I’ve just spent about half an hour watching a client testimonial video our friends at St James’s Place just posted on their LinkedIn account.
I know, sometimes I really do have the best job in the world.
It is a fascinating case study on the advice giant’s marketing appeal. Love them or hate them, the attention to detail in the SJP brand is a model that any advice firm would be wise to follow.
Unfortunately, it also reveals a whole host of home truths about where the perception of not just SJP but the advice profession as a whole falls down in the eyes of the public.
Let’s start with the positives.
The client testimonials are all, bar none, shot in what appears to be clients’ own homes or a neutral setting, rather than just a blank wall or green screen. They don’t try and do anything fancy. There’s no music, action, movement, or secondary participants to distract you from exactly what it is these clients are saying.
It’s just a single talking head of a client, who clearly isn’t reading off a script, and is able to speak articulately and passionate about their SJP experience.
Each individual client has their first name, and the fact they are an SJP client, appear at the bottom of the screen when they begin talking, complete with SJP logo. The whole label is set in SJP’s colours.
The clients occasionally throw in the SJP name during their testimonials, just to make sure you remember who all of these good things are about and brand awareness is maximised.
The clients don’t confuse you with jargon. They don’t focus on the ins and outs of the service. In fact, there is little to no detail whatsoever about what the advice process actually involves, what the proposition SJP offers actually is, or even an easily-identifiable unique selling point.
What the clients do tell you is what it feels like to be a client of SJP and the emotional value they get from their adviser. They do it for 4 minutes and 8 seconds, bookended by a screen with the SJP’s logo. That’s just long enough to ram the message home, but just short enough not to become tedious or repetitive. Nine talking heads offers enough variety while giving each one sufficient breathing space to make their point.
There are even calls to action; a client notes how glad he is that he referred a handful of his colleagues to SJP after his experience.
The messages they deliver are exactly what a modern advice profession wants to be known for. There isn’t much emphasis on investment performance. The advisers are pitched as doing what is best for the client, not themselves. Clients describe their SJP partners as “trustworthy” and “approachable”, offering them “security” so I can “get on with other things and run the rest of my life” in the way I always dreamed I could.
“They’ve saved me a lot of sleepless nights” says a client called Jane. “I don’t know where I’d be now without that advice. That is scary to think about the things that could have gone wrong or the decisions I could have made that were not good or wise decisions.”
A lasting impression of advice
So far, so spot on. But watch the video again. None of the clients look below the age of 45 or so. All of the men testifying, save for one, are wearing ties and/or suits. There are even a couple of pocket squares.
That’s not exactly a great image for a profession frequently criticised for preaching the virtues of saving early, but not reaching out to younger clients, or of only focussing on wealthy older ones.
There’s also several references to protecting money from the taxman, which is all well and good. But the advice profession needs to be crystal clear that its primary purpose is financial life planning, and not tax minimisation, when the general public has rightly jumped on stories around egregious personal and corporate tax-evasion in recent years, and can’t be expected to know which kind of “adviser” is which without any knowledge of the profession yet.
SJP client Maggie was very happy her adviser was “not trying to sell me something”. But thanks to insightful reporting from The Sunday Times, we know that SJP has in fact operated a “Nectar points” style system where advisers are rewarded on elements including assets and revenue generation.
But the biggest issue is one around costs. The client testimonials seem to go beyond the perfectly legitimate argument that cost must always be seen in terms of value, to one that verges on conceding that any and all charges are fair game, or that they are completely irrelevant – when in fact they are necessarily relevant to long-term returns.
One client testimonial seems to hit the nail on the head that advice is reassuringly expensive, and that’s fine. The client also appears to be aware that SJP can be a bit pricey, which is even better as an indicator that transparency and disclosure is working properly:
“While I appreciate that St James’ Place products are not the cheapest on the market, I didn’t go to them because I wanted the cheapest product. I went to them because I wanted the best service I could get. For as long as I receive the service and SJP performance then the payment is a secondary consideration.”
But another SJP client seems to be in a position where she is so unengaged that the firm could charge whatever it likes:
“The advice I have received is priceless. Cost doesn’t come into it because I never even think about the cost…. Whatever it costs it is worth it for the peace of mind.”
Maybe that is just hyperbole, but we can all learn a lesson from SJP’s clients when it comes to the PR battle to get the as-yet-advised seeking a financial planner of their own.