Hiding in plain sight: Is your office space an untapped asset?
See how these advisors use their physical environment as a tool of differentiation.
A lot goes into how we make buying decisions. Especially with high-impact life choices, our final decision is likely influenced by a host of factors, including Internet research, online peer reviews, word of mouth, and the overall impression we get from a brand.
The same holds true for investors considering a financial advisor.
Make no mistake: Your brand identity matters. It tells current and prospective clients who you are, what you do, whom you serve, and why you are better at it than your competitors are. But, as you strive to differentiate your firm through your website, social media, marketing, and networking events, you may be overlooking one of the best opportunities to distinguish your firm and to attract and serve more high-net-worth investors—your physical office space.
Put simply, for all of the factors that go into the decision to buy a product or service, there's still no substitute for the person-to-person, in-office experience.
Your firm's physical presence is your brand identity manifest. It's where your identity and values come alive and where your target audience sees themselves—and their interests—reflected.
By the time a prospect visits your office, it's probably the last of several steps they've taken to learn who you are. You have a critical opportunity to convince your prospect that you're the right fit for them. Creating a comfortable environment for clients can exert as much influence over how they perceive your firm as the strength of your service offering can. You might be doing everything else right as a business, only to potentially lose an opportunity because your firm's physical presence doesn't fit with the image they have begun to formulate. Conversely, creating a strong brand identity that is reflected in your office environment can help you differentiate your firm and grow your business.
It starts with three basic steps:
- Understand who you are as a firm.
- Recognize the type of clients you want to attract.
- Create a space that aligns your firm and client values and delivers on your unique offering.
Step 1: Understand your firm's identity
With firm differentiation a key driver of growth, many advisors are paying closer attention to how their physical office environments can reflect their brand while delivering a unique and compelling client experience. Heather Fortner, chief operating officer at Atlanta-based SignatureFD, explains that the approach her practice took toward modifying its physical presence started with understanding the firm’s identity and how to express that to investors.
"We believe that creating inviting spaces where people feel they belong is how we're going to get from 850 families today to serving 10,000 families."
—Heather Fortner, COO, SignatureFD
"Our mission statement is to touch the lives of 10,000 families," Fortner says. "Our leadership team is passionate about that idea and about how we can do good things by bringing like-minded people together. We believe we can positively impact our clients—and all the people they touch as well—by creating inviting spaces where people feel they belong."
Reflecting the firm's ethos, SignatureFD redesigned its offices to create a warm, inclusive space where people could connect as part of a community.
"When you first visit our office, it looks like a café, and it feels like home," Fortner says. "There's a couch, a fireplace, and refrigerators stocked with food and drinks. It's a space where dining tables are set up for people to join in and share meals. We've created a completely open area—there are no offices, only communal meeting spaces."
Fortner believes this approach meets her clients' inherent desire to feel involved in the financial decision-making process and be part of a larger, more purposeful team. Moreover, she says, SignatureFD's willingness to use its communal space for local events has helped enhance the firm’s exposure and expand its referral opportunities.
"Our whole philosophy is that community is where business happens," she says. "Everyone belongs to some sort of community somewhere. And if they don't, they’ll seek out that experience, because having a sense of belonging is a basic human need."
Findings from the 2015 Charles Schwab Firm of the Future Study support Fortner's approach to driving business success through a collaborative environment. According to the study, future-focused advisors believe that a client-centric culture can influence firm and asset growth and that tomorrow’s most successful practices will have more collaborative, team-oriented cultures.1
"We intentionally avoid CNN or CNBC on the TV screens. Instead we have the Travel Channel or the Food Network on because we want clients to understand that they should enjoy the things in life that they want to enjoy, and we'll worry about those things that we need to worry about."
—Kristine Porcaro, COO and cofounder, Lexington Wealth Management
"Upgrading our office environment is helping us develop that sense of community," Fortner says. "We believe that creating inviting spaces where people feel they belong is how we’re going to get from 850 families today to serving 10,000 families."
