Jane N. Abitanta is the founder and principal of Perceval Associates, Inc., in New York.

I don't have to tell you private bankers how tough it is out there. You already know that your clients don't trust you, your organizations are in even greater chaos than usual, and the pressure to bring in new business has reached a whole new level.

In today's climate, private investors and wealthy families need help and advice more than ever. Many are disenchanted with their current banks; the 2008 market crisis revealed all the cracks in their bank's service to them. It's a great opportunity to win their business.

And I'm afraid that you're blowing it.

True story: a family worth billions recently was evaluating private banks to service its substantial assets in Europe. The family members' due diligence involved visiting various banks' European headquarters. They were shocked at the presenters' lack of professionalism. We're talking the best and the brightest private bankers doing an awful job at marketing, communication and even common courtesy.

At one meeting, no fewer than 10 representatives from a bank greeted the family and their advisor. Each of the bankers' business cards had a different name or design on it even though they all represented the same organization. No one made any effort to help the family understand who was in the room, why they were there and how all of their respective departments fit together for the benefit of this family.

At this same meeting, the bank's representatives began their presentation with a long discussion of the bank's legacy and experience in private wealth management. The spiel sounded like the one given by every other organization the client had visited during this mini-European tour. And all were dull — deadly dull.

It was 45 minutes into the meeting (scheduled for two hours) before anyone from the private bank asked the family a question. Forty-five minutes. This wasn't a presentation, it was a train wreck. The family was bored, confused and completely put off. Needless to say, this organization did not win the business.

We can guess what the bank's representatives thought they were doing. They thought they were pulling out all the stops: bringing the entire organization to bear on this family's situation. After all, having more than 10 bankers in the room for more than two hours is expensive.

Yet, here's what actually happened: There was no real preparation for the meeting. There was no internal discussion to determine whether this bank was the right fit for this particular family. This bank's team did not meet beforehand to discuss what they knew about the family's situation. Clearly, no one rehearsed this presentation.

No doubt the bank took this new business opportunity seriously. I'm sure that members of the team spent countless hours on the written materials and graphics presented, synchronized calendars and meeting room reservations. Internal wheels spun mightily. Coffee and tea were served in exquisite porcelain cups.

Yet, no one considered how the family members and advisor attending the meeting would feel being outnumbered by bankers in the conference room. No one thought to explain at the outset who they all were, how they fit together, and why they were all there. No one thought about setting the family at ease by presenting an agenda beforehand — and asking for feedback on that agenda before they began. Sure, everyone was pleasant and polished, well-dressed and even gracious. But there was no connection with the family. No one felt real.

Update Your Skills

Some of you are reading this and thinking, “Ha! That could never be us. We're seasoned professionals. We've been working with significant private wealth for many years!”

I say, it is you. This is your organization. It's a new day, and you are not keeping up. Sure, you're experienced. But when was the last time you had any real, critical feedback on your presentation? When was the last time you did any sort of training around client needs assessment, presentation skills and listening?

Connecting with clients in any environment is a challenge, but connecting when all are fearful requires real skill. Private banking is about to get even more competitive as clients reassess their advisor line-ups. They are consolidating advisors, renegotiating fees, restructuring and rationalizing their own offices and staff. And they are unhappy in the process. Are you positioned to hold onto your existing clients and win new clients from your competitors?

Think of how competition works: You need to offer a product or service that is superior to your competitor's, and you need to be more adept at selling this product/service to lure business away from your competition. In a word, you need to be “better.”

Just like the seasoned athlete who trains tirelessly for the next competition, private bankers need to train for this new environment. You've had the wind at your back for more than 25 years in this industry. Now that wind is blowing in your face at gale force.

No money for training, you say? It's time to think outside of the box. Among the things we know is that group training of sales and client relations people at this audience's level of experience is money wasted. Even if you did benefit in some way from earlier training, you have no doubt lost what you learned, as it was not reinforced over time.

I'm talking here about self-development on a very personal level. You can start this on your own and bring your organization along with you.

Authentic Self

First you must learn to present your authentic self. Many people are confused by the concept of authenticity and interpret it to mean “I am who I am, and I gotta be me. Period.”

But “authenticity” is the quality of being trustworthy or genuine. It's not what you think about yourself. It is a quality that others must attribute to you.

I am not suggesting that you let it all hang out no matter who's present and hope that they can see how genuine you are because you're exposing yourself so completely. Actually, you need to manage the expression of your authentic self based upon each given situation.

