Financial Expert Chantel Bonneau Shares Her Best Practices for Personal Branding and Client Engagement
For our latest installment of How I Built an Empire, we recently say down with Chantel Bonneau to discuss her blossoming career and best practices for personal branding and client engagement.
A|FB: What drew you to a career in financial planning? How and when did you know that this was the venture you were going to pour yourself into?
CB: I joined the financial planning world in 2010. And at that time, obviously, we were not in a great place from an economic standpoint. Prior to that, I wasn’t sure what area of finance I wanted to be in. But the financial stress, everything we went through, all the confusion around market cycles and all of the missteps that people take, made me realize that there was a real opportunity to work with people in financial planning. Yes, to help them with the fun stuff—to achieve their goals, to think about investing when things are good—but also to be a help to people when things are not going as expected. I wanted to be the voice that could help demystify some of the uncertainty and fear around finance. I thought that it was the perfect time to bring finance, a topic that I love, to life for people.
AFB: You’ve built your financial planning practice around your name and personal brand. Could you touch on the importance of personal branding, in your industry and at large?
CB: I think your brand and your business are one in the same. In an industry like mine, you are completely your brand and your reputation. And I do think it’s important that people, whether they’re in finance, legal or something else, can feel like they’re working with someone who understands their concerns, understands them and will help them achieve what they’re trying to accomplish.
Branding is critical because you are attracting people who want to feel connected to a philosophy or a vision. People don’t “connect” to the topics that I handle. No one is interested in tax efficiency or financial products. They’re attracted to the concept of someone that might help them understand that process. It’s interesting, because you don’t really think about branding in my kind of field. But I’ve built an entire clientele based on word-of-mouth. And I think that depends on branding yourself in a clear way, so that people know who you are best suited to work with and who you will be most helpful to.
AFB: You can’t overstate the importance of making a brand out of your own name. It communicates who you are and what you do in a much more human, personable way. You’re absolutely right in the sense that your brand is your business. To that end, do you believe there are any misconceptions people have about starting and owning a personal brand? Do you think there is anything people might fail to consider, or things you wish you’d known prior?
CB: That’s a good point. One thing—and this is a little more specific—but I got married and decided to change my last name. While I legally changed my last name, everything I’ve done from a professional standpoint has been in my maiden name, so that created a little bit of confusion for people. However, I think it’s important to be congruent across your business and all of your social media platforms. If you have a mission to communicate, or a tagline, or a picture, try to be as congruent as possible. I know that it took me a while to get everything aligned, to make sure there was continuity between my LinkedIn and my website and so forth. There are a lot of minor things to consider on that front that may not always be top of mind.
I also think that the more you can narrow your brand’s audience and decide who you’re really speaking to, the better. Then you can make choices that are going to be most communicative to that audience. We’re constantly fine-tuning those elements and we have them reflected on our website, when we’re with clients or doing speaking engagements. You might get more people if your focus is broader, but they might not be the people that your business is focused on or best suited to serve.
AFB: I couldn’t agree more. You need to choose the niche that you want to excel in. I see too many businesses who try to be all things to all people.
CB: And it’s hard!
AFB: I noticed your brand is affiliated with Northwestern Mutual. But at what point did you separate on some level to distinguish your name as a brand?
CB: I think, especially in my field, affiliating with a company is about underlying philosophical beliefs, right? And platform features. Affiliating with a company gives you access to their support and tools, so if you feel there’s a competitive edge there, that’s helpful. But I wanted to build a brand around my own name because of exactly what I alluded to earlier: people want to connect to a person.
Some people consider my topic boring. I don’t. Most people aren’t going to just read a brief or pull up the IRS website, despite how much important information it has. They’d rather connect with someone in order to take those first steps. And I saw that as my opportunity to impact more people. If I really started to brand myself, I would have more of a voice, as opposed to being just another person talking about financial products and services.
AFB: A lot of new entrepreneurs encounter the same struggle: no one knows who I am, how do I get myself and my product noticed. Do you have any advice to share with budding entrepreneurs and people who are just beginning to build a personal brand?
CB: So, for me specifically, my product is a plan and a relationship. I don’t deliver anything tangible to people, so that’s always fun. But to get things off to a good start: you need to deliver something relevant and interesting and reflective of who your consumer is. So in my space, my consumer has some kind of concern about their finances, otherwise they wouldn’t be talking to me. In the beginning, I try to deliver a concise overview and really help them understand how we’re going to track and tailor a plan for them. I try to build that energy of pulling everything together for them in a neat fashion. And that’s helpful, because they go on to become advocates for me. I want to be the person who has finally been able to simplify a complex topic for them.
Simplification and sophistication do not have to be at odds with each other. They can be the same thing. I try to build advocates in people and create brand awareness there, because my clients become my best marketing source.
Speaking to your question, how do you get noticed? I think [creating content] in your space is a great way to do that. Take a topic—maybe even something obvious—but get to the core of it in a clean, concise way, or in an angle that people have been waiting for. I feel like that’s what gets people to really notice something, when it’s easy for them to digest and read and share. It almost comes back to the principle of creating advocates out of clients and people who have interfaced with you—just making sure that the output you deliver to them is clean and clear and delivers value without sacrificing that sophistication.
