Distinguish, Distinguish and then… Distinguish Some More

Distinguish, Distinguish and then...Distinguish Some More

Speech from IMI 33rd Annual Consultants Congress

March 30, 2016

By Jackie Charnley

As all of you know, in the institutional world, investors hate being sold. They want to buy. They want to buy smart. They want to understand exactly what they are getting. They want as much value for fees paid as possible.

Distinguishing yourself from your competitors is easy if you:

  • Invest in only three emerging markets in the world
  • Or you invest in actively managed ETFs of companies benefitting from disruptive innovation
  • Or you are a deep value manager with low correlations to indices, peers or other styles, and you invest with a ten-year investment horizon

We work with these three managers, and their distinctive approaches do help them to stand out from competitors. Their challenge is to find investors who want a one-of-a-kind smoked salmon dish served with pistachios, cranberries and citrus sauce.

In a world of prospects who do not want to be sold, and in a world where there are hundreds of strategies that seem the same, how do you stand out?

Authenticity, Brevity and Clarity. The ABCs of communicating with institutional investors.

Authenticity. Begin by understanding your strengths, both absolute and relative to the competition. Build on the deepest truths about the value you add. Is it how your team is organized to make decisions? How you research themes? How you research companies? Is it your universe? How you manage risks? Identify and convey those strengths.

What proof exhibits are available to support your messages? Look at performance attribution, risk metrics, competitor messaging. What do they tell you? More importantly, what benefits to clients result from your approach? By identifying the key messages on the value added by your firm, having strong proof exhibits and conveying benefits, you will be able to build a credible, authentic story that conveys your firm’s distinctions.

Brevity. Limit the number of messages you convey. Three on your firm. Three on your strategy. Be prepared to give an elevator pitch as easily as a one-hour formal presentation.

Questions and answers are equally as important as planned remarks. Prepare concise responses to most frequently asked questions, and to the toughest questions raised. The more the question evokes a defensive or emotional response, the more you need to work on the response. Never over-answer questions. Answer just enough to engage your audience members, so that they will want to learn more and will ask you more questions. A dialogue is always better than a monologue. Use “the power of three.”

Clarity. Say what you are – not what you are not or what your competitors do or don’t do. Show, not tell. The old adage, a picture is worth a thousand words, is as valid as ever. Think about how can you show (versus tell) what makes you distinctive. Institutional investors and consultants are analytical and skeptical. Videos or data over time are more informative than snapshots. Attribution, factor exposures, risk metrics, rolling periods for returns. Show what your approach will contribute to the buyer’s experience. Show what the investor can expect in different market environments. Show several buy/sell/trim decisions. Show the dynamics of how you make decisions. Be transparent and let them know you are transparent.

In terms of clarity and transparency, don’t leave it to the client or prospect to guess the benefits of your approach. In today’s world of diverse and ever-changing needs, the host of benefits an investment firm can offer has exploded beyond just returns. Are you offering better risk-adjusted returns, or high-alpha, high-volatility returns? Are you helping the client gain increased diversification or exposure to an inefficient, less covered universe? Are you matching liabilities or increasing DC participant readiness? Are you offering low correlation to benchmarks and peers? Does your firm’s intellectual capital help your clients in exponential ways? Is your approach cost-advantaged in any way? Drill down to find as many benefits to clients as possible. Convey those benefits.

Now, we’ve covered how you can distinguish yourself in terms of content. But are there other ways to make your firm stand out?

Absolutely!  Multiple ways.


One of the most effective ways to distinguish your firm is through preparation. Prepare from the first moment you are informed of an opportunity. First, ask the person who told you about the opportunity if they have time for a call to learn more about the prospect. If yes, schedule a call. That gives you time to do some independent research. If no, ask your questions right then. Key questions are:

  • What are the main reasons for the search and what are they looking to accomplish? If for replacement reasons, ask who was terminated and why.
  • Who are the participants and what are their roles?  How knowledgeable are they?
  • What are the key reasons you were included as a finalist?
  • On what do they want you to focus?
  • Are there any specific questions, objections or issues they want you to address?
  • Who are the existing managers, who are the competitors and how do you compare?
  • Will they share their Investment Policy Guidelines or any other materials with you?
  • Is there an opportunity for a breakfast, lunch or dinner?
  • Is there anything else you should know but haven’t asked?
  • What would they recommend so you can distinguish yourself?

