Expert Series: A Post-Pandemic Playbook: Lessons for Small Businesses from Financial Advisors


By Richard Whitworth, Cetera Financial Group

In the months since the coronavirus grew into a pandemic, small businesses have worked their way through all the stages of grief. Like much of the world, we’ve moved past the shock and denial of this health and economic crisis and settled into acceptance. But instead of settling into complacency or staying in the comfort zone, small businesses are showing signs of optimism and resilience and are pushing forward. Small businesses of all stripes can take a page from the financial professional’s playbook. As a relationship-driven business, investment professionals — on and beyond Main Street — have seen their offices and operations impacted as the pandemic has affected the way they serve and interact with customers — both current and prospective.

While many financial professionals have spent the past few months working to prop up their businesses and stabilize revenue, now they are looking once again toward growth by better serving their clients’ needs. The crisis has bolstered their determination and sparked creativity. With no other options and facing unprecedented challenges, the field has been forced to shift, yielding new lessons and strategies. To withstand the uncertainty ahead and build a stronger foundation for the future, small business owners should weigh a few key strategies:

Craft a referral strategy – Being a successful small business owner requires strong relationships, trusted service to the community and building a recognized brand and profile. For financial professionals, those relationships are essential to keeping clients, as well as getting new ones. The social distancing required amid the coronavirus pandemic put a halt to many of the traditional face-to-face marketing and networking opportunities that enable those connections. Without them, it is more challenging to share knowledge and build trust with clients old and new. Instead, consider developing a referral strategy with an automated marketing module to tap into the networks of existing clients who will spread the word of your services and success.

Review and refresh their digital presence – In unprecedented times like these you can’t rest on your laurels or remain static in your services and experience. And with the closing of offices and storefronts, your digital presence needs to do the bulk of the work of inviting and engaging potential customers. That means you can no longer get by on that 15-year-old bio and photo. It’s time to update your website and social platforms and consider how to differentiate your services from everyone else. There are an array of digital tools to help, including webinars and effective marketing platforms to communicate your value proposition.

Get back to the basics of growth, virtually – Knowing that dinners, seminars and other tried-and-true business development tactics are off the table for the time being, small business marketers must be creative in getting their message out. The world has now embraced video conferencing and digital communications as effective substitutes for in-person consultation and even larger events. People are more likely to feel comfortable meeting and networking via digital platforms that have dynamic engagement features and are relatively easy to use. Even in an economic crisis, or perhaps because of it, there is demand for financial guidance and an experienced professional to guide and reassure wary investors. Technology can help you reach a broader audience and extend the conversation beyond the initial meeting or event. And financial professionals may be at an advantage at this moment in time since clients understand that uncertainty and risk are even greater. When there’s no predicting where the economy will go or when the crisis will subside, clients are more inclined to blame the crisis, and not the financial professional, when their financial strategy hits a speed bump.

Establish knowledge in the current context – No one has all the answers in this evolving crisis, but staying current and being innovative can help you sustain your business and give you the topical experience clients are seeking now. As states and localities shift to re-open more businesses, financial professionals need to be steeped in totally new areas. Knowing best practices for following the CDC’s health guidelines, for example, positions financial professionals to re-open safely while being able to better support small business clients facing similar challenges. And expanding knowledge in succession planning — a new reality for many small business owners who may experience illness themselves or among their family and staff — can help clients manage the temporary setbacks inherent in today’s crisis.

Be a realist, and an optimist – While the pandemic has proved devastating to many small businesses across the country and put tremendous strain on a range of sectors, there are many examples of people stepping up and showing resilience. Financial professionals and the small businesses they serve are rediscovering their community focus and pitching in to solve the day-to-day problems we are all facing. But the see-saw ride — with the ups and downs of re-opening and subsequent shutdowns as the virus resurges — even keep optimists like me up at night. The uncertainty of how to re-open, and how long it will last (and whether the client base will still be there) makes it impossible for a small business owner to forecast revenue, keep up production and manage expenses. Since most small businesses lack access to sufficient capital, the stop and start of the economy has a damaging effect on cash flow. Financial professionals must take a strategic approach then in helping clients accept this new COVID-driven reality and navigate a path forward.

But there is no such thing as planning right now. As sound a strategy as it might have been to create a 3-year financial strategy in the past, that type of approach is all but futile in the face of so many tactical and short-term challenges. Businesses, instead, need to prepare for the immediate next phases of this crisis. Financial professionals can help them get ready to reopen, for example, and then to be nimble enough to shift the revenue model, the client engagement approach, and even the nature of the product or service to respond to another shutdown.

Look to other industries for models and inspiration – The financial services industry is not always quick to adapt or innovate. But doing so now is urgent and necessary. There are examples in other industries that can inspire our own creative thinking and action. There are some compelling lessons in entertainment, for example, and in the boldness of industry giants like Disney in bringing “Hamilton” and other blockbuster films direct to the consumer. Far from being a small upstart, this iconic leader in in-person entertainment was nimble enough to pivot to create more engaging virtual experiences. Now it’s rocking its digital strategy.

Ultimately, small businesses will play an enormous and essential role in the comeback of the economy and the resilience of local communities. The sheer size of this sector — small businesses account for 44% of all economic output in the U.S. and employ 53% of the nation’s workforce — signals its vital role in any recovery1. Financial professionals can help those clients endure these unprecedented ups and downs by putting the right tools and strategies in play. And we can all sleep a little better knowing the potential for the small business sector to rebound when this crisis stabilizes and subsides.

Richard Whitworth is Head of Business Consulting at Cetera Financial Group.

1 (Small Business Administration (SBA)).

About Cetera Financial Group®

Cetera Financial Group (Cetera) is a leading financial advice firm. It empowers the delivery of an Advice-Centric Experience® to individuals, families and businesses across the country through independent financial advisors as well as trusted tax professionals and banks and credit unions. It’s headquartered at 200 N. Pacific Coast Highway, Suite 1200, El Segundo, CA 90245-5670.

Comprehensive services include: wealth management solutions, retirement plan solutions, advisory services, practice management support, innovative technology, marketing guidance, regulatory support, and market research.

“Cetera Financial Group” refers to the network of independent retail firms encompassing, among others, Cetera Advisors LLC, Cetera Advisor Networks LLC, Cetera Investment Services LLC (marketed as Cetera Financial Institutions or Cetera Investors), Cetera Financial Specialists LLC, and First Allied Securities, Inc. All firms are members FINRA/SIPC.

Individuals affiliated with Cetera firms are either Registered Representatives who offer only brokerage services and receive transaction-based compensation (commissions), Investment Adviser Representatives who offer only investment advisory services and receive fees based on assets, or both Registered Representatives and Investment Adviser Representatives, who can offer both types of services.

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