So you think you know how to market to women? It takes more than designing a pink invitation and sticking some flowers on it to get women to trust you with their financial concerns.
That’s the word from Arwen Becker, who has built an advisory practice on helping women answer their top financial question: “Am I going to be OK?” Becker believes the old ways of trying to reach women aren’t working, and that women need advisors who will help them overcome their feelings of fear and shame around money.
Becker’s first teacher was her mother, who raised two children as a single parent. The lessons in financial resiliency she learned from her mother and other women inspired her to write the book She Handled It, So Can You!
In this interview with Publisher Paul Feldman, Becker discusses her journey to serve women, ways that the industry is falling short in providing advice to them and why everyone needs to plan for the unexpected.
FELDMAN: I saw a video of you working at a wildlife refuge and how you were attacked by a cougar and how that led to your planning career. Can you share that story?
BECKER: I use that story to help illustrate the need to plan for the unexpected. And I can’t say I’ve ever met anybody else who has been attacked by a cougar. I had been working with Sasha, a cougar at the wildlife rehabilitation center that I ran after I graduated from college. I was one of four people who could go into her enclosure to work with her.
I used to go in and play with this big rope toy with her. And it was a blast. One day, I had a volunteer, Judy, ask me if she could come in and take pictures of her while we were playing.
And I said that sounds great. Sasha was perfectly happy. She jumped down from her perch, and she just loved it, this big, 110-pound cougar. But when the volunteer shut the door behind me, something changed, and Sasha’s ears went back, her big teeth came out, and she lunged at me and bit my left thigh. Then she let go. And she had these big, huge, enormous paws and these strong, amazing arms wrapped up around my waist.
She bit me on the left side of my chest, and she let go. And she bit me on the right side of my chest, and Judy screamed. She got herself out of the enclosure and left me there to defend myself. Sasha dropped back down on all fours and bit the other remaining leg that she hadn’t bitten yet. So with one hand in her mouth and the other around her neck, I gave her a swift knee to the chest. And that threw her off a little bit. She let go, I got myself out of the enclosure, and she just went back to purring at the side of the cage. For her, it was just playtime.
That had never happened to me in four years of working with her. I had never had any issues with her, but it was an 85-degree day. I had jeans on, I was wearing a long-sleeved T-shirt and a denim jacket with wool lining on the inside. And so I had severe pressure wounds on both sides of my chest and both of my legs, and a one-inch gash on my palm of my hand, but really nothing too serious.
And I use that to illustrate why you plan for the unexpected. You don’t know if there is a black swan event out there. You don’t know if we’re going to go through a pandemic or another Great Recession or something unexpected, but good planning really can’t plan for most of those things. So it’s reminding people that you have to plan for the unexpected, even though it might not happen.
That’s certainly one of the biggest challenges in helping people who are moving from their working years into retirement, especially in those early years where you’re trying to convince somebody to spend money while their health is good, when they don’t know how long they’re going to live. And yet they’re like, “Whoa! Wait! I’m not working anymore. I have less income coming in, but now you want me to spend my money?” So it’s an emotional game to help people get past that because they’ve been thinking about saving and growing their money and now I’m telling them to spend it. That’s just part of an advisor’s job — to be able to get people to the point where they can understand that they are going to be OK long term with good planning.
FELDMAN: You do a lot of research about women and finances, and I was blown away by some of the research that you share.
BECKER: The funny thing is my biggest stance is that women are not a niche. When you break it down to the facts, women hold more wealth in the country now than men do. Women are the largest segment of the U S population. Women are earning undergraduate and graduate degrees at a much faster pace than men are. And then when you think about the $20 trillion that baby boomers will pass on to the next generation in the next 20 years, that will mean 60% of U.S. wealth will be held by women in the next 20 years.
Yet women are often looked at as an afterthought, and we’re completely guilty of it. We didn’t do any women’s events before 2017. I didn’t do seminars. I didn’t do lead generation. That’s what Randy, my husband, did for 17 years. So I was at the point where I wanted to sell our practice because the strain had just become too much, trying to generate enough leads, the same issue that the majority of advisors have. And I just kind of was done.
I called off the sale of the practice because I really did feel that that was going to be the end of my marriage. However, something had to change. I had this fire that awakened on the inside and said I needed to do something different. I told my husband I wanted to take over lead generation. But I didn’t know how to do this. I had never done a seminar in my life. I had never done any public speaking. I don’t know why he agreed but I guess he loved me enough to let me make that crazy decision.
