Client-Centric vs. Investment-Centric Marketing at Asset Management Firms

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By Emilie Totten

Investment Marketing - Is your approach investment or client-centric?

This post is an excerpt from our 2017 Roundtable Report: Trends in Asset Management Sales & Marketing. You can download the full report here.

At our private round table event this past May, roughly half the participants said their firms tend to be investment-centric, while the other half are focused on being more customer-centric. But the trend appears to be moving toward a more client-centric approach.

Firms that are investment-centric tend to let investment teams drive content. The messaging focuses on their investment strategies. One participant summarized this approach, “We’re definitely an investment-centric culture. It comes through in the way we talk about our strategies … which was always nitty gritty about the process, because the investment teams are driving that content.” Another participant pointed out the problems with that approach. She said, “We were very product-centric. It was all about the investment process. But people don’t care about that. Everybody’s got a core bond fund. Everybody’s got a large cap value fund. Everybody’s already got all this stuff, so what makes you different?”

All of the participants are trying to get their organizations to move to a more customer-centric approach for both marketing and sales. They’re beginning to focus more on the “why” and less on the “what.”  They’re asking why a client would be interested in their products and services and focusing their messaging around the answers. One marketer said she’s constantly challenging her colleagues, asking, “What does that mean to the customer? How are they going to get interested? Why do they care about that?”

Some of the firms have made more progress in developing a customer-centric mindset than others. For example, one marketer says her group does a lot of business with unions. They try to think the way those customers would think and prioritize what’s important to this audience. They’re even extending that to thinking through the services they use, making sure they’re purchasing services from unionized companies. “Even when we are doing a conference or something, we have to make sure that the shipments are going through a union… like through UPS. We have to make sure everything is union-organized.”

Some of the firms are currently working with consultants and hiring new management team members to help them become more customer-centric. Others are trying reduce the involvement portfolio managers have in messaging. For example, a mid-tier bank marketer said, “We have shifted to removing the portfolio management teams from being so integral to the messaging. Because who really wants to go through a 90 page fixed income document? Nobody other than the portfolio manager can explain it. I’m getting them to understand that content [like that] means nothing to a non-fixed-income [expert].”

But the portfolio manager doesn’t necessarily need to be cut out of the process in order for a firm to become customer-centric. One marketer said their firm has been shifting from an investment-centric to client-centric approach over the past few years. They’ve realized that their best revenue opportunities come from existing clients. So they’re becoming more relationship-focused. This has changed their portfolio managers’ mindset. Now, the portfolio managers are “more excited to come into meetings than they used to be. They’re happy to meet and build those relationships with the clients,” she said.

But it’s not always a smooth road, and old habits die hard. Asset management marketers often don’t get direct access to customers. Instead, the feedback is filtered through distribution and sales teams. One marketer says she when these teams come to her for content, “my first question is always, why? Who is it for? How are they using it? What do they care about? What are their pain points?”.

She says often the sales team asks for one thing, when another approach would be more effective. “In reality we could be solving that problem in a better way by asking a few questions and learning more about what’s driving that customer.” She says this shift is proving difficult, because it’s hard to get the teams to think about problems differently.  She’s seeing better success when onboarding new distribution teams and new business leaders. “If I can get in there first, [and influence them] before they start down another path, we’re able to be more customer centric.”

Customer-Centric Sales and Support

Firms are struggling to keep the sales approach customer-centric because of the way their businesses are structured. Institutional customers often hear from multiple sales people from the same firm, and this can be confusing. Each sales person carries a bank business card, leaving the customer to figure out who to call for a particular question or request. One participant hopes her firm will eventually provide clients with a single point of contact, who then does the work internally to figure out who can answer the question or address the need. This is an important point and the next step to making the firms more customer-centric.

Who is the Customer?

To develop customer-centric marketing, a firm first has to answer a very critical question…Who really is the customer that Marketing should be targeting? The answer to this question will shape everything that comes out of marketing. But it’s not a simple answer. Each firm has multiple audiences they need to target, and they haven’t always gotten this right. One participant deadpanned, “In a regulated company, sometimes the customer’s believed to be FINRA.”

In some firms, marketers say Sales is their client. One marketer commented “In places where there’s a very strong CEO or a very strong management team, it feels like that’s who the customer is. Will this please him? Will it fly past him?” When a marketer has to navigate through this type of influencer, it’s much more difficult to focus on the customer.

Some firms say Marketing’s client is Sales. So the functions of the department revolve around meeting requests from Sales, often with little insight into what the customer really needs.

One firm got around that problem by recognizing, “Sales is not our customer, Sales is our partner.” This marketer said re-thinking the relationship has led to a huge shift in culture in their firm, “and it’s a positive culture, because they’re no longer telling us what to deliver, they’re partnering with us to have the conversations.” She said this has helped them make sure they know who they’re targeting, and can have conversations about collateral requests, discussing who it’s for, what questions it should answer, and why the client should care. But not every team has reached that point.

Institutional vs. Intermediary vs. Retail Clients

Even when the customer is well-defined, there are still thorny issues to confront because every firm has multiple channels. All of the marketers at the round table serve more than one customer base. They have institutional clients, investment advisors, consultants, intermediaries and a few end-client wealthy investors. Each of these audiences have different needs.

The different channels respond very differently to marketing outreach.

Institutional clients rarely respond to email. They’re listening to their consultants. So firms need to target the consultants. One marketer said her firm is looking deeper into this channel, trying to uncover how the buying process works with consultants, identify who the key influencers at consulting firms, get them into the CRM, and figure out how to reach tem.

In contrast, the firm’s investment advisors are more likely to engage, but they’re not always considered in the marketing strategy. One marketer commented, “this is kind of a cliché, but there really should be room at the table for the advisor.”

One of the marketers has been going through a global exercise with to evaluate marketing materials. She said the wealth management team is “all about the richness and the feel, not about the content, which shocks me.” These wealth managers are interested in the brand, the richness of the presentation, the packaging. In contrast, she says sales people on the institutional side, “don’t care what the branding looks like, as long as the content is very focused on what the client is requesting.”

One of the largest firms in the round table is struggling to translate a high-touch institutional heritage into a retail environment. They started asking themselves, “what are three reasons why financial advisors care to take a call from our firm?” This helped them boil down the value proposition and has guided their messaging, content and sales efforts. But they’re still figuring out how to scale the level of engagement. They can’t provide the same kind of high-touch attention to advisors that they’re used to giving wholesalers.

Geography and culture also need to be considered. Most of the marketers in our group support some level of cross-border marketing. Participants from the larger, global firms run into the most significant challenges. They’re dealing with differences in customer expectations, customs, and values; different regulations; and different expectations internally from the various country offices. This makes being customer-centric even more challenging.

2017 Trends in Investment Marketing and Sales Roundtable Report

Not everything we discussed could be covered in the report, so I will be blogging on the other topics we discussed. You can find these and other roundtable thought leadership resources at

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Emilie is Head of Marketing at Synthesis. She is passionate about buyer personas, the client experience, and making marketing work for the bottom line. Emilie graduated from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign with a Bachelor's degree in Advertising in 2004. She lives in the Chicago suburbs with her husband, son, daughter, and two crazy cats. She fanatically roots for the Chicago Bears, despite their terrible record. Go Bears!

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