From the February 2006 issue of Investment Advisor • Subscribe!

Five Building Blocks

To take care of business, follow these steps

You know that if you want to build a truly great practice, you've got to give clients what they want most--an exceptional level of service at each and every step. While advisors are well aware of this fact, they too often ignore their own business practices and procedures for delivering a great client experience. As a result, they wind up disappointed with their level of success.

The solution is to start treating your business as a business. That means making smart choices regarding everything from how you use technology to the vision you create for your firm's future--always with the overall goal of creating a consistent, high-quality experience for your clients. From my experience working with advisors around the world, I can recommend five strategies that will help ensure your business fires on all cylinders.

Communicate your systems and processes. You've got to deliver great client service consistently--or else it stops being great. To ensure consistency, design and document systems and processes for delivering the client experience, as well as the internal tasks that support that experience. In other words, write down (or blueprint) your procedures in great detail, step by step, and update them whenever you make a change. If you don't, the systems you've created won't really spread throughout your firm--they won't be internalized by employees, which creates the risk that your clients will experience inconsistencies in service.

By crafting repeatable systems and processes, you create a defined experience for clients and for staff. When you document those systems and processes, you ensure consistency and increase the overall value of your firm.

Which areas need to be systematized and blueprinted the most? When it comes to client-related duties, the big areas are client acquisition (your processes for referrals, alliances, group presentations, etc.), client service (see my article "How to Be a Wealth Manager" from the December 2005 issue for an effective step-by-step consultative process to serve clients), and client communication (the frequency with which you meet with clients and how those meetings are organized, plus e-mail and other forms of communication). In terms of internal business systems, look to document your hiring practices, employee evaluation and compensation, firmwide metrics and measurements, internal communications, and compliance and recordkeeping procedures.

Deliver exceptional service. One big way to differentiate yourself--and boost the bottom line--is to provide service quality that makes clients say "Wow!" That doesn't just happen, however. It requires the right approach. For example, by offering multiple services (such as financial planning, estate planning, tax planning, etc.), you'll be seen by clients and prospects as someone who can simplify their financial lives--and that's quite a big deal to the affluent. In fact, nearly all clients who were offered three or more services (96.6%) said they were satisfied with their advisor, according to a study by Prince & Associates. But satisfaction fell considerably--to just 39.9%--among clients who were sold just one service (see "More Is More" sidebar). As we all know so well, happier clients are much more likely to send referrals your way.

Just More Isn't Enough

Of course, you can't just offer more services. You've got to deliver them exceptionally well. That means several things. First, you must be reliable--making promises, keeping them, and keeping them on time. Similarly, clients don't want negative surprises. To that end, you should seek your clients' feedback on service issues to head off potential problems. If something bad does occur, make contact with clients right away to show you're on top of it.

Another "softer" aspect of great service is your overall warmth. This goes beyond simply being polite or courteous. Your clients want someone who empathizes with them--who feels "in the game" with them. Moreover, that applies not just to the principals in a firm, but to the entire organization. To show empathy, start by being a superior listener. That sounds obvious, yet I'm amazed by how many advisors think they have to constantly talk to their clients, sharing their expertise or opinions. The fact is, clients want someone who will spend at least as much time listening to their biggest concerns and needs.

You also need to get information to your clients quickly. Clients--especially affluent ones--want to know what's going on with their investments and at your firm, and they want to hear it from you--not in the newspaper or from another advisor trying to court them. Being timely with information will help deliver the "Wow!" experience that will differentiate you.

Use technology wisely. The real purpose of technology is simple: It frees up your time from non-revenue-producing chores, leaving you with more hours in the day to spend where it counts--in front of your clients. However, many advisors fall into two camps: Those who don't take the time to figure out how to incorporate technology into their firms, and those who spend so much time on technology that they actually begin to neglect clients.

The trick, obviously, is to strike a balance and efficiently use the right technology. That technology will depend on your own needs. But generally speaking, you might consider technology that relates to three areas: Client-related technology (e-mail, Web site, e-newsletters), productivity-related technology (from basics like a solid phone system to CRM software, document management software, and voice recognition software), and technical support technology (including client profiling tools and reporting software).

Again, there's no single right answer here. The best bet is to consider what you currently have for technology, and what, if anything, you need to do a more effective job. Always remember, technology is there to help you do your main job--being closer to your clients. Investors, especially the affluent, don't want to be serviced by technology. They want to be serviced by you. That's one big reason to consider outsourcing some or all of your technology initiatives to third-party companies--it will free you up to focus on what really counts.

Create a vision for your firm. Vision is an often overused and misunderstood word in the corporate world, but the idea behind a vision for your business is simple: Create a picture in your mind about what your business will look like five years down the road, and communicate that vision clearly to clients and staff so everyone is pointed toward the end goal. Why do you need to this? Simple. You work in one of the most dynamic industries around. In the years ahead, you're probably going to have to alter your business due to constantly changing conditions among investments, investors, and regulations. What works today won't necessarily work tomorrow--and you've got to plan ahead or risk losing clients, employees, and revenue.

All Aboard

So that's the first part of this step--creating a detailed picture of what your firm will look like in five years. Ask yourself what you really want to accomplish, the legacy you want to leave behind, and the goals you see the company reaching. Take the time for reflection. Once you've got that mental image firmly cemented, it's time to communicate it and get the necessary people on board. Tell employees, clients, and any business partners about your ideal plan and the values, interests, and dreams you share with your team. Finally, guide the vision toward reality by setting specific goals and broad strategies for getting to each one. Each action should be specific, achievable, and assigned to someone who will take responsibility for it. Make sure you take on at least two actions yourself, to show everyone else that you are committed to your vision.

Develop a business plan. According to advisor coaching and research firm CEG Worldwide, the top-earning advisors are four times more likely to have a business plan than the lowest earners. Makes sense to me. The most successful people I know act deliberately, and are successful on purpose.

Today's business plans don't have to be 40-page monsters. In fact, there's no need for that. Of course, you'll want to include traditional financial projections and a brief executive summary explaining who you are, what you do, and the key points that readers should concentrate on.

Then, focus on these eight areas:

  • The specific market opportunity you're targeting
  • The value you bring to that opportunity (expertise, etc.)
  • Your qualifications and those of your team/partners
  • Your business model, and how it's different from the competition
  • Leveragability (how you'll scale your business)
  • How you'll make money
  • Risks (what could go wrong)
  • Use of funds (if you're raising capital, how that money will be used effectively)

Certainly these steps will take time--something that's in short supply for most of you. By spending some time on your business now, however, you'll end up with a stronger firm and, most importantly, more time in the future to do a great job for your clients.

Dan Wheeler is director of global financial advisor services at Dimensional Fund Advisors in Santa Monica, California. He can be reached at dan.wheeler@dfafunds.com.

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