Getting Picky: Why Forbes Missed The Mark

I got an email from Blueleaf CEO John the other day. Subject: I think we can do better on this topic than Forbes did. Body: http://www.forbes.com/sites/riabiz/2011/02/17/10-advisors-explain-how-they-build-sales-without-getting-salesy/. The URL brings you to an article on the Forbes website titled, 10 Advisors Explain How They Build Sales Without Getting Salesy.

The body of the post is a “list of 10 tips for developing your business without coming across like a used-car salesman.” Each tip comes from a different, real-life advisor, as well as a bonus tip from one non-advisor. And that’s more or less what you get: advice on how to sell with less sleaze than a used-car salesman.

Example tip. Love that photo.

The first thing you should know about this article is that it was originally posted on RIAbiz.com almost TWO YEARS AGO. In the editorial world, that’s like refurbishing a 1999 Toyota Camry. It’s too modest to be valuable, and not old enough to be “classic.” Forbes is a respectable magazine. I read many of their pieces for pleasure. But this one left a bad taste in my mouth. Here’s why:

They talkin’ like you can’t think good.

No, I don’t believe that the Forbes team and the author of the article actually think you’re dumb, but there’s no hiding that this article is speaking to the lowest common denominator of financial advisor. Plus, they refer to potential clients as “prospects,” which itself is a salesy term, and one that we never use.

Tips like, “Take A Comprehensive Approach,” “Get Permission To Conduct Research,” and “Do An Inventory” treat you, the reader, not only as if you’re new to financial services, but also as if the goal of manipulating people is ok as long as it’s not “salesy”. “Get Permission To Conduct Research?” Really?

Some of these tips are kinda clever in that they appear to be transparent, but they’re actually camouflage–encouraging the disguise of salesy-ness, as opposed to, I don’t know, genuine honesty. Where’s the “Be Transparent” tip, calling for building trust the old-fashioned way: by being good to people? Not all of the advice in the article is rubbish, but still, it pained me to read something so outdated content, trend, and moral code-wise.

Sidebar with the save!

I have no problem picking holes in a Forbes piece, but, at this point, offering my own advice would feel like backtracking. If you haven’t noticed, I like to write about the future. We’ve already written about the sales funnel, honesty, trust, permission-based marketing, et al. Sure, there are a few fresh points I’ve yet to make, but that doesn’t mean that I want to blow them all here, now!

But there it was, right in the sidebar, “BrightScope Debate: Industry Being Dragged Kicking and Screaming Into The New World,” a post I felt I’d already written, and the refreshing confirmation I needed to soldier on.

But then I realized the post was a guest post by robo-advisor superbot Wealthfront! And also that it was mainly a response to BrightScope’s controversial Advisor Pages system, the main problem being that their data may be inaccurate. No matter, the content is good and it focused on something the robots and Blueleaf have in common: a belief in transparency. Robo-advisor CEO Andy Rachleff got right down to business in the second paragraph,

Listen to the arguments against transparency: The reader won’t understand the newly disclosed information. There’s not enough context for consumers to make the right decision. Vendors will be unfairly hurt if the data is inaccurate. The common thread is the consumer must be stupid.

There it was. The hole I poked in Forbes’ two-year-old advice colum, repeated by Silicon Valley robots. It’s truly a revelation when you finally understand that the way to build sales without being salesy is to be honest, transparent, and likeable. The Android went on, arguing that in the financial services industry, as in any enlightened industry that has succumbed to transparency, you realize a few things. The first is that the only thing that matters is to “Delight The Customer.” The second, which is certainly a weaker point (robots aren’t perfect), is to “Let The Consumers Work It Out.” I would have written, “Trust The Customer,” but either way, Rachleff closes the piece nicely,

As I stated in my last column, in Silicon Valley [Cambridge] we believe information wants to be free, and you should only pay for convenience. By giving our users access to information otherwise hidden, we trust the intellect of our users.

Companies that embrace transparency usually succeed (because transparency will always ultimately become the norm) and those that fight it will likely lose share. Advisors are welcome to complain about what BrightScope is doing, but if there’s any lesson to be learned from the Internet, it’s that transparency is a freight train that advisors best get on, or they will get rolled over. Plan accordingly.

*Edits my own

As real-life advisors with heartbeats, you should feel the same: Trust the intellect of your clients. They know when they’re being sold to. And that’s really all you need to know about building sales without being salesy. Be transparent. Be Honest. Be Likeable. And, finally, know that you clients aren’t stupid. In fact, they’re quite intelligent. Intelligent enough not to leave their money with robots…

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DJ DJ is a freelance writer, hopeful photographer, and social media has-been. He writes to financial advisors about lifehacks, science, technology, business and marketing for Blueleaf, a software that helps create dramatically simpler, more scalable financial advisory businesses. You can find DJ across the web (about.me/djswitz) or you can just follow him on Twitter (@djswitz)!