Step 2: Recognize the type of clients you want to attract
Understanding how clients perceive your firm is one thing, but taking the time to appreciate what they want out of working with you is another.
Kristine Porcaro, chief operating officer and cofounder of Lexington Wealth Management in Lexington, Massachusetts, set her firm apart by creating an office environment that helps alleviate client stress and encourages investors to focus on the positives around them. Kristine has built her firm around the concept of "connecting the head and the heart of wealth management," an idea meant to serve each client's personal—and financial—well-being.
When the firm recently rebuilt its facility, Porcaro wanted to create a space that reflected stability and comfort for investors going through life transitions. "At Lexington, we often find that clients are going through different phases of life and financial well-being, whether it's a divorce, a major inheritance, the sale of a business, or the death of a spouse," she says. "We found that this can be a very emotional time for clients."
Identifying the niche audience segment that the firm was best positioned to serve—in this case, female investors experiencing transition—inspired Porcaro's team to incorporate personal touches within the office space to highlight client passions and celebrate what makes them happy.
"We purposely built our new office space with a very open, airy, bright layout," she says. "We have exposed brick on the wall, very high ceilings, and not many private offices. When clients walk in, they say they feel very comfortable. We intentionally avoid CNN or CNBC on the TV screens. Instead we have the Travel Channel or the Food Network on because we want clients to understand that they should enjoy the things in life that they want to enjoy, and we’ll worry about those things that we need to worry about."
Jump-start your aesthetic appeal
Changing your firm's look and feel doesn’t have to be a drain on your time—or finances. Review these tips from office design expert Tamara Romeo.
- Maximize ambiance. Consider upgrading office lighting or investing in better window blinds to showcase your view. Warm lighting and an open, airy atmosphere can transform your entire space.
- Maintain functionality. Strike a balance between furniture and amenities to serve both your business needs and your clients' comfort.
- Update your décor. Consider integrating personal touches that will resonate with your clients' interests and reflect your own identity.
- Keep meeting spaces flexible. Accommodate different situations and needs by offering a blend of casual, communal spaces and traditional, private meeting rooms.
- Look past the physical design. Assess your firm's presence by the demeanor of your team, the phone greeting, reception space, and reading materials for continuity of brand experience.
Tamara Romeo brings 15 years of branding expertise, coupled with deep experience designing office spaces for large and small firms alike. She is a contributing writer for the Huffington Post, and has been published in Entrepreneur magazine, the American Express OPEN Forum, and the San Diego Business Journal.
Step 3: Create a space that aligns your firm and client values and that delivers on your unique offering
Once you have a strong sense of how you want your brand identity to resonate with your ideal client base, convey your firm's identity consistently.
The leaders at Mairs & Power, based in St. Paul, Minnesota, knew they needed to update their office space but wanted to retain the 85-year-old money management firm’s legacy qualities of modesty, stability, and personal service throughout.
"It's always been very important to us that our clients feel welcomed and comfortable," says Andrea Stimmel, treasurer, director of operations, and chief compliance officer of the firm. "And yet, up until we remodeled our space, our office environment was more an afterthought than a key part of the client experience."
The result is an interior design that complements the historic qualities and classical architecture of the building, while reflecting the firm’s historic roots and its clients' appreciation for tradition.
With a client base of 550 high-net-worth investors mostly over the age of 65, the firm takes a high-touch approach to client service. "It was really important to us to have our conference rooms close to the reception area, so our clients don’t have far to walk within the building," Stimmel says.
"Also, from a confidentiality perspective, a lot of our clients want to have an experience that's very protected, private, and where they can move straight into a meeting with their advisor, so creating immediate access from our reception to our conference rooms just makes sense."
The Mairs & Power team kicked off the remodel project with internal planning sessions to capture the staff's needs for the space and brought in employees from multiple departments to provide a comprehensive range of perspectives.
In addition, the firm looked to ensure that its new physical presence aligned with how the brand was represented in other forms.
