Business Development in a Virtual World with Sabrina Lowell [Ep72]

Welcome to December, the last month of 2020 and to episode 72 of The Innovating Advice Show.

I’m joined by Sabrina Lowell, Adviser & Managing Partner at Private Ocean in California. Sabrina has long been a force within the profession. She has been named an innovator and influencer set to change the industry, a woman to watch on multiple lists and is an active volunteer cultivating the next generation of talent.

In this episode, we’re talking through how Private Ocean has pivoted their business development and client engagement initiatives in this virtual world.

If you’ve been wondering how you can bring clients and prospects together for valuable virtual discussions, both large and small, this episode is for you.

And as this year winds down and we look to 2021, listen until the end for Sabrina’s free offer for five listeners to improve your mental fitness.


Guest Bio

Sabrina is a Certified Financial Planner™ (CFP®) professional and a Certified Professional Co-Active Coach® (CPCC).

Sabrina was named as a 2020 SF Business Times Women To Watch, and Ten to Watch in 2019 by as one of the innovators and influencers set to change the industry. In 2018 Sabrina was included in the Investment News 20 Women to Watch List identifying women who possess leadership skills and the ability to effect change in the industry.

Sabrina is an active volunteer cultivating the next generation of talent and development of women. Sabrina currently sits on the CFP Board Women’s Initiative (WIN) Council aimed at the development of initiatives to increase the number of women entering the financial planning profession and the number of women CFP® professionals. Sabrina serves as a mentor for the FPA and XYPN Residency Programs designed to engage, inspire, and empower new CFP® professionals through experiential learning to be confident in their ability to crate meaningful relationships with their clients.


00:50 - Introducing Sabrina Lowell

02:23 - About Private Ocean

03:32 - Working from home

05:46 - How has the lockdown accelerated the implementation of initiatives that Private Ocean had planned?

07:25 - From planning to action

09:17 - Embracing the more casual feel of working remotely: how have clients responded?

12:12 - The masks we wear in the profession

13:11 - Communicating with clients virtually and encouraging them to participate

15:00 - Their client’s profile

16:02 - Hosting curated dinner parties: women’s conversation circles and the optimal environment on Zoom

19:08 - Who can participate?

21:43 - Figure out who your target client is and put yourself in their shoes. What's the type of content they’d be interested in?

22:40 - Fighting the fear of missing out on other client's opportunities

24:20 - Private Ocean's growth in 2020 + the challenge of taking up new clients you've never met

26:40 - Figuring out what would be important about meeting in person

27:52 - Getting a referral from a client or another professional

29:05 - How are people finding you now vs before?

31:31 - Why posting content regularly is important

32:32 - Are you creating more content now?

34:16 - Adjusting the service model and being flexible

38:28 - Concerns about client confidentiality

41:55 - Improve your mental fitness


Kate: Hi, Sabrina,  welcome to the show.

Sabrina: Thanks for having me on today.

Kate: I am pumped about this conversation. This is something that a lot of people are struggling with, but before we dive into business development in this virtual world we're all living in, tell us a little bit about Private Ocean.

Sabrina: Well, we are  a full service wealth management firm on the West coast. Previously we would say that we had three offices and now we have about 50 offices, which has actually been really great. Just from a cultural standpoint. It's no longer kind of this office or that office. We're just all one big team. And we work with high net worth individuals and families, along the West coast.

Kate: And the West coast of the U.S. So I think people can tell by your accent being in - not that your accent is California, it could be from a lot of places in the US, but you are based in the beautiful state of California. So do you have employees just throughout California or throughout the US?

Sabrina: Our employees predominantly live in California   and Washington, although we have a couple of people in Colorado, and right now a few living in Florida, so we're all kind of spread out, but for the most part, our physical office spaces are in both the Bay area. And then in Seattle, Washington.

Kate: So how did everything go at Private Ocean when the world suddenly went into lockdown and everyone was working from home?