Prepare a summary of your history with the prospect’s organization and the consultant (if there is one), and what you may have learned from any phone conversations. Research the prospect’s history, searching for press releases, articles, professional background, or speeches. Review the entity’s website. If it is a public plan, review available meeting minutes and the manager line-up. Research the competitors, seeking to understand their competitive advantages and disadvantages relative to your own. Include the names and professional credentials of all individuals to whom you will be presenting. Circulate the RFP response to everyone who will be attending so they can review in advance. Messaging and answers must be consistent with the RFP content. If there was a mistake in the RFP response, correct it before the presentation.

Customize the Presentation

If you know what is most important to the prospect and/or consultant, customize the presentation book to their needs and objectives. While you need a library of standard content, you should be able to customize the opening and the close, as well as reorder compliance-approved content. Create a list of issues, likely questions and tough questions that you may be asked, with concise, positive responses. Eliminate any unnecessary pages in your presentation. Reorder as needed.

Select Best Presenters

Actively decide who will be the optimal presenting team. Be wise, not political. Who are the best people to attend? Develop a meaningful role for every presenter. Provide the preparation documents and RFP response to everyone attending. Arrange a meeting to agree on participants, content, who will cover what, tough issues, time allocations, logistics, attire and rehearsal times. Decide who will manage the time.


Schedule your first rehearsal at least seven working days before the final. Practice prepared remarks, and responding to the likely questions and any tough questions you have been getting in the marketplace.

What are problem areas that typically arise?

  • Tentative language – “try, attempt, think”
  • Negative framing – say what you are versus what you are not
  • Empty language or filler words – “uh, um, if I may, may I share with you…”
  • Over-answers or, worse, no answers to questions
  • Overuse of “that’s a good question”
  • Run-on sentences –  “so, and, but”
  • Timing of the presentation – you must begin and end on time!
  • People who attend without a meaningful role
  • No use of the prospect’s, client’s or consultant’s names
  • People texting or reading emails during the presentation
  • Poor body language (posture, eye contact, tone of voice)
  • Attire (too casual, too formal, too much jewelry, cologne or a “look-at-me” watch or diamond)

Schedule another rehearsal immediately before the actual presentation.

Debrief and Improve
Select someone tough and experienced to role-play the prospect and/or consultant. Using a prepared form that systematically and objectively reviews content and delivery of each presenter, you practice giving the presentation. You debrief, noting aspects that can be improved. You develop a personalized, succinct opening and close, and practice giving them. You note other areas where you can customize the presentation to the prospect’s areas of interest. You time each segment.

Actively decide where the presentation can be shortened or pages reordered, where transitions can be improved, and who will need more work to deliver as strong a presentation as possible. What are each person’s priorities? If need be, switch presenters. Agree on how you will resume the presentation after responding to questions. Practice using the names of the individuals with whom you will be meeting, and the name of the plan or prospect entity. Commit to using the names.


Arrange to fly in the night before the presentation to have another rehearsal free of distractions from the office and to ensure you will be on time for the final. Ask if you can rehearse in the actual space, or at least visit it, if possible, in advance of the presentation. All agree on a time and place to meet. Go to the location well in advance. In case a meeting ends early, you may have more time with the audience. At minimum, walk in the room on time. If there are a manageable number of people, as you meet your audience members, you smile, shake their hands and use their names.

You are prepared. You connect. You will be distinctive.

Thank you.

Charnley & Røstvold, Inc., a preeminent marketing consulting firm to asset management firms ranging in size from start-up firms to some of the world’s largest investment firms with over $1 trillion under management. Charnley & Røstvold helps clients with competitive positioning, marketing strategies, key messages, presentation refinements, communications and sales training, consultant relations and client service programs.

Jackie Charnley, co-founder of Charnley & Røstvold, Inc., is a popular industry speaker and author. Jackie serves on the ICMA-RC Board, a not-for-profit company serving the financial needs of over one million public employees. She was also a founding board member of PAICR (Professional Association for Investment Communications Resources).


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