From the January 2004 issue of Investment Advisor • Subscribe!

January 1, 2004

The Client Comes First

Bet your firm doesn't provide valet parking, does it? Do you let clients "borrow" your firm's technology specialist to iron out their companies' computer glitches? How about providing snacks and munchies for your clients every time they come in?

Such are some of the unique perks offered by Evensky, Brown & Katz in Coral Gables, Florida, and they're all part of an effort to strengthen the firm's relationship with its clients. The valet parking was actually a lucky accident; the firm is located in the penthouse office suites of a historic hotel (known today as the Omni Colonnade Hotel & Office Complex), which gives the clients valet-parking privileges. But the computer services and the munchies were provided on purpose; the former enhances the firm's image as the client's problem solver, and the latter fosters a sense of relaxation during client meetings. "Food and noshies are a very comforting thing for people," says Katz.

Evensky and Katz strengthen client relationships through frequent contact with their clients, by phone, e-mail, letter, or in person. Their goal is to make their clients feel like members of a family. "We had a Thanksgiving party in November, and we had over 150 people there," says Katz. "Some of the fund representatives we had invited--because we do business with them, and we wanted the clients to meet them--told us that the clients were talking about us like we were their relatives. And I think that's what makes us a success. The relationship is everything."

One practical way they're striving to emphasize relationships over returns is by charging a retainer fee, rather than a fee based on assets under management. It's a little misleading, since the new retainer fee is based to some extent on--surprise!--assets under management. But Evensky says it helps to underscore the client's focus. "We were telling them, 'Don't think about short-term returns,' and then we were billing them based on what happened during the last quarter," he says. "That doesn't make any sense." To make signing on with the firm less hassle, the firm has also abandoned the idea of having all client assets with a single custodian. "In the past, in order to work with us, a client might have had to liquidate his assets and move them to one of the custodians we were working with; now, we have clients with portions of their assets at Fidelity, Schwab, trust companies, or wirehouses," says Evensky. "Far from using one custodian, we're actually moving to using many."

Despite the emphasis on client relationships, neither planner likes the concept of life planning, a relatively recent trend in the planning world. "All the talk about 'life planning'"--you can hear the quotation marks in his voice--"leaves me nonplussed," says Evensky. "We don't tell the head of a law firm who's working 80 hours a week that he's unhappy; I work 80 hours a week, and I'm not unhappy. Deena and I listen, and we help clients think through what they're doing--whether or not those decisions have to do with the finances we're managing--and we help them brainstorm about their businesses or the future. But we consider that traditional financial planning."

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