Sabrina: You know, I think it was, obviously a big mental shift. and I remember I had actually been on vacation. I flew into SFO the morning of March 16th, which was when San Francisco went into shelter in place. So I came back right into kind of the thick of things. And I think one thing that we did really well as a company was we had already had, being in the Bay area, disaster plans in place, so that if there was some sort of a natural disaster that everyone could work remotely. And so we were able to leverage off of that infrastructure to immediately pivot into people working from home and where there were gaps, just in terms of, if someone didn't have the right kind of technology setup or, video camera or microphone, or, you know, home phone, we spent the first couple of weeks really ferreting that out and making sure that all of the employees had  everything that they needed to be fully functional at home. So it was certainly fast and furious there in the beginning, but now it just kind of seems commonplace.

Kate: That's awesome. And yeah, it was certainly a reminder to so many people of the importance of those disaster recovery plans, whether it's a natural disaster, it's a power outage, internet outage. I mean, my goodness. Could you imagine if this happened before we had widespread internet available everywhere?

Sabrina: You know, it is hard to believe. And even in the current day and age, interestingly, because we do have a number of employees who are up in the Marin area and we've been having the rolling brownouts with some of the fires. and so that has been one that we have worked around where if an employee maybe loses internet connectivity, and typically those are sort of planned or you'll get a notification, but we do have the ability to have them go into a physical office where  internet is available. So even, even with the best laid plans, you still need a backup or a contingency plan.

Kate: Yup. Plan B plan C,  throw in a plan D for good measure. So how has the lockdown brought initiatives that Private Ocean had planned up a few years into the forefront this year?

Sabrina: Yeah, I mean, obviously I think, pivot is the key word for a lot of folks. Coming into 2020, one of our big initiatives really was around business development. And   we had talked about a number of different types of either events or client interactions that we were planning for the year and with the whole shelter in place we really had to rethink those.

Sabrina: I think right out of the gate, and here's what I will say, right out of the gate, what it meant was we didn't get all the thinking that we were going to do. we sort of just went into action. And so initially we were, yeah, I think initially we really focused on more what I would call sort of one way virtual content, i.e. maybe creating a webinar or creating some sort of short snippet or video that provided information and was outward bound to clients. And then once we got into that and really figured out, which were the pieces that were really landing with clients and being able to track that, you know, who opens, how long are they watching, what content was most popular. Then what we were able to do is to take some of that information and then began  creating different either large scale or smaller scale interactive virtual content that really, I think, deepen relationships with clients as we moved into summer months and now leading up to, year end.

Kate: So what would you say - I've got a couple of questions on that - in terms of the fact that you guys were able to move into action. That's pretty awesome. And that kind of gets into a lot of times, you'll hear people talk about goals and saying, Hey, you actually have to set a deadline. Cause some people procrastinate, some are going to do it earlier, but if you have a deadline, it's like, this has to be done, then guess what it tends to actually get done. So with this, it was like, Hey, we can think about it and we can plan. But now it was like, okay, we have to do it. Is that a cultural thing within Private Ocean  to have the ability to just move into that action phase?

Sabrina: I do think that, yeah, I,  that's a great question. I do think that there is  a cultural aspect there, but I think that the bigger driver in this particular case was necessity, right. Before it was, these would be nice to have, and maybe they'll get onto the calendar at some point, just as you were talking about sort of the, the idea of planning until maybe it's a perfect plan and then executing it and practicing and  what the current environment, or back in March, what it really necessitated was us taking action right away and realizing, gosh, it doesn't necessarily have to be exactly perfect.

Sabrina: This idea that we're now all  in our homes right, here I am, you're sitting in my living room. it kind of, I think lends itself to being able to just get something out there, you know, producing a piece of content and getting it out there with the idea that maybe it doesn't have to be exactly perfect and that knowing that clients or prospective clients or people within our network on the receiving end also maybe didn't have quite the same standard as they were consuming that information.

Sabrina: So I think that the environment as a whole made it easier to kind of  move a lot more quickly.