About six months later, after getting into seminars and totally sucking at it because I didn’t know what the heck I was doing, I was encouraged to do a women’s event.
I learned, I practiced, I sought out coaches. I learned the basics of how to give a good seminar. And I realized within 12 months that this was a crazy benefit for our 17-year-old practice. So we shifted from 0% of our focus on women to having 80% of our marketing dollars going toward women less than two years later.
I was conducting 36 events a year, and 30 of those were for women only. We were filling them over and over. I hadn’t seen this in our practice since the Great Recession. Before then, we couldn’t fill a seminar. And we had the worst response rates to mailers consistently for years.
So I saw something different, but I started hearing different things as well. I heard all these stories of the thousands of women I was meeting and the hundreds of women I was sitting down and talking to who really felt left out by my industry. It started changing my focus and our focus as a company. And when we moved 80% of our marketing to women, we doubled our company’s revenue.
We went from profitability of between 29% and 39% to 45% in two years. I saw that in my community, there was this huge vein of gold of women who weren’t coming to traditional events. They were getting the invitations, but they just weren’t coming to the events. It wasn’t until they finally received an invitation that said “women only” that they felt safe enough to be there.
Nothing against men. But it’s just that there are some women who think they don’t understand things, or maybe they went through a divorce and they feel like they have nothing. BlackRock did a study last year, and I looked at their statistics that said 55% of women say investing is not for “people like me” — 55% of women think that it’s not for them. All that tells me is that what they’re hearing doesn’t resonate with them. So they just opt out of planning.
But yet you have all these statistics about women, about how the average age that a woman becomes widowed is 59; that women live longer, so they need more money; that 15% of a woman’s working years are spent caring for children or ailing parents, compared to 1.6% of men’s. Women are putting less money into retirement plans and Social Security than men are.
Then we saw what COVID-19 did; 2 million women left the workforce, and that was because of child care issues.
The statistic that I hang the majority of my marketing on is that 80% of men die married, yet 80% of women die single. She’s going to be left to handle it at some point. And yet, so many women still don’t think that they know how to do it. They don’t trust their instincts. They don’t trust their ability to learn, or they aren’t hearing a message that resonates with them.
That’s why it matters so much to me. That’s why I now train advisors how to be successful at this, because a lot of people really struggle at marketing to women because they try and do it the same way as they market to men.
FELDMAN: Can you tell us about your current practice?
BECKER: Becker Retirement Group has been in business for more than 21 years. I actually came into the industry with a zoology degree — as a 24-year-old divorced zoology grad — and I needed to make more money than I could make doing wildlife rehabilitation. So I ended up getting introduced to somebody, and that led to a job interview that turned into this 21-year career. And that man I met — Randy — became my business partner and eventually my husband and the father of our three sons.
Randy has been in the industry now for 34 years. We have a holistic practice in which we do securities and insurance products and everything in between. We have a full-time CPA on staff, and we specialize in serving clients ages 50 and older — those who are in or nearing retirement.
About 60% of our business is annuities and life insurance, and about 40% is securities. That’s because people are getting into that arena of less risk and of wanting consistency as they move out of their working years and into retirement. We’ve found — through the ups and downs of the market, the dot-com bomb, the Great Recession, that combination of insurance products and securities tends to be a great mix for clients.
FELDMAN: How do you market and what marketing advice would you give to other advisors?
BECKER: Our biggest focus has been on seminars, whether through direct mail, digital marketing, Facebook advertising, things like that. That has still been a very successful part of our practice. Yet the challenge that so many advisors — male or female — face in marketing to women is not intuitive. So they change the color of the materials. Maybe they change a little bit of the wording. But the delivery of the message in the event itself is still very generic or it’s not tailored to them. And it doesn’t resonate with the single, divorced, never-married and widowed women who tend to attend a women-only event. So it does take education and training to know how to do it successfully.
Then, of course, there are challenges. How do you work with married women? Because 30% to 50% of my attendees are married. How do you convert them to an appointment if their spouse or partner isn’t there? So there’s no quick fix. I mean, that’s why so many advisors fall short and fail, and then they say it doesn’t work because they think that they’re going to apply the same technique that is successful at their general seminars that are open to everybody. It doesn’t work.
FELDMAN: What are some of the things men do that make them fall short?
BECKER: I would say being gimmicky — the pink invitations, offering flowers, having people there wearing tuxedos, there are chocolate or champagne fountains. All of these things kind of feel like a Valentine’s Day effort or something like that. They don’t work.
