During the financial meltdown, many advisors went on red alert -- rushing out communications to frightened clients. Webinars, town halls, even therapy sessions were all part of the mix. Now, as the economy stabilizes and clients move beyond crisis mode, forward-thinking advisors are re-engineering their approach to clients from the very first contact to the annual review.
It's a fundamental change -- creating what Ken Haman, managing director of The Advisor Institute, a value-added training program at AllianceBernstein, describes as a shift from fact-finding to "a real discovery" of the client.
"Everybody has had multiple experiences with financial advisors, most doing it in the old model of talking about a particular investment, about the markets, and about the client's actual needs in a fairly limited way -- reducing the client to a wallet, as it were," says Haman. "What I'm talking about is the ability in the first meeting or two to focus not on the money situation but on building a rapport-based relationship and to explore the unique life situation of the client."
Stephanie Bogan, president of Quantuvis Consulting in Redlands, Calif., says progressive advisors are employing "consistent intentional communications" to set client expectations.
As never before, advisors are also using client relationship management (CRM) technology to increase their bandwidth.
As George Tamer, director of strategic relationships for TD Ameritrade Institutional, puts it: "CRM is a game changer, offering industrial-strength solutions for prospecting, keeping existing clients informed, creating the right processes and workflows in your office. Can you [say] with a high level of confidence whether each prospect and client you take on gets the same experience each time? With a powerful CRM, the answer can be yes."
Research from AllianceBernstein shows that high-net-worth investors don't need technical expertise as much as someone who understands them. Baby boomers, in particular, want high-quality attention and a sense of security going forward, according to Haman.
"The big correction brought this to a higher degree of poignancy," he added. "This speaks to not just how advisors communicate with them but how they invest for them and the tools they use to create that experience of confidence. Advisors must have the ability to navigate the capital markets on behalf of their clients and the ability to deeply understand the values, hopes and dreams of those clients in their unique situation in life. Those are two skills they've never had to have before."
With financial advice increasingly tied to a client's most personal goals, here are 10 client service and communications strategies to consider that could help take your advisory business to the next level.
1 Develop a crisis plan. In the event of a major event, Bogan recommends having a plan in place that defines which clients will be serviced -- and how. First, identify the "trigger:" a 5 percent market loss in one day, a terrorist attack, a natural disaster. Then determine by client type how you will respond to such an event. For example, all clients might receive an e-mail within two hours of an event. "A" clients will receive a personal call within four hours and "B" clients within 24 hours, with a webinar scheduled for everyone within 72 hours. Next, tell your clients exactly what to expect in a crisis. "This is the difference between a best practices firm and a doing OK firm," Bogan says. "When a trigger event occurs, you push the button. You deliver the goods. You do what you said you were going to do. You look like a rock star."
2 Form a client study group. During the downturn, Raymond James Financial Services advisor Nancy Caton formed a study group that helped clients dispel their fear. "I had already given my clients so much education about markets, but what I really took away was that they were very frightened," says Caton, a San Rafael, Calif.-based advisor with $173 million in assets under management. "It was a good way to get information out at once. The other part I didn't realize is how much comfort people got from being together with people like themselves and not feeling like they were alone." In the height of the meltdown, more than 50 clients attended the group. A dozen or so have hung in to study topics such as new state taxes and health care reform.
3 Invest in CRM software. Advances in advisor-specific CRM technology have created a high-quality process with assembly line-like precision, according to Tamer. When the Dow drops 500 points, the CRM can send off a note to everyone in the system with your explanation of what transpired. If there's news on health care reform, you can dispatch a communication to clients who work in that industry. Want to invite your top 25 clients to a wine tasting? Just tag the CRM and it's done. "Advisors have been slow to embrace this. It takes time for adoption of new technologies, but we are getting to that tipping point," says Tamer. "There isn't an advisor I know who isn't at least thinking about it."
4 Bring a therapist on board. For almost three years, advisor Cicily Maton, of Aequus Wealth Management Resources in Chicago, has collaborated with therapist Wm. Marty Martin during the first three to five meetings with new clients. The two work together with clients to uncover money stressors and to develop a financial plan. The result? "The client is much clearer about what they want and much more committed about starting to do the things to get them where they want to go," says Maton, whose firm oversees $100 million in assets under management. The affiliation was especially useful during the downturn when Maton, along with her partner and daughter Michelle Maton, and Martin teamed up for "town halls" and conference calls with clients. Martin's role was helping clients deal with the emotional toll of the crisis. "This has many benefits from many sources and angles," adds Cicily Maton. "Our clients think it's terrific."