"Our architect and designer worked really closely with us," says Collyn Iblings, assistant vice president at Mairs & Power. "They visited our website, which was actually further along in the brand evolution process, and used our site to get a sense for the look and feel we wanted to project within our office space. That helped in creating a consistent tone between our online presence and our in-office atmosphere."
The result is an interior design that complements the historic qualities and classical architecture of the building, while reflecting the firm's historic roots and its clients’ appreciation for tradition. Expansive views of the St. Paul riverfront showcase the city's historic identity and align with images on the firm’s website to create a cohesive brand experience across multiple touchpoints.
Although the firm currently serves an older client base, Mairs & Power has an eye toward the future, supporting a variety of clients for years to come.
“Our old space didn't have a lot of technology capabilities," Iblings acknowledges. "So we built out the new space to support video conferencing in every conference room and to support a fully AV-enabled experience."
That hard work—and attention to detail—has already paid dividends.
"After the remodel, we hosted a party for our clients, and it was wonderfully received," Stimmel says. "We opened up all the offices and passed around hors d’oeuvres, and our clients just loved it. We received such excellent feedback about the whole experience."
As a result, what began as a project in design aesthetics ultimately resulted in the kind of setting that could help Mairs & Power strengthen client relationships and create opportunities to cultivate referrals.
Close the gap between who you are and how you're perceived
There's no one-size-fits-all approach to creating a space that resonates with your target audience. "Creating an environment that speaks to a wide range of target clientele is a challenge that all businesses face," says Tamara Romeo, an office design expert and CEO of San Diego Office Design. "It's impossible to appeal to all of the demographics and aesthetic tastes of each and every client, and if you tried to do so, your space would end up looking like a hodgepodge of incongruous items just thrown together."
But it is imperative that you understand your firm's values and identity, the audience you're trying to reach, and whether your office environment successfully reflects both. From your online presence to your interior decor and the way your staff answers the phones, you get to decide how to connect all the dots across the client experience so that every interaction carries the relationship forward. And you can take steps today to help prospects understand who you are and what your firm has to offer, from the moment they cross the threshold.
Get a second opinion. Or even a third. Consider asking individuals outside of your firm to visit your office and give their candid feedback on your environment. Third-party objectivity can help give you fresh perspective on how your firm’s identity is perceived. What impression does your office make? Is it consistent with other client touchpoints (e.g., website, social media, and phone presence)?
Celebrate the people you serve. Think about the values that matter to your current client base and to the audience profile you want to attract. How can you support their passions and elevate the things that are most important to them?
For instance, if living a healthy lifestyle is important to a large segment of your clients, consider including healthier snack options or fitness-oriented reading material around the office space. If a number of your clients are interested in art, or create their own, consider integrating a gallery space within the office and offering to display their work. Find ways to help your clients see themselves and their interests reflected in the environment you create.
Keep pace with your evolving audience. An appealing office can help you build inroads with prospects—and reassure them that your business style or approach to things like technology, service, or efficiency is a good fit with their expectations. For example, firms catering to a young investor base might consider replacing traditional mahogany-and-leather interiors with sleek, high-tech amenities or a casual, fun-meets-functional layout that’s also conducive to hosting social events.
Be flexible and versatile. Consider the functionality of your physical office and whether you have opportunities to use different spaces to meet a client’s unique needs. Depending on your target demographic, investors may prefer to meet in a traditional, closed conference space, while others may be more comfortable on couches in a quiet corner or around a café table for a more relaxed experience. Look for ways to create the optimal, “natural habitat” experience for your chosen segment.
Remember that small changes go a long way; you don't have to rush out and remodel the entire office overnight. It's the unique blend of expertise, personality, and the quality of care you provide—as well as your physical presence—that truly differentiates your firm and strengthens your brand.
We're hoping these ideas inspire you to reevaluate your office environment to get the most out of your office space. Your Schwab Relationship Manager can help you define your ideal client and strategic vision to help meet your goals.