This article is directed at service providers and professional service firms, who would like to gain entry into the lucrative financial services market, such as brand, PR, and marketing agencies, lawyers, and accounting firms.
In this lengthy piece, I will argue that the financial industry loves client sector specialization, which is one level deeper than the commonly witnessed client industry specialization.
The featured image of this article is a sign that designates the runway to be used on an airfield, i.e. ‘runway 8 is active’. In order to make any sense of this sign, your knowledge about aviation needs to be a level deeper than that of the general public. The same applies to the finance industry, and any other industry for that matter.
All other things being equal, demonstrating client sector competence, not just general industry competence, can put you ahead of competing service providers, even if they have a bigger name, more resources or a bigger client list.
Drawing from my buy-side experience, I will give you a few hints at how to achieve this level of competence, even if you have never worked in the financial industry.
The financial industry loves specialists
Let’s say you are a digital agency. The fact that you happen not to be one of the big brands in your space can be an advantage. We in the financial industry love to work with specialized players! As a small to medium sized enterprise in our space, we are also fed up with being treated by global agencies like a lower priority account.
For this example, let’s further assume that within digital, you specialize in social media. This is great! However, it is not the only thing we are looking for.
We look beyond channel mastery and industry track record. Once you have made it onto our longlist we will be checking for fluency in our sector.
Specialists in your field, and in ours
You see, when we clients look for someone who is sector fluent, we mean someone who understands our market segment and the complex regulatory environment we operate in; someone who knows who we compete against. Not to forget, someone who understands our products and services that may be completely different than those in other sectors of the same industry.
I have witnessed my fair share of fails during service provider pitches.
Having our underlying investment managers (GPs, or General Partners, in the private equity space) constantly referred to as General Practitioners (i.e. doctors) is disqualifying.
Being good at our game, not only yours
Being called a bank by an agency who we had hoped would help us to differentiate ourselves from our asset manager peer group is more subtle, but equally disqualifying if you are in the last round of the selection process. To many outside our industry, this subtle difference in the sector may not be obvious.
If you want to carve a profitable and defendable market position for yourself in the financial services space, and beat the big brands at their game, you need to project competence and situational fluency not only in your area of expertise. That goes without saying. But you need to be a specialist in the client’s industry as well. And in its specific sector.
All other things being equal, client sector competence wins each time
All other things being equal, client sector competence wins each time. Why? Because chances are that your team has similar capabilities to those of your competitors. The initial designs or concepts are really good. But do not blow your competitors out of the water.
And let’s not even go into the detail about service providers trying to differentiate themselves on criteria that are surprisingly unimportant to us. Such as pulling out the award-studded managing partner emeritus, and hoping we would actually believe that they would be an active contributor to our account.
While we politely listen to explanations about the global agency network you belong to, we are painfully aware of the commercial realities of the agency business model. Which is why we will judge you by the skills of the most junior member of your team, because they are the one that will pull the cart every day.
Specialized financial PR agencies, for example, love to pull out fancy client lists. How many of the proposed account team actually contributed to these projects? Plus, as mentioned above, if we are a specialist private equity asset manager, your banking references will hardly tip the scale in your favor.
Sector competence is the single most important trait that can tip the scale in your favor. Why?
Because this one trait will immediately signal to clients that you possess the fundamental client understanding from which to base all your other specialized skills on.
Now that you have taken your game to your client’s need, your competition is gone. Channel mastery may be needed to play, but client sector competence is the recipe for winning.
Advantages of client sector competence
Why not already use the sales process to deliver value up-front and influence the decision criteria towards your strengths? Projecting client sector competence is particularly powerful at the mandate decision stage.
Once you win the account, client sector competence will enable you to create content much more effectively, because you earned the right to speak directly to the client’s subject matter experts.
It also reduces the risk of a mandate loss down the line, as the account is being periodically reviewed. Because you will have cemented your position of value by having constantly supplied actionable content and story concepts to your client’s counterparts in the marketing and communications function.
Client sector competence requires surprisingly little effort
Before diving into some quick wins that will position you as someone with client sector competence, let me be clear about one thing. In no way do I suggest that you pretend to be something you are not. Being caught overstating your skills will eliminate you from the race, and pretty soon from the market.
So, here we go.
Step 1 – get familiar with the prospect’s language, industry structure, major trends, and business model.
Speaking the same language makes you familiar. And it does not involve that much effort. Study your prospect’s website and analyse the technical writing they use.
Google media articles, particularly those written in the trade press, since they cater to other industry insiders. Once you have a first idea about the industry and the issues the prospect talks about, dig deeper on the web.
Google the competitors in the space, identify common themes. In our industry, for example, evergreen themes are the bifurcation between big asset gatherers and specialized, or niche, players; regulation and its impact on the operating costs; low interest-rates and their impact on various asset classes and trading strategies.
Sift through publicly available presentations on the industry by the major management consulting firms and investment consultants.
Step 2 – prepare a few hooks
Now that you are equipped with some market context, go back to what your prospect’s spokespeople are saying in interviews and presentations. This will give you two to three topics from which to formulate w-questions. Remember, use open questions that will not terminate the conversation with a yes or no.
Step 3 – get an industry insider (internal/external) to mentor you along the sales process
Getting a mentor is advisable. The more structured the prospect’s buying process, the higher the importance will be on getting someone within their organization to mentor you.
Such a mentorship is an informal role. It will be someone you identify as being professionally and personally most committed to the successful hiring of a service provider. Ask this person to provide pieces to the puzzle that you could not obtain in the steps above. Also, bounce ideas off that person, and ask them to validate your assumptions.
Step 4 – brief yourself by asking informed questions
The initial most valuable thing you can do when dealing with someone from the financial industry is to take control of the briefing process. If at all possible, brief yourself, do not ask your prospect for their formal briefing. This may be counter-intuitive, because most agencies expect the client to brief them on what they need.
The more advance work you can do there based on the conclusions from the steps above, the more you will impress your counterparts and their supervisors. But the most powerful thing will be your ability to influence the requirements in your favor, and away from your competitors’ strengths.
Continue to use open questions, follow up with control questions that rephrase the problem, and, finally, ask for confirmation of the issues and challenges discussed. This is called solution selling, and it will be the topic of a future post.
Step 5 – show strategic understanding by exploring the business impact of the issues and opportunities discussed
You would be surprised by how many proposals financial industry players receive that offer no specifics beyond vague value propositions and opaque claims to reduce cost/ time/ hassle.
In addition to confirming the prospect’s pain points, being able to agree with them regarding the overall business impact is the first step to quantifying the value of your solution. This will be essential when you create your proposal.
The creative part of it is important for the user of your services. A realistic commercial part will make it much easier for those at your prospect organization who have command over the budget.
From competence to mastery
The above steps should get you started. Depending on the composition of your team you may have staff who are comfortable to take on such a role.
I have been on the client end of things in the past. I will be happy to assist in the process, and
- help with compiling a thorough prospect briefing, including market forces, SWOT and PEST analysis
- prepare you for prospect meetings by assisting with industry specific pitch decks, delivery rehearsals, and coaching
- participate as an industry expert in prospect meetings
And I am keen to compare notes. Please contact me here.