's soup cans in his office, as well as cans and bottles of Pepsi Cola. "It's all there to generate questions," Bertis says, readily admitting that this doesn't work for every stock. "It's a little harder to pile a bunch of Dell computers on a desk."

There's nothing wrong with leaving a brochure or two describing your services in full view. "You always want to be marketing," says Craig, who also keeps copies of the books she has authored in sight. Berger does the same, and she encourages visitors to borrow financial books about which they express an interest.

The Photos Whether on desks or on walls, many brokers like to display photos that help clients get a feel for them both personally and professionally. Young, for instance, has a photo of himself with Sen. John McCain and Steven Spielberg, photos in uniform to reflect his military career and photos of his kids and wife. One of Berger's photos shows her on the set of "Good Morning America" being interviewed by Charlie Gibson, while Bertis' many photos include a studio shot of his two sons dressed in suits and reading The Wall Street Journal.

Bertis' office also features various pictures of trains, an area of personal interest, while Lane's office is decorated with reprints of Fortune magazine covers from the 1930s and 1940s. Lane also has what he calls the "Edward Jones wall"-a photo collection of company dignitaries, past and present.

The Office Design Berger has decorated her office in muted shades of green, burgundy and purple, using traditional furnishings with a French influence. The tone is light, airy and elegant yet understated, she says. The office is aided by windows with cityscape views in every room. Her firm leases space in a swank Beverly Hills building with a modest art collection in the lobby and parking garage. "This creates a wonderful impression even before a client enters the office," she says.

Tasteful music piped into an office also can set the stage for enjoyable visits, as can soft illumination from light bulbs rather than fluorescent lights. Strategically placed couches, stuffed chairs, and a coffee table or two add a lot to the environment as well. Bookcases can help the mood if you vary the arrangements and stacking order, rather than pack everything into the endless vertical rows you find at a library. "Your office should be as natural as going to your friend's house," Bertis says.

Most brokers don't have the opportunity to design their own offices from scratch, but Lane did so last year. The 4,800-square-foot facility features a full kitchen, a conference room that can seat up to 55 people and a separate waiting area with a television and restroom for clients. "This way, clients don't have to listen to all of the phone calls that come into the receptionist," he says.

The Personal Details Several special items can make for more pleasant client meetings. Tissues are mandatory, of course, but Young also keeps a pair of nonprescription reading glasses on hand in case clients forget theirs. Another good idea is to maintain a healthy supply of candy for the children of clients-and breath mints for yourself.

Speaking of children, it's wise to have some quiet toys available, along with coloring books and crayons or markers. If you have access to a separate room equipped with a videocassette recorder, offer some tapes of Disney classics or other children's shows.

Incidentally, it's advisable to offer coffee, soft drinks or other light refreshments to visitors, and it's often wise to fetch them yourself rather than have a secretary do it. Excusing yourself from the office for a minute or two allows clients to explore the photos and other features of your room without feeling they're intruding.

The suggestion list can go on and on. Yet the overriding key is to create an environment in which you enjoy working. "For a lot of people, money management can be a very stressful experience," Berger says. "But if you feel comfortable with your surroundings, chances are your clients will, too."

Brokers usually don't arrange their offices with disabled people in mind, but a few common-sense suggestions can smooth visits with these clients. Chris Schneck, a Merrill Lynch financial consultant in Mesa, Ariz., sits on the company's national committee for working with clients who are disabled. He offers the following tips, geared primarily to those who have hearing problems:

* Don't keep your window blinds so wide open that the outdoor lighting casts a shadow on your face. A deaf person might be trying to read your lips.

* Have a pen and pad handy in case a deaf person can't read your lips well. It may be easier for you both to simply write messages back and forth.

* Consider buying an amplifier for your phone in case a hearing-impaired person wants to make a call from your office.

* If possible, make doorways wide enough to accommodate wheelchairs. And don't pack so much furniture into your office that it presents an obstacle course for clients who have trouble walking.

* Post Braille signs outside restrooms for clients who are blind. Often, however, blind people will have an escort to help them navigate your office.

As the American population continues to age, more clients will develop impediments to which brokers must be sensitive. In particular, Schneck says, "More people are having problems hearing, whether it's due to old age or rock 'n' roll."

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