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Lessons from my experience with testimonials

By Susan Weiner

Testimonials are one of the topics addressed in this month’s issue of the Advisor, which focuses on regulatory and legislative issues. Advisors finally have the freedom to use testimonials—within the guidelines provided by the SEC, of course. Consult compliance consultant Scott Snipkie’s “A compliance professional’s take on the new marketing rule” to learn about those guidelines. Meanwhile, I have some thoughts about how to solicit testimonials.

Ask someone else to collect testimonials

When I was growing my financial writing business, I hired a marketing consultant to develop a tagline for me. She interviewed my clients to see what they liked about working with me, so she could highlight those characteristics in my tagline.

The best result of my consultant’s work wasn’t a tagline, but testimonials that highlighted people’s positive results and ease of working with me. I think it was probably easier for my clients to discuss me with a third party, so you might consider hiring someone (or asking another member of your firm) to collect your initial testimonials. Or, you could add a question that might elicit a testimonial if you’re having your clients surveyed.

Work around roadblocks

In requesting testimonials, I ran into a problem that might not surprise you. My financial services clients loved my work, but some of them could not get permission from compliance for me to use their words in my marketing. Financial services firms are leery of seeming to endorse any outsider.

You might run into a similar problem if you have corporate clients, if your individual clients work for financial services firms, or if they like to keep their personal business private. One workaround might be to use the client’s quote anonymously or to just identify the client by their circumstances—for example, “recently retired corporate executive.” Testimonials lose some oomph when they’re anonymous, but case studies are anonymous and still carry clout. The specificity of details in case studies—and, to a lesser extent, in a great testimonial—could make a difference.

I asked Snipkie if an anonymous testimonial could pass muster with compliance, if accompanied by the appropriate disclosures. He kindly answered that, in his opinion, a testimonial from “recently retired corporate executive” (RRCE) could work along with a disclosure that “RRCE is a client who received no compensation for this testimonial. RRCE’s relationship with the firm may … [mention whatever material conflicts there may be].” Snipkie added, “After that, you’ve just got to be able to prove to any examiner that RRCE actually said that. Otherwise, you’ve run afoul of one of the general principles of the SEC’s marketing rule.”

Make it easy

After that initial round of testimonials, I’ve gathered testimonials as I’ve completed projects. If the client has given me a compliment, I might suggest that as the core of their testimonial. I might even offer to draft a testimonial while giving them complete editorial control over the final result, of course. However, if you’re a risk-averse advisor, you’d probably want to disclose your role in drafting it as a potential conflict of interest, as Snipkie suggested to me. That means it’s not a good use of your time, in my opinion.

If testimonials aren’t for you

If you aren’t comfortable soliciting or using testimonials, consider using an allied marketing technique: the case study. Case studies help prospects to understand how you can meet their needs, as discussed by consultant Jonny Swift in “How ideal client profiles and case studies improve advisor marketing,” and they have well-defined compliance rules, as discussed by Snipkie in “Keeping case studies compliant,” both in the July Advisor. Creating case studies might be a good way to start getting your clients more involved in communicating the value that you provide.