January 25, 2013

Client Views: Fear and Loathing in the Reception Room

The receptionist, and reception area, can give advisors a leg up in winning new business or kill the deal before you even meet

If it’s true that you never get a second chance to make a first impression, financial advisors should give at least as much thought to their receptionists' conduct and the reception area as to retirement income or portfolio rebalancing.

That is the subject of a recent post by Average Joe, a blogger and former financial advisor who describes himself as “a guy who’s been in hundreds of advisory offices.”

Perhaps because the blog post is directed to consumers seeking financial advice (as opposed to financial professionals), the article and the 55 reader comments it generated provide valuable insights for working financial advisors.

One reader comment in particular encapsulated the subject’s importance:

“It made a huge impression on us when we walked into a financial advisor’s office and the receptionist remembered our name and greeted us warmly. She didn’t have to search in a schedule book to figure out what time our meeting was or who we were there to see. She escorted us to the meeting room, chatted on the way, offered us drinks…really made us feel welcome. She was prepared in advance to relax us. She was a perfect host. After four prior meetings at other firms that didn’t go so well, this advisor earned our business. And it all started up front with her.”

A key premise of the post is that clients and prospects particularly are nervous when they walk into a financial advisor’s office.

Says Average Joe: “Every good advisor knows that new and existing clients might come in with concerns and a case of ‘nerves.’ While we had plenty of routine reviews with clients when I was practicing, there were times that people came in after a loved one died, when kids were headed to college, their company had made a retirement offer, our client had been fired, or a new baby was on the way.”

The receptionist, and reception area, are therefore critical to dissipating this tension.

“A great receptionist is the eyes and ears of a great advisor. My receptionist would let me know if someone seemed especially anxious, so I was armed and ready when the client arrived at the meeting room,” Average Joe writes.

Aside from the receptionist, the entry area makes a crucial impression.

“Everything is a hint about how the advisor values you, your money and their own business,” writes Average Joe, who recommends soothing music and lifestyle magazines over CNBC and financial magazines. “Who the hell wants to watch the market tank and people screaming on the trading floor before they meet with their advisor?”

The former advisor also strongly advises against politically oriented television.

“Why do I want my left-leaning multimillionaire prospects to hate me before they actually shake my hand because Fox News was on the television (or, swinging the other way, right-leaning clients while I’m playing MSNBC….). Politics don’t mix with good business (at least on the retail level),” he writes.

Average Joe also recommends a middle path when it comes to refreshments:

“I don’t want a cheap paper cup. Is the advisor broke? Are they one step from going out of business? On the other hand, if I’m being offered lattes or espresso out of an expensive machine, that’s too far. We offered soft drinks, bottled water and a variety of Keurig coffees, served in nice recyclable cups with lids or mugs with our firm’s logo.”

Having visited numerous advisory offices, Average Joe also noted in the comments section that “One office was so well appointed with expensive decor that I heard clients say on more than one occasion, ‘Is this what we’re paying for?’”

The importance of comfort—in the advisor’s office as well as the reception area—was alluded to by a Merrill Lynch client in the comments section:

“You walk in and have all the dark colored wooden paneled walls…filled with overgrown fake plants…and 2 chairs….the lobby is completely enclosed in a little room. Then we go in to meet the advisor and they are sitting across a huge desk in a chair that seems to tower over the chairs we are sitting in. Giving us that inferior feeling. Thankfully they are doing good work…or we wouldn’t stay because we are anxious each time we go.”

In contrast, Average Joe, who hired a designer to make his entry area comfortable and replete with relaxing images, says that “because I think we did such a great job on our reception, I had a real leg up on gaining a new client even before they met me for the first time.”

Having happy employees is of supreme importance in a customer-service oriented business:

“The receptionist’s number one task is to make sure that clients feel welcome. I’ve seen plenty of disgruntled receptionists and can confirm that I’ve never met one that wasn’t unhappy for a reason (usually they hated their boss, the advisor),” Average Joe writes.

The point was also made by AdvisorOne editorial director Jamie Green, in an editor’s letter for Investment Advisor magazine. Writing on the importance of keeping “lower-level” employees happy, Green shared the following anecdote:

“I learned this truth [about keeping all employees happy] early in my journalism career, when I noticed the great amount of attention one advertising salesperson seemed to be spending on our receptionist—nearly every morning he would bring her a steaming cup of coffee and a fresh Dunkin' donut. I joked with him about his flirtation with this young woman, but he quickly corrected me. ‘She could make or break me,’ he argued, noting that when a client telephoned and he was on another call or not in the office, her attitude towards that client could make all the difference in the world to his success.”

Following are additional AdvisorOne resources on how to treat your prospective and existing clients, and the key role all your employees have in that client experience:

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