Kate: And you said earlier, you guys work with high net worth clients. And I'm always talking about being authentic and I just ran a 30 day video challenge to get people to do more video, but we still have so many expectations in this profession of presenting a perfect front and people thinking that it has to be a professional camera and professional lighting and all these things that go into it. So even what are we eight, nine months into the pandemic. A lot of people still haven't sort of accepted that more casual feel. And one of the reasons I've heard is, Hey, we work with high net worth clients. So how have your clients responded to having this imperfect content?

Sabrina: I think it does really matter who your client base is. and I'll speak for sort of my clients personally, because we are a larger RIA. So each of the advisors, while we have kind of a firm wide profile, each of the advisors specialize maybe in different niches or have slightly different client bases.

Sabrina: So a handful of years ago, we had done some work out of our San Francisco office and came up with this idea of a client avatar. So we call her Kate McKinsey and she's this 40 year old, 40 something, actively career engaged mom who has young kids and aging parents and is kind of managing it all. And so, as I thought about, or as we thought about  what are we going to be projecting during this time? And then thinking about what are the Kate McKinsey's, what is their day-to-day experience and how are they managing it all, knowing that this type of content that maybe is a little more casual, it still has a very professional feel, look and feel, but it is more casual. How will that land with that exact client audience that I'm sending it to? 

Sabrina: And so I think that there is a need that if, depending on what types of clients that you're interacting with, maybe that does look a little bit different and you're tailoring it a bit. but I love the idea that you were talking about just this notion that okay, you really do have to be authentic. And during this time I do find myself sharing probably a lot more about myself with clients and really letting them not just into my house, but sort of who I am at home. so you are kind of treading that line, but it's a lot easier if your professional and your personal self are pretty well aligned, it's less work. And I think it's been actually one of the assets that we've had during this time in relating to clients.

Kate: That's a really big thing you just said it in terms of having your personal life and your professional life well aligned. And again, that gets back to, it's almost these masks we wear in the profession, and I know I've done it. And I would imagine you have too being a woman in this still male dominated profession of feeling like you have to present yourself a certain way and it can be hard to be authentic and be yourself.

Sabrina: It, yeah, it, I think that that's right. And, and being able to settle into that and be comfortable with it, there is an ease about it. And figuring out when do you bring, I think it's like a communication strategy, right. So there are clients who want big picture, and then there are clients who want a lot of detail. So I think that you can be yourself and you don't always have to be on volume 10 all the time. It's figuring out based on who you're talking to, being authentic regardless, but are you able to volume, or you may be at a volume two or in volume 10. And, and that's the other piece that has been interesting during this time, which is really figuring out, how to effectively communicate with clients that's going to land in the virtual environment.

Kate: So what are some of those specific ways that you have done that? 

Sabrina: Well, I mean, there's the traditional meetings, right. So the, the, the show must go on. And so we did pivot to having all of our meetings virtually on zoom. one of the things that we maybe talk more about on the front end was we, as employees made the commitment to always having a camera on. and initially we saw that some clients had cameras, some didn't, but we really encourage them to make sure that they were coming to the meetings prepared to be on camera. So it's partially managing that expectation.

Sabrina: And what we found is that over time now, when we do get on those meetings, it does feel like, I mean, in the absence of being in person, it's the closest thing that we have to a face to face. And, and I do notice, like I was on a meeting probably last week with a client where their video camera wasn't working and realizing that  that's when you do feel a little deprived of that interaction because you are missing the facial cues. And, it really makes it feel like we are all kind of sitting in our own home, isolated alone.

Sabrina: And so establishing what the expectation is and helping clients be able to actively participate, I think has helped us during this time. And I think we're going to get into some of the, maybe like smaller scale events that we've been doing as well, that have helped facilitate, those interactions.

Kate: Yeah. And I definitely want to hear about those because I think those are great ideas for what a lot of other people are struggling with right now. One question first is what is the average age of your clients?

Sabrina:  Firm-wide we have clients that span all the way from new college grads all the way up to, I think we just had a client turn a hundred.

Kate: No way.

Sabrina: But in general, I think that a natural market for advisors is probably about 10 years, of a bell curve on either either side of their age. So the majority of my clients, I would say are probably in their early thirties to call it late, late forties to early fifties. And so, a lot of the clients that I'm working with really are these career engaged couples where you have oftentimes   the female is the primary breadwinner or earner.