5 Manage for "career assets." The recession cast into high relief the fact that the U.S. economy has fundamentally changed and that some workers need to reconsider their career path, according to Columbus, Ohio-based career coach Janine Moon, author of Career Ownership: Creating 'Job Security' In Any Economy. On top of that, research shows that people who have been laid off for extended periods experience an earnings gap from which they never recover. To that end, Moon says advisors -- or advisors in partnership with career counselors -- need to help clients protect and develop their career assets. "As trusted advisors they can help people see this reality and prepare for it, whether it's getting clear on what they're good at, updating jobs skills, mapping out your own job security," she said. "This involves financial freedom and lifelong earnings capacity." Venues where the topic might be discussed: client discovery and annual meetings.
6 Launch a webinar series. Just as the market was beginning to melt down, LPL Financial advisor Lynn Ballou and her partner surveyed their 170 clients about what type of educational format they prefer. Overwhelmingly, their clients identified the in-person seminar. But when Ballou tried to arrange one, their clients -- busy and geographically dispersed -- couldn't hold to a time and a place. Hence, the webinar. As many as 50 clients have attended the webinars, held three times a year at a minimum cost. Often, but not always, the webinars can be replayed. In the midst of the panic, the Lafayette, Calif.-based Ballou, with $170 million in assets under management, got "calm and careful" speakers to address her clients. More recently, she had an expert talk about charitable giving. "The days of having a Saturday morning or Thursday night seminar and expecting anyone to show up are long gone," she says. "We quickly realized that the best way to reach everyone in a time of need was going to be by webinar."
7 Become a social media specialist. Ballou and partner Marilyn Plum hired a marketing expert to help design the webinars along with a blog and a presence on Twitter and Facebook. "You want to be busy all day doing your top best work," says Ballou. "My top best work is not tweeting." Kevin Dinino, who runs KCD PR, creates content that is compliance-approved. He's also optimized the Ballou Plum Wealth Advisors website, helping drive prospective clients to it. Ballou, meanwhile, blogs about her clients. "We all get sick of the oil spills, of North Korea going after South Korea. We need fun," she says. "The blog reminds clients in stressful times to just breathe and go off and live your life. There is more going on than the market going up or down. We need to remind ourselves we're long-term and not to get caught up in the drama."
8 Use a mind map. Advisors like Gary Klaben, who heads Coyle Asset Management in Glenview, Ill., use mind mapping software to communicate client information. Essentially, it's a visual tool that organizes the client's world -- finances, investments, family issues, philanthropy, businesses -- into an easy-to-grasp map. Using the mind map, Klaben, who advises on $600 million in assets, says it takes as little as 15 minutes to prepare for a client review as opposed to one to two hours. It also helps clients get right to the heart of their issues so that much more time in a review is spent on matters of substance such as how to support a child who is drug-addicted or ways to address leadership issues with heirs. "The mind map is all about associations. When you have an association, you have connections. When you have connections, you get long-term memory," says Klaben, who gives workshops to advisors on mind mapping. "It's your memory board, kind of." Mind mapping also uncovers uncompensated "shadow work" that advisors do on behalf of clients. The first year he used mind mapping, Klaben was able to charge for $250,000 in work that until then had gone unrecognized.
9 Get interactive. Thanks to technology, the advisor-client engagement is becoming increasingly interactive and on-demand. Mind mapping is one example, the smart board or smart screen another. In the latter instance, an advisor uses an interactive white board, for example, to develop a financial plan with a client. "It becomes 'our plan,' not 'my plan,' and it can be really transformative from a relationship standpoint," says Spenser Segal, president of ActiFi, a software and solutions company in Plymouth, Minn. "Obviously, it's a trend among segments of clients who are more engaged and don't want to just be spoken to but have ownership in their own financial lives. Done well, it can be incredibly engaging." One caveat: More is not better; as Segal puts it, better is better. "You don't want to give your client a bunch of stuff. It can be overwhelming. Give them the things that matter in a format that is understandable."
10 Create a client experience. The financial meltdown reminded a lot of advisors how important it is to structure a client experience that is consistent and ideal. As Kim Dellarocca, director of global marketing for Pershing Advisor Solutions, notes: "Close relationships mean satisfied clients who often create referral opportunities." Pershing in June launched "Creating Client Engagement," a back-to-basics communications strategy that includes regular client touches, educational outreach to target clients, and a client satisfaction survey. "People crave community. As much as you can, foster that in your advisory business so that people feel you are not just their investment manager, but that you are part of something," she added. "There's a real upside to doing this well."