"Youth is wasted on the young," wrote George Bernard Shaw, the noted Irish playwright and co-founder of the London School of Economics. It could be argued that youth is also wasted in the financial advisory industry.
When Christine Moriarty was in her early 20s, as part of her training program at a brokerage firm, she was asked to interview people about what it would be like for them to receive her financial advice. An older family friend candidly told her that she needed grey hairs before anyone would take her seriously. Moriarty took this feedback to heart and dropped out of the training program. She spent the next five years gaining more education and experience, including working in an accounting firm and at a mutual fund company. She entered the financial planning industry with some premature greying at age 30 and went on to create a successful business the next year.
"One of the major reasons there is a 90% failure rate in the brokerage meat grinder is because the majority of the new hires are doe-eyed recent college grads," says Nathan Hatton Walsh, managing principal at Occidental Asset Management. The phrase "doe-eyed" is more than just a metaphor. Research has shown that having baby-like facial features, including being wide-eyed, can be a big disadvantage in social interactions where confidence, competence, experience and strength are valued.
In addition to being naÃ¯ve about how the industry works, young advisors often have trouble closing the sale. There are a couple of reasons for this. From the client perspective, turning over one's entire life savings to a neophyte can seem like a terrible idea. Young advisors also frequently lack the confidence to ask for the deal. That's why, in the financial advisory world, youth can be a disadvantage.
Derek Tharp, a 24-year-old advisor with Mote Wealth Management in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, recalls a meeting last year with a 50-year-old male client in which his youth was a point of contention. When Tharp concluded his financial plan presentation, the client turned to the 60-year-old senior advisor in the room, tilted his head in Tharp's direction, and asked, "Does he know what the hell he is talking about?" His grey-haired companion acknowledged that yes, indeed, Tharp did know what he was talking about. The client responded, "Well, it sounded like he does, but it didn't seem right coming from him." Tharp realized that if one client was bold enough to challenge his competence to his face, many others are thinking about it.
That's why, when Tharp works with new clients, he often brings in an older advisor at the early stages of the relationship. His firm uses a team approach, and he finds fewer objections to his age when starting the relationship in this fashion. Over time, Tharp gradually transitions the relationship so that he is the primary contact for the client. He also tries to get in front of the youth issue by embracing it and touting his accomplishments, such as being quoted in The Wall Street Journal and the New York Times, which are even more impressive given his age.
Tharp also points out an advantage of having a younger advisor. "It can be tough for a client to start transitioning into retirement at the same time as his or her advisor, but this isn't a concern for my clients," Tharp says.
Clearly, wisdom, experience and a shock of grey hair come in handy when an advisor wants to exude a sense of confidence, trustworthiness and competence to a prospect. When potential clients are stressed or anxious, the age of an advisor becomes even more important. When there is a significant market downturn or adverse personal event, client openness to working with a younger-looking planner diminishes even further.
As a young advisor, you can't change your date of birth. But there are strategies you can employ to lessen the negative impact of your age on the client-advisor relationship and increase a client's perception of your competence and trustworthiness.
Burnish your education, credentials and accomplishments: While there is no substitute for experience, it doesn't hurt to have a few letters after your name. A master's degree or doctorate in financial planning, finance or business helps a younger advisor establish credibility. Professional designations are also a boon. Having a CFP designation hanging on the wall demonstrates a respectable level of knowledge and experience. While a good education is no substitute for professional experience, it will help. Having a well-designed one sheet outlining some of your accomplishments is also an excellent tool.
Call in the grey-haired advocates: There is no shame in bringing in a senior advisor to assure clients that their life savings isn't being put into the hands of a rogue intern cutting his or her teeth on the portfolio. This is a time-tested approach to easing a client's mind, and one that is employed frequently by financial advisory firms. When you meet with age-related objections, bring in the grizzled, grey-haired partner to help close the deal. The older advisor's confidence in you will eventually rub off on the client, and before long, the trepidation will diminish and trust in you will be firmly established.
Exude confidence: When I was 22 and a psychologist in training, I was interning at a treatment program. I lead a therapy group of 10 adults, the youngest of whom was twice my age. I was terrified. Fear stinks, and my patients could smell it. The issue of my youthful inexperience came up frequently. However, after a year in the role and success with dozens of patients, I felt more confident and comfortable. I didn't age much, but the issue of my youthful appearance was raised less frequently by patients. Why did this happen?
Fear and anxiety manifest themselves in several unconscious ways. When you're fearful, your facial muscles change to mimic those of a helpless baby, which elicits care-giving responses from others. This is an adaptive evolutionary response when you need help. It does not, however, elicit a sense of competence, trust and confidence from a prospective client. If you are overly anxious, prospects will pity you, but they will not hand over their money. This effect is exacerbated tenfold in a younger advisor.
Second, when you are anxious, your voice frequency rises. Voice frequency is an unconsciously perceived cue of relative social dominance. As you become more anxious, the muscles in your throat constrict and increase your voice frequency, which decreases your client's confidence. Research shows that in political debates with same-sex candidates, for example, the candidate with the higher voice gets fewer votes. The best way to reduce anxiety is to prepare, practice, perform and repeat.
Be passionate: Passion and ingenuity are corollaries of youth. Albert Einstein did the bulk of his creative work in his 30s, before the grey hair set in. Youth may make some aspects of financial advising more challenging, but it can also be an asset. Strong enthusiasm and high emotional expressivity is attractive to others. Research shows that emotional expressivity acts as a marker of trustworthiness and cooperative behavior, which increases interpersonal attractiveness.
What excites you about being a financial advisor? How do you envision your career progressing? How can you make your clients' lives better? Engage your passion when you are working with prospects and they will naturally want to continue the discussion.
Look smart: Research shows that younger-looking faces are associated with perceptions of immaturity, innocence and a lack of competence. But you don't need your plastic surgeon to install crow's feet around your eyes to change a client's perception of you and your baby-face. Certainly, being comfortable in professional dress is a must. However, researchers from the University of Vienna recently confirmed the stereotype that wearing glasses increases one's perceived intelligence and trustworthiness.
It can be challenging for young men and women to establish their footing in the financial advisory business. With the right attitude, mentoring and strategies, youth need not be a barrier. Regardless of a client's initial objections to working with a younger advisor, advisors of any age can win clients over with great service. If clients know you care, if they feel special, if you make yourself available and if you are confident but not cocky, they won't care so much about your age.
Brad Klontz, Psy.D., CFP, is a financial psychologist, associate professor in personal financial planning
at Kansas State University and co-author of four books on the psychology of money.