IN Daily Opinion/Column

What financial advisers can learn from Steve Jobs

Even in the investment advice business, there's a place for beauty and sex appeal

Oct 6, 2011 @ 2:14 pm

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((Photo: Bloomberg News))

The biggest lesson Steve Jobs can teach financial advisers has nothing to do with computing, management or successful succession planning. It's all about something you might consider 100% uncorrelated to financial advice: beauty.

If you've seen an Apple, store you know what I mean. After the InvestmentNews Alternative-Investments Conference concluded Monday in Chicago, I took about an hour's walk from our hotel downtown to a restaurant in gentrified Bucktown where our crew was having dinner. Along the way, on the once-gritty western extreme of the lakefront Lincoln Park neighborhood, I walked past a gleaming new Apple store.

Like the others, including Apple's main Chicago outpost on glittering Michigan Avenue, this local store was all sleek glass and chrome. And like every Apple store I've walked or driven past — whether in an urban neighborhood, the suburbs or downtown — the one in Lincoln Park, at 6:30 on a Monday evening, was packed.

What makes the Apple stores so wildly popular?

Apple products, of course, are the chief reason. As reported in the extensive and emotional coverage of Steven Jobs' untimely death, Apple's innovative products changed the way Americans compute, communicate and enjoy music. Whether it's an iPad, iPod or Mac, users feel an affinity with and, yes, a love for Apple products that goes beyond product satisfaction.

But Apple stores themselves are the retail embodiment of Mr. Jobs' philosophy of incorporating clever, beautiful design into everything the company does. The store's salespeople/helpers are extremely knowledgeable and go out of their way to make shopping pleasant and educational. So enjoyable is the experience that I, a self-confessed cheapskate, find myself ignoring the price tags and lusting after everything in the store.

Consumer delight in Apple stores and Apple products is probably the reason the public feels such a sense of loss at the passing of Mr. Jobs. In this age of mass protests against Wall Street greed, what other business tycoon worth $8 billion could elicit such public grief?

I believe the delight and love that people feel for Apple spring from the design, human appeal and beauty of the company's products, and the way they interact with us.

Instead of a cold, gray box, Mr. Jobs gave us color. Instead of typefaces meant to be read by other computers, he spoke to us with a human face. And when he devised a way to deliver just the music we wanted, he figured out a way to give it to us at the touch of a circle.

Since financial advisers deal with intangibles, there's no way to bring beauty to the delivery of financial advice in the same way that product companies do it. But there can be beauty in packaging, and in that area, advisers have much to learn from Mr. Jobs.

Instead of being utilitarian afterthoughts, quarterly statements and financial plans could be brilliantly designed, beautiful and easy to use.

An advisory website could be a model of clarity and ease of use.

An office need not be the modernistic palace of an Apple store, but it could make a distinctive and memorable statement in your own style.

Client interactions with your staff could be just as satisfying as those that take place at Apple stores.

In an age when financial advice is often a commodity, beauty can set you apart. Look at the legacy of Steve Jobs.

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