Case Study: First Rate

Expanding Beyond Direct Sales Channel to Enter New Markets

“With a goal to double the customers and revenue of First Rate, we knew that we needed to consult with experts that knew how to orient our marketing strategies to our strengths. Chief Outsiders took a different approach than other firms we had met with – they wanted to understand our business goals and drivers first and foremost.”

Marshall Smith, General Manager, Service Bureau and Marketing, First Rate Inc.

First Rate, Inc. is a relationship-driven technology company serving institutional, registered investment advisors, brokerage and trust clients in the financial services industry. With a successful history of direct sales, the company seized an opportunity to re-think marketing strategy and expand into new markets. Working closely with executives, Chief Outsider, Rex Bull, combined internal and external research with proven methodologies to develop the strategy and plan to realize 20% annual growth. Management support, increased team confidence and early results characterize a successful and rewarding partnership.

Background

First-Rate-Logo-1.jpg

First Rate Financial Services Technology

Increasingly savvy financial investors require in-depth reporting and transparency. Consequently, financial industry CEOs have challenged their organizations to find technologies and solutions that enable wealth managers to provide their clients with relevant plans and timely feedback by translating data into relevant information and insights.

Through the commitment and innovation of First Rate Inc. (First Rate), investment management and reporting solutions historically reserved for the largest financial institutions have been made available to wealth managers, registered investment advisors (RIA), brokers and bank/trusts of all sizes.

“Over the last 24 years, we have expanded our services and leveraged new technologies to meet the dynamic nature of a challenging financial industry,” states Marshall Smith, General Manager, Service Bureau and Marketing, First Rate Inc.

Operations Oriented Company Seeking Growth

For more than 20 years, First Rate had operated with a direct sales model and marketing organized to support the sales team. The departure of the Vice President of Marketing provided the senior management team with an opportunity to take a fresh look at what was already a successful, operations-oriented business. 

Smith assumed the marketing responsibilities with the vision of taking the company to the next level, a sustainable 20% year-over-year growth rate. To achieve the aggressive goal, he offered to have no ‘sacred cows’.

Faster with Less Risk

Committed to rethinking the business, First Rate’s President, Craig Weitz, heard about Chief Outsiders at a Vistage Executive Summit in the Dallas, Texas area. The Chief Outsiders business model intrigued him enough to reach out to Clay Spitz, Regional Managing Partner. 

Needing a talented and seasoned marketing expert to lead the growth initiative, Smith decided to outsource the CMO function, engaging Chief Outsider, Rex Bull, to head the business growth strategy. The outsourcing decision had the advantage of speed and reduced the risk of a full-time hire.

“We included Rex in every part of the First Rate management team, meetings and strategy that we could, because we wanted him to understand what it meant to be an employee and what ‘relationship’ meant when we’re servicing our customers,” stated Smith.

Insight

Internal and External Research 

Working closely with First Rate’s leadership, Bull developed and executed the following research activities:

  • Customers - Surveyed 35 existing customers, a few that had defected to the competition and several prospects to gain insight into how they viewed the company, and to bring the voice of the customer into the First Rate strategy and messaging.
  • Channel Partners - Interviewed channel partners to understand their challenges. 
  • Company – Conducted informal interviews with executives followed by an in-depth survey of 18 senior and director level employees. Surveyed a similar sized group of managers.
  • Competitors – Completed a review and analysis of competitors’ websites, market presence, customers, and positioning.

Insights Gained

Thorough research yielded a clear understanding of who the company was and where they were headed. It also produced an excellent assessment of First Rate’s channel partners, as well as customer preferences and pain points.

Customers

  • Financial institutions choose First Rate because of experience, investment industry expertise and quality relationships. 
  • A significant percentage of customers had not taken advantage of new products and services introduced over the past several years.
  • Wealth advisors have a hard time showing clients how their investments are performing relative to personal goals. Many are still using manual processes.
  • Financial institutions have difficulty integrating data from multiple systems, creating departmental silos.

