From the April 2008 issue of Wealth Manager Web • Subscribe!

April 1, 2008

Clients on Board

I've had the creation of a client advisory board on my To-Do list for several years now. Friends of mine who have them all rave about the value they've brought. So, I'm finally getting around to it. Better late than never, or so they say.

Why bother?

One of the reasons for my delay in getting to this project was that I always had plenty of other things on my task list. I already had a pretty good idea of what we needed to accomplish in order to get us to the next level of service and quality. My concern was that a client advisory board--or CAB--would add to that total, and there are only so many things you can effectively work on at one time.

My staff will tell you that we still have plenty of new ideas on our plate. In fact, we have so many things going on right now, that we've recently had to develop a project management spreadsheet to keep track of everything and make sure that no one is over-burdened with projects that don't address their core job functions. That being said, I've come to realize that it's important to periodically renew the big-picture perspective. In this case, we need to be sure that the improvements we are working on will have a positive, and recognizable, effect on our clients.

I have therefore concluded that now is the time to move on the client advisory board project. Very simply, my hopes are that input and feedback from our clients will improve our business and help us to realize at least some of the following benefits:

There are specific ideas and issues on which we'd like to get client feedback. For example, we have been researching client services that we can implement on our Web site, such as a document vault. We'd like as many clients as possible to make use of this service, but how do we introduce the topic? How do we explain it and position it so that clients will see it as an important benefit and use it accordingly?

We will be asking some of our best clients to participate in the CAB, which, hopefully, will reinforce their roles as advocates for the firm. As they think about us further and increase their understanding of our purposes and processes, they will become even better advocates for us--perhaps leading to even more referrals.

We need to be aware of how changes that have been happening within the firm--especially some subtle yet important ones--are being received. We need to be aware of our clients' perceptions. We want the "client experience" to be the best possible, but unless you ask, you may not ever hear about things that haven't gone as well as anticipated. In addition, our clients all have experience with other service providers of one type or another, and just one or two insights into what they like about those experiences can help us improve our own.

We want those on the board to represent our client base and to hold us accountable to our promises. We like to think we do a pretty good job of doing what we say we will, but there's no better way to test that assumption than to ask people to point out when you fail to do so.

We hope that once we've held a few of these "board meetings," clients will be able to contribute their perspective to our proposed firm strategies and directions.

And to be even more specific, we hope to receive suggestions and feedback from our client advisory board on new programs, services and client activities; our marketing materials, existing services and deliverables; staff interactions; office environment; industry issues and trends we might have missed and marketing opportunities.

Selection and Logistics

We've decided that initially, we'll hold two, two-and-a-half-hour meetings a year, each over dinner (probably in a private room of a top local restaurant). We want the evening to be pleasant and comfortable, but with an organized agenda and meeting materials to be sent out ahead of time. To encourage clients to take this seriously, we will offer them $500 per meeting but we expect that many of them will ask us to donate that amount to a local charity. (We've also heard that many advisors find this honorarium unnecessary.) Membership will be on a rotating basis--typically for three years--although initially it will need to be staggered. The CAB will not be a board of directors with decision-making powers, but rather an advisory board whose intention is to provide input and ideas. However, in order to be accountable to the group, we will record their recommendations and report back on what came of each idea at the next meeting

Our client advisory board will be made up of six to eight people--small enough to be very manageable and allow everyone plenty of air time, but large enough so that there will be diversity of opinion. Members will have been our clients for at least two years and will be among our "best" target clients. (Clients with unique circumstances or those who must receive special treatment from us in one way or another don't represent the kind of core business we want to provide in the future, and so probably would not be a good fit for this group.)

In the interests of diversity, we will invite only one partner of a couple (in most cases, we'll get the other at a future time. We have clients around the country and a few outside, but in order to attend meetings, they need to be accessible to meetings in our home location--San Francisco. Because we want our client advisory board to be representative of our diversified client base, we want a balance of men and women, working and retired, employees and bosses.

In order for this to be successful in our terms, we'll need individuals whose personal characteristics allow them to speak up in a group, yet not dominate the conversation. We need them to be willing to offer criticism, tempered with constructive suggestions. Finally, we want this to be a fun experience for us and for our clients, so they should be willing and able to have fun and enjoy themselves in a group setting.

Discussion Ground Rules

Any time you hold a group meeting, it's important to establish ground rules that everyone agrees to and which will further the intended purpose of the group. In the case of our client advisory board, we hope to have an environment of free-flowing ideas, a positive and helpful spirit, and a willingness to be open and leverage off each other's ideas. We want members to offer comments that are honest, as opposed to saying what they think we want to hear. If a member has an idea, we want to hear it. All topics will be fair game, as long as they are related to helping Mosaic improve business. We will expect an open and positive environment for discussions that will be more like "brain storming" sessions than decision-making ones. That means criticism of others' ideas will generally not be acceptable.

Discussions with a group of people who are only familiar with a small part of your business operations can easily go off track or become non-productive. It's hard for anyone to really know what they want if they don't know what's possible. Asking clients such abstract questions as, "What services would you like us to bring you that we don't already?" can be quite limiting--despite their intent to be expansive. In general, clients won't know how to respond to the question, making it more likely they won't be able to offer any ideas on the subject. Or if they do, their ideas are likely to be impractical and therefore, of no value.

We will try to ask more direct questions-- ("Tell me about your experiences at our last client appreciation event." "Here's what we are thinking about for our new brochure; what are your reactions?")--which are more likely to garner useful information. That said, you probably need to ask the general question occasionally, to avoid missing something that is on their minds. I like to start a meeting with a question like, "What's on your minds that you'd like to offer?" Once that discussion dies down, move on with the planned meeting agenda.

While it might seem a burden at first, clients appreciate the opportunity to give back to you. If you've done a good job for them--and most of us have--they appreciate what you've done and the chance to offer you something in return typically will be well received. Only your clients can tell you what your clients are thinking and feeling. A client advisory board is a great way for them to help you and for you to determine what you need to do differently in order to come closer to your ideal.

If you already have a client advisory board, I'd love to hear what you've done that has made it particularly effective. If this article proves useful to you and helped you decide to create a client advisory board, please let me know.

Norman M. Boone, MBA, CFP, is the founder and president of Mosaic Financial Partners Inc., a San Francisco-based fee-only financial planning and investment firm. He is also co-creator of the award-winning IPS AdvisorPro, a Web-based Investment Policy Statement generation software solution for advisors. He can be reached at Norm@MosaicFP.com.

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