From the April 2012 issue of Investment Advisor • Subscribe!

March 26, 2012

How Are We Doing?

What do your clients really think about your work with them? Advisory boards and survey questionnaires are two good ways to find out

All too often we think the advisory process is going really well, when in actuality the client doesn’t feel heard or understood and is dissatisfied with the way things are proceeding. That can lead not just to missed opportunities, but to lost business.

Setting Up an Advisory Board

Some advisors create an advisory board to solicit ideas, gripes and comments from their clients. Jennifer Lazarus, principal of Lazarus Financial Planning in Durham, N.C., said she has had success with a client advisory council. “I invited clients who really ‘get me’ and who epitomize my ideal client,” she says. “It makes your best clients feel good that you have asked them for their input.”

When I asked how the council helped her as a leader, Lazarus told me, “They help me see what I’m not seeing myself. Their insights have been extraordinary—giving me the right words to convey what I do for them, showing me the way around a mental roadblock, brainstorming solutions to improve the client experience and helping me flesh out a new service I will launch in 2012.” (For more advisors’ comments about the value of advisory boards, see “Advisors Weigh in on Client Advisory Boards” on AdvisorOne.com.)

Soliciting Ongoing Client Feedback

Suppose you want to find out what a wider spectrum of clients are feeling, or you need more candid opinions than they may be willing to express in your presence. In these situations, a client survey can be an excellent tool.

You may want to put together a survey of your own, but unless the sample size is quite small, it’s no easy feat to handle the survey dissemination, follow up, analysis and action-step determination that are part of this process. A third-party firm can not only save you time, but provide greater objectivity and a degree of anonymity that may encourage more forthright feedback.

These considerations led me to Advisor Impact Inc., in Toronto. My interview with its president, Julie Littlechild, produced some unexpected insights about polling clients.

Olivia Mellan: Julie, what does your company do?

Julie Littlechild: We help advisors solicit client feedback through a personalized program that includes customized questions and reports, which enables them to create more engaged client relationships.

OM: Why is engagement so valuable?

JL: We’ve done a lot of research on what drives the deepest and most profitable relationships—“engaged clients,” as we call them. They are not only the most satisfied and loyal, but they drive almost all referrals.

We also found that one of the primary drivers in building engagement is client feedback. However, very few advisors actually ask their clients for comments. They may feel they don’t have time, or they don’t have the expertise to do it well, or there’s a bit of a fear factor: They’re not sure they want to know the answers.

We can fill that gap with a client audit.

OM: What is a client audit?

JL: This is our term for a client feedback program that is tailored to an individual advisor’s needs. Based on their particular objectives, advisors can choose the questions they want to ask. 

We develop the survey they send to their clients, and we provide survey reports, along with tools, resources and guidance to help the advisor leverage the information.

For example, one of our reports is called a Personalized Meeting Planner. This allows an advisor to automatically generate an agenda for the next meeting. The agenda will show how satisfied each client is, what they expect in terms of direct contact and reviews, and if they are interested in other services.

This report also shows the advisor’s share of each client’s wallet. In addition, we ask if the client is comfortable making a referral and confirm whether the client has provided a referral in the past year.

OM: What is the best channel (or channels) for a client survey or audit?

JL: Some advisors feel surveying clients face-to-face puts them on the spot. At times, face-to-face critiques can hurt. Or you may get platitudes: “Everything’s fine.” 

Asking your questions in email or mail through a third party avoids these problems and adds a level of credibility to the process. 

OM: Is it possible to handle this process badly?

JL: You could say that any feedback is good feedback, but there’s a broad range of value between “It didn’t hurt” and “It transformed my business.”

We see four common mistakes in advisors’ questionnaires:

  1. Failing to ask what is most important to your clients. Advisors sometimes inquire how satisfied a client is about X, Y and Z, but don’t ask how important these things are to the client. For example, they may ask the client to rate the quality of their newsletter, but don’t ask how important it is to the client. As a result, they could spend a lot of time and energy fixing something the client really doesn’t care about.
  2. Asking questions that can’t be clearly linked to action. Questions need to be meaningful in order to elicit answers you can act on.
  3. Failing to ask questions that identify new opportunities. Advisors are sometimes so focused on measuring client satisfaction that they forget to ask about other needs that could lead to expansion of the relationship.
  4. Asking two questions in one. When clients are asked, “How knowledgeable and effective is your advisor?”, they don’t know if they’re supposed to rate knowledge or effectiveness, which means you can’t really interpret the results.

OM: How can advisors use this client feedback?

JL: One way to get real value out of the process is to write to all clients, whether they responded to the survey or not, expressing thanks for the feedback and describing any changes that are going to be made as a result. These follow-ups send the message that the advisor takes feedback seriously and is listening carefully to clients.

On an individual client level, the findings can be valuable as the basis for a better, more deeply probing review meeting. The advisor may also be able to capitalize on untapped potential through cross-selling and referrals.

Finally, the survey will help identify a client at risk and determine the reasons why, allowing advisors to decide whether the relationship is salvageable.

What surprises advisors most is how much opportunity an audit can uncover. For example, when an advisor asked his clients whether they had provided a referral to him in the last 12 months, 45% said yes. But the advisor told me he had received referrals from only about 5% of his clients. In other words, many of his clients were making referrals, but those prospects weren’t contacting him. As a result of the audit, he could see who had made a referral and could follow up with them.

OM: How regularly should an advisor ask for feedback?

JL: Typically, every 12 to 18 months. It’s important to recognize that soliciting feedback is an ongoing process, not a one-time event. It’s about communicating to clients that you care all the time. You want to create the expectation that this is how you do business.

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