Or presentations that are too data heavy. They either have too many slides or they don’t have enough personal stories or client stories. Women really resonate with those stories.
My book is called She Handled It, So Can You! “She handled it” was a term I used to talk about my mom in an interview once. Because my mom started from less than zero at age 40 and she managed to still make it through, even with all the external circumstances she was dealing with at the time.
There are a lot of women out there the message isn’t crafted for, and so they tune out really fast. There’s not enough personalization in the connection with whoever the speaker is, male or female.
I have a good friend who excels at presenting because he was a pastor in a previous vocation. So he gets the fact that you have to talk to women differently. And he’s also a father of four daughters. So when he opens, he talks about his daughters and being a daughter dad. And so it’s about having this connection.
That’s the same thing that we’ve had to teach our advisors as well, because most of our advisors are male.
And so when they start the first appointment, I generate the leads, they sit with a male advisor or we have one other female advisor. They open with their own personal story.
That could be this advisor’s mom had eight kids, and the advisor talks about what it was like for their mom to have to schlep the kids to office parks at night, to help clean, to be able to keep a roof over their head and food on the table.
That story connects people. That makes women say, “OK, well, if they’re starting with something personal, I think I can get myself to the point where I can open up a little bit and tell you something that maybe makes me feel a little bit uncomfortable or that I have shame around.” And a lot of women have shame and fear around money.
FELDMAN: What are some strategies to get women to overcome their shame and fear around money?
BECKER: You have to take more time in that initial visit. You ask what brought them in to see you or what they remember about the lead source. What resonated with them from our radio program or our seminar or whatever it was. So we get them to open up with that.
Then the next thing our advisors do is go into their own personal story. One of our advisors tells about how his mom took him and his brothers to an office park at night and they had to help clean because she had to figure out a way to make it work with eight kids.
Going into that personal story right away starts to rip down some of the barriers that we often face. And then we go from that to having this great conversation about their mom or however it resonated with them. We then go into tell me a little bit about your perfect day, when you get to wake up and do what you want to do, go where you want to go — what does that look like?
And so we give them a little bit of time to talk about that. It might be travel, it might be volunteering, or maybe they’re not really sure because they haven’t thought much about it.
But by the time we actually get to the point where we say, “This is the process that we’re taking you through today,” I ask, “Do you mind if I just ask you some questions about how you’re managing your personal finances?” It’s already 25 minutes before I ever ask her for something that might make her feel a little bit uncomfortable.
FELDMAN: It looks like you paint the picture first and then the process comes later.
BECKER: Yes, exactly. And even when we start asking for specifics about their situation, we are very deliberate. We always start with, “Oh, tell me a little bit about your job” and then, “Do you own your own home? How much is its value?” So we go through real estate first, before we ever finally get to that last bit — “How much cash do you have in the bank?” That’s a scary thing to ask people, because a lot of people don’t think that they have enough savings, or there’s a misconception among women that they need to have X amount saved before they are valuable enough to talk to a planner.
And this is the part that needs undoing. It’s not about first being valuable enough to go sit down with somebody. Instead, it needs to be: There are people like me and like our company who value you enough to say we need to sit down and talk about this.
Even if now is not the time, I’m going to be able to give you some direction on where you’re going. So you don’t think that all hope is lost for you, because so many women think that it is, and it’s not as bad as they think.
FELDMAN: How do you feel the industry is doing in speaking to women?
BECKER: I’d say it’s doing better. But it’s really struggling.
I’ve been in the industry long enough. And yet I’m still amazed at how many people disregard or they kind of look at “that little cute thing that I do over there” in serving women, but they don’t take it seriously. They don’t think that it’s a valid lead source. They don’t take time to really pursue it. And that continues to perpetuate a narrative.
I think it’s just we do what we do. I go to these events, and there are almost always men who are talking onstage. So they’re going to talk through their view. And when I approach it more from “Let’s start with the heart and then go to the head,” it kind of leads to the eye-roll type of thing. And I think that that’s where the disconnect is.
A woman wants to know the answer to one question: “Am I going to be OK?” If we can answer that question for her — not how are we going to do it or what products are going to be most effective — we will be able to communicate in a way that resonates with the woman.
In my book, I’m still talking about financial concepts, but I do it all for story. And when we can start changing and seeing women as really the predominant force that must get the attention that they need and deserve, it’s going to help everybody.