What does that mean? Most people in sales and client management roles understand this intuitively. You disclose parts of yourself and your background that will build rapport with your clients.

The problem these days is that many of you are inadvertently disclosing panic. Private bankers are coming across these days as “deer in the headlights,” which obviously is not good for business development efforts.

What is not working now is the management of your own anxiety; many of you are no longer comfortable in your own skin. You know this, and you are trying to conceal your fear from your clients. The problem is that we cannot be perceived as authentic if we're expending enormous amounts of energy trying to hide something. You are understandably worried about your job, the fate of your organization, your personal financial situation, etc., and that worry is being communicated to your client.

What to do? While there is no quick fix here, there are some things you can do. Figure out what is driving your fear. Name it, preferably out loud, and then use it. Instead of talking nonsense to clients about how all is well, use selective self-disclosure to build rapport and connect with them. Talk about the mistakes you and your organization have made and how you have learned from those mistakes. Self-disclosure will help you find common ground and get the client to relate to you. It will help you become more real to them. Your clients know banks made mistakes. That's not news. Acknowledge it so that we can all move on.

Authentic Listening

In addition to appropriate self-disclosure, you also need to practice authentic listening.

Another family recently met with several private banks and investment management organizations and reported coming away unsure whether the bankers had listened to them. The feedback I got was, “They seemed to be listening, but it felt like there was some other agenda. Then, when we got the proposal, it was clear that the bankers had not listened at all.” In this situation, they appeared to have preconceived notions of what they wanted to do, even though they were nodding, mirroring, and following all those Listening Skills 101 training techniques.

It seems obvious but bears repeating and is profoundly difficult to incorporate into daily life: Everyone craves respect, to be heard and understood. In this or any environment, the value of good listening skills cannot be overestimated. In the asset management business, clients have an even greater need to be heard because the stakes are so high: They are looking for experts to provide advice and counsel that's tailored to their needs and will impact their families' financial well-being.

Bankers need to think less about “active listening,” nodding, taking notes, making eye contact, all the tricks of the trade taught and emphasized. That's all fine, but the greater emphasis should be on what I call “authentic listening.” Authentic listening is “to hear in order to understand the other person's point of view.” What does that look and feel like? Let the client talk without interrupting. Ask questions only to clarify what the client is saying. Be comfortable with pauses and silences in the conversation to give the client time to expand. Try to feel the other person's emotional state.

This type of listening is often difficult for people in the investment business. Your brains work faster and you make connections more quickly than the average human being. You want to jump to the punch line. The result is you are not really listening, but only waiting to make a point, give advice, ask a question or put the other person into action. Also, the more seasoned you are, the more difficult authentic listening can be. You think you know what the client is going to say, because you've heard it all before. And the likelihood is that you have heard this client's story before. The problem is that your knowing the answer is not what matters. What matters is that your clients feel heard and understood.

Listening with an agenda is not authentic listening. And when it's not authentic, clients can tell. It's a lot like having a phone conversation with someone who is looking at the computer screen at the same time. You can literally feel the person's attention shift. And if a client feels that you are not listening to them, you will never earn their trust. (See “The Art of Listening,” p. 32.)

Reality Check

Before the market crash, clients were interested in meeting with private banks and other providers to explore opportunities and get good ideas. Their posture was neutral about whether to hire you. Your job was to move their pendulum to positive; that is, to hiring you.

Now, the pendulum is stuck in the negative. If clients are taking new business meetings at all, they're walking in the door thinking, “I'm not going to do anything.”

It's an understandable stance. Times are scary and doing nothing seems the least risky proposition.

You need to move the pendulum from full negative to neutral before you can have any hope of success.

How to do this? Revamp your presentation protocol using a client-driven model.

Start with the client. Tackle the planning of a meeting with the potential client from the client's perspective. What does she want? What does he need? What have these family members asked for? You cannot go wrong if you are constantly taking your cues from the client's point of view.

Lose the boilerplate. Instead, really contemplate your organization's message: What are the three most important strengths of your organization now? What are its three greatest challenges? What makes your organization different from your competition? Why? Focus on fleshing out these ideas to build the foundation of your presentation.

Get the data. Who really needs to be at the meeting? And I mean really. The fewer people there are in the room, the easier it is to connect personally. You will need to do your due diligence to understand what the client is looking for in order to coordinate the resources that must be present. Ask. Investigate. If there is an advisor or intermediary involved, probe them. Help them understand that you need as much information as possible to make the best use of their time. If they have provided a request for information (RFI), obviously you can organize your presentation around that. But read that RFI carefully; read between the lines, ask questions about it and talk to whomever you can about why they are asking for what they are asking for. If they haven't provided an RFI, you can still call their advisor and other point person in advance of the meeting and get some detailed insights into what the family is seeking.

