Published 12/9/2016 in The Maryland Daily Record
As more time goes on, I am seeing even more clearly how beneficial my decision to focus on such a narrow niche really is. I reconnected with a colleague that I had not talked to in a few years because he remembered that when I left Smith Barney I was focusing on women investors. He was at a board meeting on Monday and a fellow board member asked if he knew anyone that specialized in working with women in a very specific situation and my name popped in his head.
This is amazing to me how easy it can be to think of someone when asked for something really specialized. I remember being eternally frustrated working in a big brokerage firm and trying to differentiate myself from my peers. It wasn’t easy. People would hear the name of the firm and that I was a broker and basically draw their own conclusions. Despite how much I tried to set myself apart, it never felt like I really could.
This led me down a path that required real consideration and conviction. In my heart and mind I knew that there are people who have distinct needs that are not being met in the traditional model of the large firms. The key was to educate the market enough to see that these needs could be met in a boutique firm that catered to these specific needs. It meant be willing to forgo the potential resources that are offered on the large-firm platform in exchange for customized solutions that fit the exact needs of a certain set of women.
Courting clients who are experiencing life changes like divorce, death of a spouse or parent, life changes that drive financial decision-making, is a common marketing strategy of financial firms. Lots of initiatives and events are put together to bring women into the fold. It has to be said that these are so often not very successful because they really miss the mark on what women are looking for and need. A very accomplished board member of a national financial services firm shared with me her disappointment in a high-end event that was held for clients of this firm. Because of her stature in the business community she was asked to attend to give her perspective on the event and the reception of the women in attendance. I could feel her disdain for the program content and the disappointment she felt in how much of a missed opportunity took place … and I get it.
It’s not so easy to get in the minds of women in need of financial services unless you have really lived it – either as a woman through personal life experience or through hands-on experience of actually working with women. I liken this to my efforts over so many years to sell municipal bonds to a group that I affectionately call the grumpy old men. These men were at least 40-50 years older than I was at the time and to say that we could not relate to each other financially is a major understatement. Yet I kept trying for years to make this unlikely dynamic work. To the other extreme, I talk to advisers who are trying to relate to the nuances of their women clients, and only a special few that I have encountered really do.
I believe that clients really know the difference but don’t always trust their instincts or feel that they have an alternative. Particularly during times of such extreme stress that is the result of a major life change, it can be difficult to discern the various capabilities of each professional they encounter. Unlike in medicine, which requires training in each specialty, or law, where a specialty typically emerges, financial services do not require a real specialization. This creates confusion and extra work for each consumer seeking to match his or her needs with the area of expertise of each adviser.
Knowing what I know now, I would have established a niche from the beginning and stuck with it. I was encouraged to be a generalist, to be all things to all people because the model of the large firm where I started my career ultimately could provide most any product or solution to any financial need. It was a financial super mart. Yet, if I had more faith in myself and trusted my own instincts to stick to what I knew and believed in, this growing presence that we have established in Maryland could very well be a national brand by this time.
Lesson learned, it’s never too late to get started on the path that you believe is the best one for you. I know that having a niche practice in a boutique firm serving women during times of transition is the right one for me.
—Dorie Fain, founder and CEO of &Wealth