Kate: That's awesome.

Sabrina: Yeah, it's been interesting during this time to even take, I think that niche one step further in that. So we have been doing these smaller scale events, in person we would periodically throughout the year kind of weave these in, maybe call it quarterly, or as topics came up, under an initiative for women's circles. And so we kind of rebranded that, took it online during this time and created this whole series around women's conversations circles, figured out what was the optimal environment on zoom, i.e. probably about nine-ish, nine to 12 participants. So you can all be on one screen and then figuring out ways to, I think really treat it almost like I think of it as like a curated dinner party.

Kate: Yeah.

Sabrina: So it is fine because I do have clients that are outside that exact bell curve. I have retirees, I have younger, children of clients. So, so my clients do span that whole range, but with these events figuring out okay, if the topic is, like one that we did early on was around controlling what you can control and going back to the Kate McKinsey's of the world. So these are women who are managing it all, and now they're at home. and then deciding, okay, nine to 12 participants who might those be within a client base that really, if I were having a dinner party and having them over to sit around my dining room table, who would I, who do I think would enjoy meeting each other and who do I think would get along well, and who would I sit next to the other person and how would I introduce them and then bringing them together in a facilitated, zoom conversation and then hosting a couple of these.

Sabrina: So we did  one that was more new grads. so 20 somethings, then we did one that really were  the Kate McKinsey's. And then also facilitated one that were more, sort of in that next career phase, maybe retired or figuring out what's next for them. And so having different groups so that when they got on to the call or the meeting, they kind of showed up and went, gosh, this is, these are my people. I get this. And as, as we started to get into is, as people wanted to share and participate only to the extent that they wanted to other folks on the line could really relate to them.

Sabrina: And then we've also done larger scale events where it's more okay, let's open that up to all of the female clients, because it's more of maybe here's the initial educational content. And then to the extent that people here and there want to weigh in, you know, that that's a different type of event.

Kate: I really liked the thoughtfulness around having nine people on there that way you make sure everyone can see each other on the same screen. That's one of those really nice touches. And for all of this, from a business development perspective, is this all just existing clients, or are you leveraging these curated dinner parties to also invite prospective clients?

Sabrina: Again I think it goes back to, topic and content. So some of them we've really focused on client only. And one of the really fun parts about that too, is because people are opting in. And I remember one of the early on ones that we did as I sent out the thank you email afterwards. And I, I always  use the BCC function and somebody responded and said, you know what, I'd love the contact information for other people. And they have kind of asked for, could we do a redux now that we're coming to year end And I'd love reconnect with those women that we, that we early on in shelter in place really felt like they had this deep conversation with.

Kate: That's awesome.

Sabrina: Yeah. Which is great. I recently did a larger scale event. We had about 50 women and this was sent out to  clients that I work with along with some of the other people in my network.

Sabrina: So also invited friends, who I think would be a great fit to get introduced to Private Ocean, just from a business development point, along with clients, and then also COIs that we work with. So bringing many different people into that particular conversation, and that was on, we titled it Ballots &  Bubbles.

Kate: Nice.

Sabrina: And here in the Bay area, a lot of people are very civically involved. And so had a lobbyist come in and give a non-partisan overview of the initiatives that were on the ballot and how women who want to get more engaged could be thinking about  some of those initiatives, what was behind them and also what the implications might be  on the other side of it. I also have clients in LA that some of whom have never been able to attend an in-person event. And so that was great to be able to have them on the line and participating. So that was kind of an unexpected  gift in that regard.

Kate: Well, and how nice is it that it's not just a meeting, talking about investments or what the stock market is doing or how to save for retirement. It was something else to bring people together and have a meaningful conversation at a really important time.

Sabrina: And I think that that is important. It's putting yourself, figuring out who is that target client that you're working with, what is the demographic, and then kind of putting yourself in their shoes. It's relatively easy for me because I kind of fit in that demographic and saying, gosh, what's the type of content that they're really going to be interested in.