Channel Partners

  • First Rate’s channel partners represent one of the company’s biggest strengths. 
  • Some partners with high turnover had difficulty keeping their reps educated on First Rate’s offerings and maintaining close relationships.
  • Other partners had a great understanding of First Rate’s offerings but failed to proactively collaborate on uncovering new opportunities.

Company

  • Efforts to upsell existing customers on new products and services lacked a concerted strategy and effort. 
  • The company’s logo and image had not been updated in 14 years.
  • Digital marketing was limited to a modest social presence and e-newsletters.

“Rex took a different approach than other firms we had met with – he wanted to understand our business goals and drivers first and foremost,” related Smith. “Not only did we have an outside perspective on why our clients bought us and stayed with us, but we also got the benefits of his entire organization – that we couldn’t get with a single hire.”

Strategy

Identifying Opportunities for Growth 

As the next step to develop First Rate’s growth strategy, a SWOT analysis helped leadership understand the company’s strengths and opportunities for growth. Based on the research, they identified strategies with a higher likelihood of success, leveraging strengths, mitigating weaknesses and capitalizing on opportunities.

  • New segments – Management saw a tremendous growth opportunity with broker/dealers and wealth advisors or RIAs.

“We looked at their need to automate and streamline and identified that segment as a priority,” explained Bull. “Based on size, we selected a couple of sub-segments within both of those markets to reach out and build awareness and interest.”

  • Channel strategies – Customized strategies for different partners with different needs could get channel partners to the next level, a major opportunity.
  • Upsell Customers – A coordinated upsell strategy could produce significant sales growth. 

The approach taken enabled First Rate’s leaders to understand the steps needed to formulate their growth strategy and how to tell their story to the market in a clear, concise and compelling way. 

“The SWOT analysis was our bridge between the internal and external insights gained and the opportunities for growth that we identified,” stated Bull.

The Growth Strategy 

With customer and company input, First Rate prioritized near and longer-term growth opportunities. “We tied the solutions most concretely to First Rate’s business objectives and goals,” stated Smith.

First Rate developed a detailed marketing strategy, plan and budget to:

  • Accelerate growth through existing channel partners. Focus on educating and introducing new partner reps to the First Rate brand, products and services, and proactively engage with partners to have more influence earlier in the funnel.
  • Generate awareness and interest outside of the traditional direct sales channel to the RIA, wealth advisors and broker/dealers segments.
  • Educate and upsell their loyal customer base on new products and services.
  • Introduce First Rate’s new Arkon and Lightning solutions to broker/dealers and a down-market RIA broker/dealer segment.

Execution

Pleased with the strategy, management allocated the necessary resources and personnel to move forward. As acting CMO, Bull drove execution of the growth strategy and marketing plan.

Resources

  • Aligned company leadership and cross-functional teams around each specific growth strategy, including a team to upsell existing customers in a concerted way.

Tactics

  • Rebranded the company with a new logo, look and feel to create a more modern and innovative image.
  • Revised messaging with increased emphasis on improved client engagement for wealth advisors and API’s that bring information together for a more holistic view for advisors and clients. 
  • Rolled out a complete website re-design in 2015.
  • Attended targeted events and trade shows to introduce new products.
  • Prepared a new digital lead-gen strategy for 2016 to expand awareness and interest in new markets.

Results 

Management Support and Early Results

Although early in the execution of the strategy (the new website was just launched), these significant milestones have been achieved:

  • The strategy received the full support of First Rate executives who are incorporating the new digital lead-gen tactics into their 2016 plans.
  • Built a sales pipeline and signed customers for the new Arkon and Lightning products in new markets.

Marketing Team Confidence

Early results have given the marketing team confidence. “It is great to have an objective plan with a sound methodology that we can now run with. We are well on our way to achieving our goals,” stated Smith.

A Foundation for Growth 

The trust and confidence of the First Rate leadership in the Chief Outsiders approach continues to grow. Bringing in CMO, Rex Bull, proved to be a rewarding experience for both parties.

“We developed a great relationship and a successful partnership working together to implement the company’s aggressive growth strategy. We built a new foundation that will take this company to the next level,” concluded Bull.

Rex-Bull-CMO-Chief-Outsiders

Contact Partner and CMO Rex Bull