From the April 2011 issue of Investment Advisor • Subscribe!

The Path to Authentic Client Service

Advisors must ‘serve,’ not ‘sell’ in order to regain investors’ trust and elevate their perceptions of the financial services industry

At the height of the financial crisis, a survey by Harris Interactive revealed that just 11% of respondents had a positive view of the financial services industry. In an unsettling commentary on the state of our business, we tied with tobacco as being among the lowest-regarded of all industries. While the markets have started to rebound within the past year, the reputation of the financial industry—and the financial planning profession in general—has yet to fully recover.

At a time when consumers are in greater need of advice and guidance than ever, many investors are afraid or unwilling to turn to the financial services industry for help. Clients remain skeptical and suspicious of anything related to Wall Street, and that distrust has trickled down to their own financial advisors. Furthermore, the pervasive lack of trust has caused many advisors to lose sight of their original purpose—they may be systematically following a strategic business plan, but many have lost the enthusiasm and drive to provide authentic and meaningful service to their clients.

My prescription to overcome this malaise is to shift our focus from selling to serving. Serving is the true purpose and foundation of what we do; by connecting with clients on a deeper level, advisors will not only achieve personal fulfillment, but enhance the quality of their clients’ lives as well. I firmly believe it is possible—and necessary—to regain the trust of clients. But it will take courage and determination to get back to what I call the “art and heart” of the profession.

How Advisors Lost Their Way
In recent years, the “science” of the financial business has been the primary driver of success. In the midst of unprecedented economic turmoil, advisors felt compelled to buckle down and control what they could control. As a result, many stopped focusing on the aspects of their business that provide long-term fulfillment, and began operating in anticipation of what might happen next. Rather than acting with purpose, many advisors today are following a turn-key, methodical approach to client service. They are achieving the appropriate quantity of interactions, but most of these interactions are devoid of sentiment and meaning.

Most advisors have a system in place to track client contact. They strive for a certain number of “touches,” or interactions, every month. They send clients birthday cards and newsletters, and they track everything in a database with meticulous care. I recently spoke with an advisor who told me that he sent out some 300 hams to his clients this past Christmas. I challenged him to tell me what intention he was packaging up with those gifts, but he couldn’t answer—the gifts had become just another touch point, something to quantify.

The point is, if you are acting without purpose the effort is meaningless. Clients can see through pretense, and they may perceive it as an empty gesture. Genuinely thank your clients for their businesses and for placing their trust in you, without expecting anything in return. If your intentions are genuine, your clients will repay you with their loyalty.

The science of the business has begun to outweigh the spirit of the profession, or what I call “art.” I liken this phenomenon to a pendulum—on one side is “science,” and on the other, “art.” The two extremes of the pendulum can be related to the left and right hemispheres of the brain. The left side of the brain is the source of our analytical self, which is focused on numbers and logic. The right side of the brain is the source of our creativity, art, empathy and purpose. In order to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past, we must allow the pendulum to follow its natural swing, resting somewhere between science and art.

One is not more important than the other—using our whole brain is necessary to achieve balance in our personal and professional lives. Likewise, finding balance between the art and science of our business will be vital to regaining clients’ trust and repairing the financial industry’s troubled reputation.

Why Heart Matters
Your clients value you for who you are, perhaps even more than for what you know. You likely won’t serve your clients best if you are convinced that your value lies solely in your ability to pick investments. There may be other advisors with the same experience and expertise, but your clients will be more likely to trust in your advice through the ups and downs of the market if they are able to build a meaningful relationship with you.

Sports are a great example of why heart matters. Even the best athletes at the top of their game won’t succeed if their hearts aren’t in it. They can make all the right moves, run the fastest, hit the hardest, but if they aren’t truly engaged in what they are doing, and doing it for the right reasons, they will never become the best they can be. Similarly, if you are meeting all of your business objectives, but doing so without authenticity and purpose, you may not be able to truly make a difference in your clients’ lives. If your service doesn’t come from the heart, then what makes it rewarding?
 