AFB: How have your services evolved over time? Did you find yourself making many course corrections throughout your career? If so, how did you go about those changes?
CB: I feel like I am constantly making changes, [despite the fact that] my subject matter is so black and white. If I got general demographic information about you, there’s a 99% chance that I could put together a really good plan that is right for you, and there’s a 99% chance that you won’t do anything with it. So I think my practice has continually evolved as I’ve realized what actually stuck for people and moved them to action.
My field depends on delivering the right answers to people by asking the right questions, to make them feel like I truly understand them. And I do need to really understand them. Because everyone has different ways that they view their financial future and different things that are getting in the way for them. This has guided me to evolve in the questions I ask.
Where I see most of my adjustments is the way that I deliver information to people. I’m constantly fine-tuning to make things concise, without minimizing their importance. Much of my job has really become about follow through and helping people become accountable. To focus energy on what they’re doing and to be excited about their plan.
For example, every dentist in the world confronts the same stigma. Everyone wants to go to the dentist, but they don’t want to do that today. Everyone wants to have a great financial future, but they don’t want to take the steps today. Everyone wants to run a marathon, but they don’t want to do day one of training. So I think that’s what I’ve tried to continually perfect: how do I make people realize that this is an exciting proposition. That it isn’t an uphill battle, and you can really have a great relationship with money. Which is the premise of my book—to figure out how you can work best with money, not how your parents did, but how you can. So how can I deliver that information in a way that makes people excited to execute?
I’m evolving all the time, both in my output and in the skills I need to sharpen up on. If I can find a way to simplify a really complicated topic that’s preventing them from executing, that’s where I’ll spend my time.
AFB: Until you mentioned it, I never would’ve realized what a hurdle that must be for many people whose role is advisory in nature: how do I develop excitement in the client to foster follow-through? You’re right in that it’s a very abstract deliverable where you need the client to ultimately take the initiative to execute what you’ve set in motion for them. So it then becomes a new function of your job to get them excited about it. Because there’s a joint outcome for you and the client that squarely depends on their execution.
CB: 100 percent.
AFB: So as you began building your team, what did you look for in candidates? How did you discover the right org structure for your business model and determine the roles that needed to be filled?
CB: For every hour spent helping a client, there are several hours of behind-the-scenes prep work. I think there are a couple things that really help in our organizational structure. I try to always hire self-manageable people that own their actions, so that I don’t spend my time micromanaging. I want someone I can really trust, who believes in what we do, and possesses genuine curiosity and interest in it. Because I’m so passionate about that value we provide to our clients. I think that’s imperative. I don’t want people that clock in, clock out without believing that this is important.
I try not to be too readily available, because I want to foster a culture that allows my team to be creative and think through problems on their own. For example, I used to do a team meeting every morning and we adjusted that down to once a week. Half of the questions they were asking me, they asked because they knew they were going to meet with me that morning and I could answer it for them, as opposed to allowing them to think about the answer themselves and be prepared next time, without me. They can always reach out to me, I always want to be accessible, but I also want to foster creative and independent thinking.
I want people who can communicate well with my clients and communicate and carry on that mission, I think it’s important, as you continue to build a bigger team, to remain very clear on what your mission is, and why we do what we do, and what our philosophies are, because that drives how we work, and that presents itself in our messaging as we speak with our clients.
AFB: It’s true that every team member is an ambassador of the brand, and it does create unity when there is a central, compelling vision that brings them all to work each day. My last question I’d like to touch on: launching a business and scaling one can be two completely different animals. In your opinion, what does it take for a firm to grow and scale?
CB: A couple of things are very important. I think, to get bigger, you need to have more time, right? You can either get more time or become more effective, or ideally both. I try to leverage my team for everything that doesn’t have to be handled by me personally. Follow up email, that would have to be me. Updating my website, that does not have to be me. Anything that doesn’t have to be me, I try to delegate out, so that I can do the things that are unique to my skillset. So that’s the first thing, one of the most important things is hiring and supporting yourself with people who can take things off your plate and allow you to focus on the more lucrative elements that you’re skilled in.
The second thing is becoming more effective. Anything I can do to streamline my process to become more effective is so important. I spend time on my deliverables, philosophies, and on things that I can use multiple times. Of course, everything I deliver to my clients is customized, but there is some underlying work that is congruent with everyone.
Finally, working in a demographic you’re passionate will create a higher follow-through ratio. I know if I’m sitting in front of someone employed by a large tech company with really interesting equity, I’m probably going to take them on as a client. Because that’s what I know, that’s my bread and butter, so I know I’m going to be as effective as possible.
Those are the levers I’m constantly working on: how do I find more time to do the things that are unique to my skillset, and how do I become more effective with the time that I have. It takes time, and it’s hard, but so much of it is about the people you surround yourself with.