Of course, families don't always know what they are looking for, or they may have several agenda, depending on the family members and other advisors involved. Their objectives are not always clear. Help them. Talk to as many players as you can in advance. Putting in the time up front will make the meeting as productive as possible and set your organization up for success in the presentation.

Plan and rehearse. To the extent possible, gather the bank's players in advance to discuss the client situation. Plan who will take what role in the meeting and let that drive how questions are made and taken. Rehearse any specific parts of the presentation that are more formal. Have written materials ready. Think about demonstrating your expertise versus telling your client about it. For example, if a key differentiating factor is your team, show that you are a team by the way you interact with each other. Anticipate the questions you will get and decide which team member will handle each type of question and how it will be addressed.

Avoid negative first impressions. At the outset of the meeting, introduce everyone in the room and give a little perspective on how they all fit together — and why you had them join the meeting.

Choose a leader for the presentation. The most senior representative of your organization is not necessarily the leader of this meeting. This is a particularly important point for hierarchical organizations to understand, digest and honor. The person running the meeting ideally is the best facilitator, be it the marketing person or whomever has had contact with the family or advisor in planning the meeting. Think more about who'll do a good job creating the best experience for the client and not at all about your organization's hierarchy.

Answer the question. We all have been through the training that says “answer the question you wanted asked.” Forget it. Be directly responsive. Then, if you have an opportunity to provide more information, frame that information in a way that supports your key messages. The key to effective Q&A is rehearsal. Rehearse your responses to difficult questions and make sure you are comfortable with them in advance. This can be an arduous process, particularly if difficult performance or other organizational issues need to be addressed. You will want to have answers that are authentic and straightforward. Work through these in advance and not in front of the client.

Written Materials Matter

Do you really have so many wealthy family client opportunities that you don't have time to actually think through and tailor a presentation to their needs?

Take a hard look at your presentation materials. Do they really say something interesting? Do they deliver your key messages? Are they written with the client in mind? Is the language personal, authentic, clear, concise and compelling?

You may have long experience with private wealth, but every client situation is different and personal. Have you tailored your presentation to this situation? Have you made a real effort, not just slapped the family's name on the cover?

Organize your written materials around the client's requests — and not around your organizational protocol. There are good reasons for this: Your client will feel respected and heard; your organization will be perceived as client driven and responsive.

Think about how you present the history of your firm. What is most important for the client to know? What might they truly care about? Strike a balance between too much detail and not enough.

Give the family a feel for what it will be like to be your client. Demonstrate your reporting capabilities with actual examples (confidentiality preserved, of course). Show examples of agenda from actual client update reports and any other relevant information.

Don't tell, show.

Who Won?

Yes, it is tough out there. A recent report issued by Barclays Wealth suggests that investors remain extremely cautious. The report found that while 90 percent of the 2,100 high-net-worth investors surveyed see opportunity in the markets, most are unwilling to take any action. The report concluded, “This widespread sense of caution and risk aversion highlights the extent to which wealthy investors have been chastened by the events of recent months and suggests that it may be some time before confidence returns to the market.”1

Sure, sales activity is down, but wealth is still out there, and investors are searching for answers. With all that has happened in the markets in the past few years, money is and will be even more in motion as investors regroup and realize that they need to make changes in their portfolios. Money in motion creates opportunity.

The family worth billions? They hired the private bank at which the manager was most forthcoming and specific about the bank's performance record and the client service model was most transparent. The bank did not have the best performance record of those interviewed. But the family's advisor felt the best presenter and one of two firms who won the business was well-organized, covered all questions and was very “genuine about their mistakes.” This organization demonstrated its ability to listen to the client and deliver on the family's requirements.

Take heed — and your organization can win too.


  1. “Barclays Wealth in the Americas,“ www.barclayswealth.com/files/news_15-June.htm.

Jane N. Abitanta is the founder and principal of Perceval Associates, Inc., in New York

The Art of Listening

Connect with clients and serve them better by embracing their message

Level of Listening Presenter's Stance Client's Experience Passive “I hear” Maybe you get the words, Active “I understand” You may get the idea, but I'm not sure you're getting the idea Authentic “I empathize” You get it! but I wonder if you know why it's important to me
— Jane N. Abitanta

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