Sabrina: I'm thinking outside the box, because I think it is important to have communication and events on the traditional topics, around financial planning and investments, but also what are all these other aspects of our client's lives, especially in that target demographic that they're really passionate about, where we, as their advisors can be a resource and a thought partner.

Kate: Which also really hammers home the importance of having that avatar and that ideal client. And that's something that a lot of people struggle with. I am regularly talking to people and it feels like 90% of the answers in terms of what is the biggest challenge that people have is attracting their ideal client. And then when I dig deeper realize they don't know who their ideal client is.

Sabrina: And I think that oftentimes there can initially be sort of a fear if I narrow my focus so so much, will I miss out on other client opportunities And I like to hail back to, I think it was a Sex In The City episode where Carrie was dating and she described it. It's kind of like when the taxi cab light is on, everybody knows that you're open for business and you start to put yourself out there and maybe you're looking for this particular  thing or person, but other people are really attracted to that because you're kind of out there and you're doing your thing and you're putting out into the universe something that's really attractive.

Sabrina: So even though the Kate McKinsey's of the world are  what I would describe as my ideal client persona and a lot of   the communication and content that I put out for my client is really geared towards that. If I have other clients that come to me that are attracted to some of the topics or blogs or videos that I'm putting out there, I'm not going to say no. if they're a good fit in with some of the other characteristics, I'm also going to work with them too, but it means that I take a lot of the guesswork out of sort of doing that scattershot approach where I go, I don't know what's going to resonate with people.

Kate: Yeah. So is Private Ocean growing at this time throughout 2020 in the pandemic?

Sabrina: For a lot of wealth managers, including us, it's been, honestly, it's been a great year. in some ways this has been a real opportunity for clients who, or for folks who maybe didn't have an advisor and realize with the current market environment, they needed an advisor, or for people who were with an advisor who maybe wasn't as proactive or communicative, or, didn't necessarily stick to their knitting in terms of the strategy throughout this year. And I think that was a really important piece, is having a strategy that's consistent, especially in these types of market conditions. So that's been an interesting one taking on new clients in a virtual environment that you've never met in person.

Kate: Yeah. But it can be done. Right. And it all still works. You move from that, Hey, this might be an option to, like you said earlier, you just move straight into action.

Sabrina: And we've always had some remote clients, as I was saying, I have some clients who are in LA. I have clients who are in Seattle since I grew up in that area, I have a client who lives in London. So we have clients who are all over, but typically  they came to us as a choice  without actually having met us in person. Whereas now it's a necessity. And so there is a little bit of, I think that there's some additional work that needs to be done in order to kind of get people over that hurdle.

Sabrina:  I can recall one of the clients that I started working with this year, it was interesting. So here we are, we're on zoom. We're having this great initial conversation. It's via video. I always ask people for that initial, if they reach out about our services, I say, Hey, can we hop on a zoom call, we'll probably be about 30 to 60 minutes, depending on how things are going. And I think that really kind of puts people at ease initially, because then they can see who is this person behind the voice. It's not just on the phone. So here I am and we're talking through it and it's becoming pretty evident that, that they were wanting to move forward. And I remember they asked, well, do you think that, will you be having in-person meetings anytime soon?

Sabrina: And this was like back in, I don't know, maybe May or June, and I was kind of thinking, no. But what it triggered for me, I said back to him, I said, you know, what would be important about meeting me in person? What's important about that to you? And that led to some really fruitful conversation. It was more around the vetting process. Are you actually an advisor that has a real business and who else  is involved in this? And so we were able to figure out what was important about  the in-person meeting or seeing our office in person in order to establish trust and what were some of the other pieces that we could do around introducing other people that were on the team or otherwise to really make, this new client feel comfortable in engaging us in moving forward.

Kate: That's interesting. So even though you guys have a clearly very professional website and list all the people on there, did you then do more of those video meetings with other members of the team with this prospect?

Sabrina: It is being able to bring other people in. Also one thing that we  found that has been helpful is having the ability to maybe get a specific referral from an existing client, or if it's a professional where we're sharing the relationship. So figuring out what is it that's going to put this person at ease, and help them feeling comfortable.

