If you want to work with women, expect to roll up your sleeves and get down to the serious business of winning over some pretty tough clients. Why the uphill battle? According to leading advisors and trainers across the country, it takes advisors longer to prospect and cultivate women. It takes more finesse and relationship-building skills to win individual female investors' trust and business, and it will almost certainly take more time to provide the investment education many women require to feel competent.

If all this is true, why are a growing number of advisors setting their sights on the women's market? The simple answer is this: There are a lot of women, they're likely to control more households than ever before and they have growing wealth.

The fact is, women live longer than men (on average seven years longer). As a result, they are likely at some point in their lives to control their entire household fortunes, either because of divorce, inheritance or never marrying. (Up to 90% of women take complete charge of their personal finances at some point in their lives.) As interesting, women have a rising rate of small business ownership and wealth. Advisors and researchers are also discovering that women clients are better delegators, less likely to trade frequently and are more loyal to the professionals they work with. Together these characteristics make them ideal advisory clients-albeit for some advisors.

In fact, the richness of opportunities in the market of women clients abounds and will only increase, says Sharon Rich, principal of Womoney, a financial advisory firm in Belmont, Mass., that caters to women investors. The news is catching the attention of advisory firms and the financial services firms that serve them. RegentAtlantic Capital, in Chatham, N.J., created what it terms its "Women's Initiative" more than a year ago, a program of outreach, education and referral solicitation targeting high-net-worth women investors. The firm's advisors have begun to sign up desirable women clients and have more in the pipeline, says RegentAtlantic Marketing Director Margaret Prentice.

Oppenheimer Funds, long known for spearheading first-of-its-kind research on women investors, is taking its findings directly to advisors and brokers who sell its funds, to arm them with the tools necessary to create long-term relationships with women investors. "We always encourage people to be cognizant of the fact that at some point the woman in a household will take over the finances," says John Blomfield, director of Oppenheimer's educational initiatives.

The growing body of demographic information on women investors make outreach to this growing group highly desirable. As of 2002, 43% of Americans with more than $500,000 in assets were female, according to a study by Merrill Lynch and The Spectrem Group. The number of wealthy women increased by 68% from 1996 to 1998, compared with an increase of 36% for men over the same time period. As important, women own 37% of small businesses. That number, too, is accelerating at a healthy rate. Merrill Lynch reports that women are starting new businesses at twice the rate of their male counterparts.

Bottom line, says Rich, is that a growing number of women have the money to invest. The question is, do they have the know-how to do it successfully or will they be able to buy the professional services they need? A recent study from the Center for Women's Business Research, underwritten by Goldman Sachs & Co., found that high-net-worth women and men report they know only some or very little of what they should know to make good investment decisions (60% of women say this, compared with 63% of men). The difference is men might tend to wing it, while women will deliberate carefully, sometimes to the point of being indecisive. What's clear is that such behavior makes women excellent prospects for advisors.

Small wonder that advisors have started taking notice of the women's market, says Rich, who has a doctorate from Harvard in education and women's studies that she uses in her practice and to talk at seminars and conferences about the strengths and challenges of women investors. Still, adds Rich-who has built a client roster that is 70% women-it's important for planners who are targeting women not to underestimate the role they'll have to play.

Although some women are excellent investors, many others need fundamental education and counseling to be competent and comfortable, the planner says. It's becoming an almost accepted notion, at least on an academic level, that once women find the investment education they need, they can be superior investors to men. That's the finding of a 1997 UC Davis study that found that women equity investors did better at investing than men over a six-year period, largely because they were more conservative and risk-adverse and didn't try to capture short-term run-ups in the market. The study, which examined the returns and behavior of 35,000 investors between 1991 and 1997, found that women earned average annual returns that were 1.4% higher than men. The reason? Men traded more frequently and as a result incurred higher costs.

"There is a definite bell curve for many women investors, who often don't have a tremendous amount of interest or experience with investing but can get up to speed relatively quickly," says Rich. The long-time planner often sits down with female clients at her office computer to do whatever is required to give clients the tools they need to understand investing basics. That includes doing cash flow statements along with them and teaching them how to read their investment statements. "I'm not taking over for them. That takes away their responsibility. It's far better to give them ownership and understanding," Rich says.

That kind of empowerment pays off when working with women, who prefer long-term relationships-a boon for advisors willing to cultivate such clients. Recently a new widow came in to see Rich to try to make sense of her far-flung investment picture. In the wake of her husband's death "she didn't really know what she had, which included a pension, IRAs and a trust," says Rich. Together they sorted things out and instituted a fairly straightforward investment portfolio. "At this point, she knows what she owns and is taking minimum distributions from a retirement account," says Rich. "She's done a nice job understanding how all the pieces fit together."

While a number of female clients have come from RegentAtlantic's Women's Initiative, Prentice warns that there is no "magic formula" for attracting female clients who are willing to pay the firm's $10,000 minimum annual fee. Instead, she emphasizes that attracting and signing women clients is a long-term, firm-wide proposition.

RegentAtlantic's approach includes seminars for women clients and prospects, systematized lunches and meetings designed to cultivate women referrals (in fact, compensation of the firm's professionals is directly based in part on such business development) and media outreach. "It's all about consistency and getting your message out and being deliberate about it and repeatedly going and deepening the relationship," says Prentice, who recently spoke at a meeting of the Industrial and Commercial Real Estate for Women's group and volunteers with the Women's Fund of New Jersey.

RegentAtlantic wealth manager Debra L. Morrison, who recently signed on a women client who had been burned severely by bad brokers selected by the client's husband, says that advisors who work with women have to be cognizant of women's fears and their investment styles. "It's really ripe for women to be empowered, and as professionals we should be willing to go the extra step to be proactive," adds Morrison.

That's the nice way of saying that she had to meet with the high-powered real estate executive in a restaurant several times before she could even get the prospect to come to RegentAtlantic's offices. "We told her our approach isn't infallible, but it's logical and it works," says Morrison. "What we did for her was much more than financial planning. We assuaged her fears and allowed her to gain control. Interestingly, her husband is very glad she's taken the lead role, and we get along with him superbly."

Including all players in meetings and communications is very important, says Oppenheimer's Blomfield, who distributes brochures and booklets to the field for advisors and for women investors themselves. "Advisors always think they have the whole family locked up, and it's simply not the case," he says. "We stress that it's important for women to be part of the relationship before they have to cope with death, divorce and inheritances."

That's the pragmatic reason for advisors to target women. The other reason is more altruistic: Women truly need the assistance. Oppenheimer's latest research shows that while women have made some progress in terms of financial education, they still do not invest enough for retirement. "I think we know that when given a chance women can do better than men as investors, but we have to make sure we're reaching out to them," Blomfield says.