Putting the “Why” Back Into Your Job
Friedrich Nietzsche said, “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.” Advisors need to ask themselves why they got into this profession in the first place, and where their true passion lies. Without knowing the reason behind your actions, all of your business tactics are devoid of purpose and significance. I’ve found that by focusing on the why first and the how second, the profitability of your business will come naturally because you will provide better service for your clients and earn their long-term trust.

The solution to the financial industry’s woes is not a product, or a new investment strategy, but rather more meaningful relationships between clients and advisors. Clients need to start seeing advisors as leaders, not salespeople. And turning around the image of the industry has become more critical than ever, as many investors’ financial troubles have gotten increasingly worse and more complex since the market downturn. Just as the need for quality, professional advice has reached its peak, our industry’s reputation has hit an all-time low. If we can’t remedy the situation soon, millions of people will choose to move forward without the guidance and support they need.

But you can’t lead from a place of fear. If you are operating in a reaction mode based on what the market is doing right now, then you have lost sight of the long-term approach that is not only the foundation of a sound financial planning strategy, but the basis of a strong client relationship, as well. Advisors must lead with conviction and confidence. Let your clients know you will support them throughout the whole journey, not just for this market cycle.

While leadership is a quality we all need to strive for, always remember that humility is the path to authentic service. Advisors should be willing to seek help when needed, including collaborating with others to pool knowledge and resources. Taking the credit for a good idea isn’t as important as doing a good job for your client. For example, when I was writing my book, “Don’t Believe Everything You Think,” I relied upon a co-writer to help me get it published. I could have done it myself and had just my name on the jacket, but my end goal wasn’t personal recognition—it was to get the ideas and advice in my book into the hands of financial planners.

I’d also like to stress that advisors should believe what they are teaching and lead by example. As a case in point, I often begin seminars by asking the advisors in the audience, “How many of you feel that everyone should have a personal financial advisor?” Inevitably, all the hands in the room go up. At the end of the presentation, I ask the audience, “How many of you have your own financial advisor?” Without fail, only one or two people raise their hands. Even though my words seemed to resonate with them throughout the seminar, in the end it becomes apparent that the majority of advisors aren’t following their own advice.

Finally, it may sound trite, but the most important element of serving, rather than selling, is listening. Get back to the fundamentals of financial planning by assessing your clients’ true needs—do they need better asset allocation, or more attention and guidance?

A New Way of Thinking
The “serving rather than selling” approach I’m advocating is not intended to be an entirely new way of financial advising. Furthermore, I’m not suggesting we throw all of the tried-and-true practice management techniques out the window. Instead, I urge you to think of this approach as a new take on ideas that have been around for decades.

It may be difficult for advisors to embrace a new mentality of balancing art and science, but it’s important to note that the most successful and elite advisors are already operating this way. The best advisors lead with humble confidence rather than from a place of fear; their actions and gestures carry meaning and purpose; and they focus on the why rather than the how. If your enthusiasm for your work parallels the energy you are putting into it, you will quickly realize your full potential—and that energy is infectious.

Clients appreciate when advisors hold their hands through tough decisions and act as trustworthy advocates of their financial health. When clients feel their needs are genuinely being served, they are more trusting in the long term. They are willing to weather the inevitable storms that occur in the markets and in their personal lives with their advisors. At the same time, advisors who balance art and science, and serve from the heart feel rewarded by the positive influence they have on their clients’ lives.

It is possible to restore consumer trust in financial services. A profession that is rooted in guidance, competence and integrity should never be viewed in the same light as an industry that profits from the sale of known carcinogens. By shifting the focus from selling to serving, and getting back to the heart of our business, we can regain clients’ trust and rediscover the original source of our personal fulfillment as financial professionals.    

Steve Luckenbach, regional vice president of Jackson National Life Distributors LLC, has been in the financial services industry for over 24 years and is a popular speaker across the country.

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