Sabrina: And so now they're totally onboarded and we were recently meeting, they kind of had referenced, gosh, and I've never met you in person, but I feel like I know you, and that was the important part, right. It's like, how do you establish that relationship? Now, that also may be more generational. Some people are more comfortable  doing everything online. And I do find that some of our younger clients, especially who are in the tech space are very comfortable. And sometimes that doesn't even come up as a question, they have different types of questions.

Kate: Yeah. Yeah. I bet. So how are people finding you now versus how they found you before? Are you noticing a difference  in what's attracting people to you?

Sabrina: I think it's a lot of the things that we've traditionally done. So new new clients are coming to us because they either Googled us and found something online. it might be because they were referred by an existing client or that they were referred by a professional, but I think what's different in this environment. It goes back to, what's going  to help them in getting over that,   I guess that next step in engaging us and I think what's going on, it's always happened, but I think it's ramped up, which is what I call the internet stalking.

Sabrina: Like, if you get referred to somebody, I mean, if I'm referred to somebody, a new CPA or an attorney or whatever that professional might be, I mean, I'm in the process of a home, redecoration process right now. And I went out and I Googled all the information I could find. so I call it this internet stalking where it's like, okay,  what is online about this person? What can I find out about them? How can I gain a sense for who they are and what they represent, and is that consistent? Does it resonate with me? And what it does is it builds this comfort level. So that by the time that you're actually talking now remotely, that they feel like there's already a relationship with you. And part of what's helped facilitate  deepening that relationship before we've even talked in person during this time, I think,  are things like video content that's online on our website or that we put out on LinkedIn or on our Facebook page. but I would say predominantly through our website so that people can get to know us and ends up by the time that we're actually connecting in person. Again, they're already having a relationship  with our firm and with our advisors. So it feels like a really natural next step to engage us and move forward.

Kate: Yeah, that's all so important. And having a profile or presence on social media, or at least if you say on your website that you're on social media platforms and people go there that they don't find the nothing's been posted in the last four years, but just having that content. And the interesting thing I've found is that people don't, not even often, I think people never really consume all of the content, but there's something about seeing that there IS content that to your point builds that trust and builds that in, that you are a real business and you're fully established.

Sabrina: I think that's right. And I think it is to some degree having a couple of different options. So having, for example, both blog posts and video content, having photos, and commentary, or, you know, whatever that looks like. So it's not just one option it's Oh, I found this on this website and this over here, and each of those pieces kind of come together in creating that puzzle or that picture of who this professional is.

Kate: Yeah, definitely. So are you guys creating more content now during the pandemic and communicating with clients more frequently?

Sabrina: I would say, well, there's a couple of different questions there, so are we creating more content? Absolutely. We were already creating content and I think we've increased that effort, especially  content that focuses on the things that are most important to clients during this time. both just on a qualitative, sort of, how am I managing through all of this, but also, what do I need to know about legal changes, for example, that have taken place this year.

Sabrina: So more content, because there's more information that I think needs to get in front of clients, but also different types of content. So we just launched a podcast earlier this year that's out. we've done a lot of these short videos, longer videos, interactive webinars, smaller curated sessions. So trying to figure out, blog posts. So trying to figure out all different ways to get information out there and then allowing clients to opt into the pieces that resonate most with them.

Kate: Are you guys are doing that all internally and kind of figuring out who likes writing, who likes doing video, who likes doing podcast and assigning those different content mediums to different people within the team?

Sabrina: We do. And, and just as you're saying, I mean, inevitably based on maybe an advisor or  an employee's strengths, they're going to gravitate maybe towards one versus another. So I think allowing for the opportunity and all of those spaces, and then, I think encouraging employees, both client facing and non-client facing to participate.

Kate: Yeah. That's fantastic. And have you had any adjustments to your service models just given, like you just said that this has been such a wild year with so much going on, have you found that clients need different levels of service this year?

Sabrina: I wouldn't, I wouldn'