From the October 2010 issue of Research Magazine • Subscribe!

How's Your Bedside Manner?

Individual attention is the key to building confidence, inspiring loyalty, reducing the likelihood of arbitration and increasing referrals.

While working with our healthcare clients to reduce the incident-rate of malpractice suits, we discovered that there is little correlation between the competency of doctors and lawsuits filed against them. The revelation was that regardless of experience and expertise, medical staff members who had established a strong patient-doctor relationship, maintained good bedside manner, exercised transparency and acknowledged shortcomings were far less likely to be sued than those who did not exhibit those attributes. Furthermore, we learned that patients were more inclined to refer friends based on the quality of the relationship rather than the competency of the doctor. It appears that patients place enormous value on good relationships with their doctors and healthcare professionals, and are also more trusting and forgiving when they experience individual attention.

Second in order of importance to people's physical health and that of their families (albeit a far second) is their financial health. The qualities which they expect and value in the relationship with their financial advisor are not all that different from those that they expect and value in the relationship with their doctors. Our clients desire, value (and are willing to pay for) a good advisor-client relationship. Client attention and attentiveness is part and parcel of the professional services which clients expect. When you provide individual attention with the same professionalism with which you serve their financial needs, you will inspire confidence, build robust and resilient customer loyalty, reduce litigation threats, and increase client referrals.

In this month's Client Relationship column, I offer some guidelines to balance your professional financial services with individual client attention. This will differentiate your brand with distinction and authenticity.

Be Available

With any important advisor such as a doctor, lawyer, therapist or even a trusted auto mechanic, there is security in knowing he or she is available to us when we have a problem. Even though we may never actually need to avail ourselves of this, there is comfort and security in knowing that they are there when we need them. It is the reason people pay for insurance policies even though they may never actually make a claim; it provides them with security and peace of mind.

Our clients require the same security, comfort and peace of mind. They need to feel that we are truly and credibly accessible to them whenever they may need us. It is not sufficient to just tell them that we are available. We need to restate, respond and react.

Restate: Always be sure to reiterate to your clients that you will make yourself available to them as needed. Telling them once at the beginning of the relationship will not assure them. They will need to hear a consistent message to feel at ease.

Respond: The fastest way to undermine your credibility is not to follow through on what you promise. Anytime your client does try to reach you, be sure to respond as soon as practically and reasonably possible, even if only to say: "I received your message and will get back to you within 24 hours." This will go a long way in building and maintaining credibility.

React: If there is any action required on your part as a result of your client contacting you, react and deliver reliably and swiftly. By reacting and responding assiduously to your clients' requests, you will support that which you have restated to them. They will experience you as an attentive and accessible advisor who takes them seriously.

Maintain Ongoing Communication

A common misconception is that when problems occur, effective communication becomes necessary. In fact, the reverse is true. Where there is not effective communication, problems, suspicion and misunderstandings occur. Frequent and ongoing communication is key and paramount to a strong and trusting advisor-client relationship. It also allows you to identify and address small issues before they reach crisis proportions.

When your clients are not actively pursuing you, do not construe that to mean there is no need to communicate. Besides the usual quarterly financial reports that you provide to them, there also needs to be personal and human interaction on a regular and recurring basis. To generate some meaningful communication and productive dialogue during these meetings, have some useful open-ended questions prepared. Open-ended questions fuel dialogue as wood fuels fire.

Good questions to ask are: "What are some of your thoughts about how our relationship is working for you?" "What aspects are you particularly satisfied with? And why?" Other questions to ask may be: "If there was one thing that we could improve on, what would that be?" "What are you most concerned about currently?" Important follow-ups include: "How do you see the current strategy aligning with your objectives?" "What has changed or may change in the foreseeable future that may require us to revisit our initial strategy?"

When conducting client meetings, be sure to listen attentively and adopt a mindset of curiosity, open-mindedness and willingness to learn. You will uncover a treasure trove of information that will allow you to connect to your clients on a very personal level.

Provide Reassurance

As a pilot, I often fly with passengers on board who have not flown in smaller aircraft before. They are usually apprehensive and it is my job as pilot-in-command to reassure them that they are absolutely safe. For example, before reaching cruise altitude, I will tell them that I will be reducing power and they will hear a change in the engine pitch, which is normal. If we encounter some rough air, I will reassure them that although uncomfortable, they are perfectly safe. By doing so, I am able to mitigate their anxiety and infuse them with confidence in me and my piloting skills.

As a financial advisor, it is similarly important that you manage your clients' anxieties and infuse them with confidence in you and your skills. At times of market fluctuations or economic turbulence that could potentially be cause for concern, send a memo to your clients. Let them know that you are aware and monitoring the situation, and in your opinion they are perfectly safe. Share your reasoning with them where possible. Of course, if in your opinion there is truly legitimate cause for concern -- where decisive and corrective action needs to be considered -- share this with them too. It will be reassuring for them to know that you are doing due diligence and will also inspire them with confidence in you.

When you introduce availability, ongoing communication and reassurance to your quiver, you will add the value of feeling attended to, connection and confidence to your clients' experience. By doing so you will be balancing strong professional services with individual client attention -- a distinctive and authentic differentiator to your brand.

Raphael Lapin is a Harvard-trained negotiation and communication specialist. He is the principal of Lapin Negotiation Strategies, a training and consulting company, and author of Working With Difficult People, part of DK Publishers' (Penguin Books) Essential Managers Series. He can be contacted at relapin@conflict-management.net.

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