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How to Capitalize on Negativity

The coronavirus pandemic provides the prospecting opportunity of a lifetime.

There’s a reason we’re either watching or listening to COVID-19 news reports more than we should. The 24/7 drumbeat of death (COVID-19 numbers) and destruction (economy) plays into the built-in negativity bias of our species. This is no different than every newscaster becoming a weatherperson reporting on a hurricane.

None of this is a revelation. You’ve known this for years. But have you learned how to take advantage of our negativity bias? Let’s face it, between COVID-19 and politics, negativity is everywhere.

First things first. Let’s revisit a bit of sage wisdom from marketing guru Theodore Levitt, economist, former professor at the Harvard Business School and editor of Harvard Business Review, in his classic book The Marketing Imagination (1983, The Free Press). Allow me to paraphrase …

In the world of intangibles, the client is never really aware of the value they’re receiving until they feel they have not received what was promised—until they become dissatisfied. Which is why two things are critical for professionals who market and sell intangibles …

  1. They should always be working to communicate and reinforce the value they’re delivering clients to protect themselves from being unsold.
  2. They should always be attempting to stir up dissatisfaction and steal clients from their competition.

Financial advisors live in the world of intangibles. It’s a well-known, albeit unpleasant, truth that clients rarely credit their advisor when portfolios rise with a bull market, but when things go south advisors become accountable. Ouch!

Other than health, the greatest challenge clients are facing in this pandemic is their investments. With this economic challenge reinforced 24/7 by the media, our negativity bias is fully activated—presenting a rare opportunity.

Clients are anxious, even those who you’d consider optimists. Because this crisis is so unprecedented, many are concerned whether their financial advisor has the depth and breadth of knowledge to guide them. Others have begun to question if their advisor has always made investment decisions in their best interest. In other words, dissatisfaction is being activated by today’s events. Coupled with our innate negativity bias, the stars are aligned for financial advisors serious about growth—IF—they’ve mastered the art of playing off bad news.

Playing Off Bad News

If you were a family counselor, your objective would be to help family members cope with our upside-down world: working remotely, children at home, social distancing, etc. Counselors are trained to ask questions, listen and exude empathy. This is similar to when a doctor with good bedside manners asks a sick patient, "How do you feel?" and then listens, acknowledges the problem and asks additional questions. In both cases, the situation isn’t good (bad news), but questions and empathy allow both the counselor and physician to connect, which is the first step in making things better.

Your objective is different. You want to acquire new clients. Yet your process in connecting is similar ...

  • Ask questions!
  • Listen!
  • Ooze empathy!

Cynics will accuse me of coaching advisors to be manipulative, disingenuous. Not so! Empathy is difficult to fake. So, yes, you’ve got to be sincere in the questions you ask. Which involves being an active listener who asks follow-up questions. Follow-up questions indicate you’re really listening, you care and are emphatic. At this stage, you’re looking for the opportunity to segue into business questions. You’ve earned the right.

Precoronavirus affluent/advisor research at the Oechsli Institute told us that during the previous bull market, only slightly over 25% of clients had an emotional connection with their financial advisor. Whereas nearly 80% of advisors thought they had this expanded relationship. This disconnect is what told us that approximately 75% of affluent clients were not loyal to their financial advisor. This was during good times!

Herein lies the prospecting opportunity of a lifetime! Yes, it requires a delicate balance between connecting on an emotional level and seamless sales skills. That said, it’s relatively simple.

I find it helpful to break your questions to prospects into two groups: family (personal) and business (investments). Let’s look at a handful of such questions.

Family (personal) questions:

  • How are you holding up working from home?
  • Is your spouse (name) also working from home?
  • How are the kids holding up?
  • How are your family members, friends and colleagues doing?

Each question can take a life of its own with follow-up questions, sharing your personal situation and so on. The idea is to go with the flow and follow the lead of your prospect. You’re connecting on an emotional level, but questions are also fueling the seeds of dissatisfaction. Everybody’s life is upside down. You’re playing off this negativity bias while displaying empathy. Once you’ve connected on an emotional level (empathy), you can transition into business questions.

You will want to keep in mind that unless their current financial advisor has taken the time to establish a precrisis emotional connection, your prospect probably isn’t a loyal client.

Business questions:

  • How has your financial plan held up with this volatility?
  • Has your advisor done any rebalancing of your portfolio?
  • What’s your financial advisor been telling you?
  • How secure is the technology your advisor is using?

It’s been our experience that if you’re dealing with one of those 75% of affluent clients who aren’t loyal, you’ll need only one business question (some prospects are bringing up business in the midst of family questions) to get to where it’s natural to offer your assistance—to review their portfolio.

As simple as this might appear, it requires practice. The more prospects you talk with using your version of what I’ve outlined, the better you become at questions, listening, asking follow-up questions and recognizing the right time to offer your assistance.

Yes—the bad news has aligned the stars for prospecting—go BIG!

Matt Oechsli is author of How to Build a 21st Century Financial Practice: Attracting, Servicing, and Retaining Affluent

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