"The most critical point in the relationship-building process."
-Craig Carnick, CFP, Carnick & Co., Colorado

"An exhilarating experience."
-Barbara L. Steinmetz, CFP, enrolled agent, Steinmetz Financial Planning, Burlingame, Calif.

"Interesting, stressful and sometimes exciting."
-Elissa Buie, CFP, Financial Planning Group Inc., Falls Church, Va.

    Each of these seasoned professionals would likely agree that advisors require solid business presentation skills to secure new clients. The initial consultation is simultaneously a vital marketing tool and a challenging obstacle to success. Victory in these encounters hinges on likability and preparation.

    The advisor-selection process isn't rational. Sure, standard tactics like sharing testimonials or your client list can help prospects understand what you've done for others, but this doesn't always allay fears about what you may or may not do for them. Prospects worry that you won't deliver the same level of service, that you'll assign them a less-experienced advisor or that you'll charge more than they can afford.
    When researchers look at how potential clients decide to work with a service provider, the words that come up are not expertise, knowledge, technology or returns. The words potential clients think of are more relationship-oriented, more personality-driven. Prospects say, "We had good chemistry." "I liked him." "We clicked."
    Hence, moving someone from being a prospect to being a client involves more than you and your firm's name recognition, capabilities and experience. It involves-even hinges on-your actions, bearing and demeanor. Score.org sums it up well: "In most professional services, you are not really selling expertise-because expertise is assumed and because your prospect cannot intelligently evaluate your expertise anyway. Instead, you are selling a relationship. And in most cases, that is where you need the most work."

First impressions matter. In all forms of communication, such as newsletters, prospect kits and Web sites, advisors ought to focus on messaging, and in the case of a business prospect meeting, you are the message. Hence, it's vital to understand how you come across. Business author Harry Beckwith advocates "careful management of the seemingly inconsequential" during initial consultations. Things you consider superficial mean a great deal when personal chemistry is a contributing factor to securing new clients.
    To illustrate how this works: I witnessed a father/son advisor team court and rapidly lose a prospect. The father deferred to the son, who made the initial remarks-mostly describing firm capabilities. From the outset, the son came across as overbearing. The prospect felt he was being "talked at" and "sold."
    Asked later to describe his impression, the prospect cited the son's posture, his tendency to stretch his arms above his head, his frequent breaks in eye contact and glances at his watch and Blackberry. The father seemed to sense the prospect's withdrawal, but the impression was set and the father's attempts at recovery failed.
    Ask yourself:
    When I enter a room for an initial consultation, what do others notice?
    Do I gather myself so I'm "on"-with a professional, approachable demeanor?
    What do the first 30 seconds of a prospect's view of me say?
    If you aren't sure, maybe you need to polish your first impression. That's not to say you should develop a facade; simply ensure you are managing an authentic first impression to enhance your likability, not diminish it.
    Listening-the business-development secret weapon. Being likable doesn't mean you have to acquire a magnetic personality. Be yourself, but be aware of the little things that speak loudly. Listening is one of those things. Listen fully to prospects to build rapport and enhance your likability.
Marvin Brown, president of Contact Strategies and one of the financial industry's leading authorities on the art of communication and selling yourself, says, "Mastering the art of listening is learning one of the profound rules of social connectivity. It is an important bonding technique for financial advisors to become liked and trusted by their prospects and clients. Every behavioral scientist knows that people like people who listen to them." 
    You could write an entire article on listening alone. Heck, I can speak for hours on the subject. But in brief, ask yourself:
    Am I a chronic interrupter?
    Do I break eye contact to check my watch or papers, or to scan the room?
    Do I affirm that I am listening by nodding and perhaps leaning in slightly?
    Do I create listening opportunities by asking open-ended questions?
    When leading the prospect into my office, do I ask that my calls be held, turn off my cell phone and tilt my computer screen away-showing the prospect I'm ready to focus?
    Mid-presentation course corrections-assess as you present. If you are practicing the tenets of good listening, you are paying full attention. This enables you to judge whether your pitch is reaching the prospect. Resilience helps you flex and flow with any reaction or nonreaction you encounter. Resilience is another factor in likability.
    Some financial advisors have a standard PowerPoint presentation that they unleash on every prospect. There is comfort in familiarity, and if you're a bit nervous, comfort is good. But there is beauty and increased likability in taking your prospect's measure. Be sure they are, in fact, connected to you and reacting positively to what you are saying. Change things up on the fly if they aren't. Throughout the initial consultation, note whether the prospect:
    Is constantly breaking eye contact, perhaps indicating discomfort with the topic, tone or pace;
    Is shifting in his or her seat, perhaps indicating that you've been talking too long; or
    Looks disengaged, bored or confused.
    You need to know if your message is registering. Don't let preoccupation with nerves, presentation equipment or your content dissuade you from gut checks during a pitch. Watch the prospect for signs that you need to shorten your talk, increase your energy level, reiterate complex points or simplify concepts.

    Managing the impression you leave with a prospect is essential, but it will get you nowhere if you come to the table with a generic presentation. You need to prepare. Like it or not, an effective new-business presentation must be customized-in other words, personalized. In a world where I can log on to Amazon.com and have a personalized customer experience, you can bet that your would-be clients are sophisticated enough to expect a pitch tailored to their profession and personal pastimes. So dust off the tried and true PowerPoint and infuse it with custom bullet points for every prospect. Better yet, ditch the generic presentation and infuse your conversation with points that demonstrate your:
    Prospect intelligence;
    Competitive intelligence; and

Prospect Intelligence
    To customize your presentation, you need to know who you are dealing with. Unearth as much as you can about the prospect. Knowledge helps with relationship building, and it helps win clients. Ask around, query the referrer, Google the prospect and visit the prospect's business Web site. If you are pitching corporate business:
    Set up a Google Alert on the firm and its principals;
    Search using Google's news search;
    Get a Dun & Bradstreet report, if applicable;
    Search archives at the local library or online; and
    Query vendors that you might have in common.
    This will net information that you can build into your conversation, but it won't net enough. Plan on devoting a significant portion of your initial consultation to further discovery. That's where listening and resilience again come into play. As you unearth nuggets of information during the prospect meeting, reflect and react on the fly so your fluid pitch flows in the direction of the prospect's needs.

Competitive Intelligence
    Understanding the competition helps set the tone and content for your new-business presentation. Ask yourself or others:
    In your market, what other firms vie for similar business?
    What messages do they use with prospects?
    How do your competitors' philosophies and business practices differ from yours?
    While not in the forefront of a business pitch's content, this information should influence what you present so that you include points of differentiation.

    Keeping in mind that listening is paramount; some portion of a new-business pitch must obviously focus on your capabilities and successes. Crafting this portion effectively means understanding your messages, in other words, brand characteristics, image descriptors and talking points.
    Don't wing it. Prepare. Develop authentic, eloquent messages that bring your services and capabilities to life. Try them out on others before launching them on prospects. Be sure to include points that differentiate you from the competition-and if you don't know what they are, find out. Self-intelligence is a must to compete in a tight market.

Your Content
    Armed with threefold intelligence, you must prepare memorable content to share through dialogue. You can persuade a potential client to work with the firm, but you can't bore them into it. Ask yourself:
    Am I being concise? Less is always more.
    Am I describing things in a logical fashion that is easy to digest?
    Are my word choices and sentence structure pedestrian or compelling?
    Is my conversation vivid with anecdotes and examples?