Face to Face

Your Competitive Advantage

by Tony DiLeonardi

Do you want to feel that burst of adrenaline, that sense of purpose, drive, and passion? Then do something different and be open to the possibilities!

It doesn't mean you have to leave your current position. You don't need to do anything drastic that will jeopardize what you've worked for and built in your life. Sometimes it's the subtle changes implemented over time that make a huge impact. I've taken both approaches at different times in my career and created major transformations with each. But whether you go slow and steady or swift and spontaneous, you do need to leave doubt behind and embrace the idea of change-in your beliefs, in your approach, and in your service to your clients.

To me, this is not just a better way to live, which it is. It's a competitive advantage for the wealth manager who embraces it and does things differently with the clients you serve and the team you manage. I also believe the time for us in this service industry is now. Intimacy is real, personal, and long lasting. Do we want to create a vibrant personal connection with the clients we serve for generations? Why then do we allow other industry professionals less important to the day-to-day significance of our clients seemingly command more personal intimacy and loyalty than we do?

As a test, I encourage you to name some examples of retail businesses that you are a customer of that you believe understand intimacy and deliver on experience for you. Think of a company or organization that you feel strongly about and for whom you have a sense of loyalty. What comes to mind? How long did it take before you were out of names? My guess is you came up with about six or seven.

In my asking that question to thousands of wealth advisers, I find it amusing that just six names or so come up very regularly and not one of them is a big bank, brokerage house, insurance agency, law firm, or accounting firm.

Here's what usually comes up:

  • Starbucks
  • Nordstrom
  • The Ritz Carlton
  • Southwest Airlines
  • Apple
  • Amazon
  • Zappos

Over the last several years, I've compared the results of Business Week's Annual Customer Service Champs and found they were basically the same names I would hear from audiences of seasoned professional wealth managers. The other interesting thing is there does not seem to be a lot of businesses that really get this service loyalty model anymore. The list is narrow and not so deep.

With the exception of Charles Schwab, I've not seen many wealth companies on the list. You might say that's because they are too big. OK. But what makes our industry appealing and your practice effective, in part, is the fact that you have the ability to be independent, build your own brand, and construct a client base that buys from YOU. You are your brand. That's liberating and powerful.

Let's consider Starbucks for a minute. They get this concept of intimacy. They're big, but their raving fans feel like the barista cares deeply about them. Howard Schultz, CEO at Starbucks, has said publically the following, "Starbucks sells connection; connection to self, to colleague, and to community." Did you catch that? Starbucks sells connection, which to me is intimacy. I thought they sold coffee and scones. They seem to move a lot of coffee and scones in their stores. Yet the CEO said they sell intimacy, and oh by the way, if you want to plop down $5 for a coffee, you can do that, too. Wow.

In the book, Starbucks Experience (McGraw Hill Companies, 2007), by business consultant Joseph Michelli, we learn the valuable lessons and the genius of Starbucks' success lies in its ability to create personalized customer experiences, stimulate business growth, generate profits, energize employees and secure customer loyalty-all at the same time.

Here's my plea. Why should our retail business be any different? Why should we allow Starbucks, for example, to create intimacy, loyalty, and a raving fan base when they do not really provide anything that's noble, lasting, or significant? Yet they do provide value in the life of their customers by offering intimacy and a warm place to sit, sip, and become part of a community. Why can't we get this? As a matter of fact, they can charge a premium for their product because they provide intimacy and the rest. Think about it.

This example, and others like it, proves to me that this is more than customer service. This is an intentional strategy from Schultz; he himself said it. It's a culture. There are countless stories of their baristas building meaningful relationships with customers. It also tells me that it's more than corporate branding or millions of dollars in national advertising, because this is done at the grassroots level, in community after community. Sound familiar to you? That should be encouraging since your practice is a grassroots practice that does not need national advertising budgets and an expensive branding campaign.

Finally, it tells me that this concept of creating intimacy and personal connection with your clients is manageable and portable. It takes efforts and intentionality and it can be done in store after store across the country. You just have to do it in your one location!