September 4, 2013

Justifying Your Value to Clients: The Bottom Line

In the first part of this blog series, "To Justify the Value of Financial Planning to Clients, Consider Saliency," I defined the concept of saliency in the context of financial planning and the fees we charge clients.

In recent years saliency has become a tool that planners use to help direct client focus towards—and to make clients more cognizant of—certain services and benefits the planner provides. For instance, it has become increasingly popular to charge separate fees for financial planning on the basis that "clients value [more] what they pay for." The concept is relatively straightforward: if people are required to pay for the financial planning, they'll pay more attention to it, and value it more.

Yet the research on saliency suggests that in truth, the causal factors may not be so straightforward. Paying for financial planning doesn't necessarily make people value it more, it simply makes the cost of the planning services more salient, which may in turn lead people to consider more carefully the value they're getting for their cost.

In other words, charging more for financial planning actually makes clients question it more (just as they question cash spending over credit card spending and cash tolls over E-Z Pass tolls). To the extent that they question the value they receive for the cost and decide that the value is good, making the cost more salient ultimately makes the value more salient to clients as well. That's the case, however, not because the client literally values more what they pay for; instead it's simply that making the payment more salient and forcing them to think about what they're getting ultimately might make them decide to recognize the value more, too. 

Although this may seem like a finely sliced nuance, it's an extremely important one. After all, while charging (more or separately) for planning services may force clients to consider its value, which makes the benefits more salient for those who have positive outcomes, in some cases it may reveal to clients that the benefits they're getting just aren't worth the cost.

In other words, making the costs more salient really ups the ante to ensure that maximum value is delivered; otherwise, charging separately for financial planning may actually make clients try to 'opt out' of it and not pay for it, leading fewer clients to get financial planning, and ultimately making it less valuable for them. Therefore, making the price of financial planning salient when the value proposition is good may be unnecessary, and making it salient when the value is not good enough may make clients utilize it less (just as clients spend less with cash and are more resistant to the cost of cash tolls).

This can also lead to a dangerous spiral. If clients don't value the planning (because there's really not enough value for the cost, or they just don't properly perceive the value, or some other problem), then under the 'clients value what they pay for approach' the planner might try to increase the cost to try to change the perceived value, when in reality what needs to be done is to lower the cost or deliver more value to bring the cost/benefit equation better in line.

Otherwise, the more planners charge for planning, the less clients utilize it, which means they don't value it at all, and the client experience becomes even more focused on the portfolio, since it may be all that's left at that point.

Yet in the end, if charging directly for financial planning is really only helpful in situations where there really is material value being provided, and even then may be an inhibitor (as some clients may second guess the price they're paying even if the value is good), it raises the question: Are there other, and perhaps better, ways to make the value of financial planning more salient than just highlighting the cost?

So what are the alternatives to make the value of financial planning more salient, if not via making the way that clients pay for it more salient?

Option One: Enhance the Deliverables

One option is to try to enhance the deliverables associated with financial planning. Given that so much of what we do as financial planners is to deliver an intangible service (it's hard to quantify and really describe the value of "I give clients peace of mind"), anything that can make planning more tangible will help. Accordingly, I suspect this is one of the primary reasons that we as financial planners still deliver physical financial plans, even though we all collectively acknowledge that virtually no clients ever read them after the plan presentation meeting; it's one of the few tangible deliverables we (still) provide to help justify our cost.

But a written financial plan isn't the only kind of deliverable that can be provided. For instance, mind mapping can be used as a physical financial planning deliverable to visibly show how the planner is getting the client more financially organized. Even the client discovery/data gathering meeting can be turned into a more tangible experience by actually physically going through a client's files for them and delivering a fully sorted personal organizer as a take-home at the end of the meeting.

Option Two: Be More Obvious

Another approach to the issue is to simply take more overt actions to remind clients of the services that you have provided. For instance, I've met several firms that, once a year, will print the preceding years' worth of client activity (associated with any/all staff members of the firm) from their CRM and present it as a document to the client, simply to show the client how much has been done on his/her behalf over the prior 12 months.

Often, clients don't even realize how much "shadow work" happens behind the scenes…at least, until it's presented before their eyes in a clear list! Similarly, another easy way to reinforce the firm's financial planning focus in every meeting is simply to have an agenda where a financial planning check-in, and ongoing financial planning action items, is clearly present on the list as topics for the meeting.

In many cases, clients may fail to appreciate that the conversation with the advisor at the beginning of the meeting may be checking in on financial issues to the planner, but just idle "chit-chat" to the client; if you want clients to value the financial planning work that's being done, including monitoring and check-ins, then help make it top-of-mind for them. That means ensuring you set the appropriate frame and context by having an agenda that clearly articulates it as such.

In fact, arguably almost any regular touch points outside of the portfolio can help to reinforce that the planner does more than just provide investment management services. At the most basic level, there's a long line of research in the field of marketing that shows you can direct someone's attention towards what they should value about your product and service simply by...stating and reinforcing that value proposition!

But the bottom line is simply this: if the ultimate goal is to make clients value your financial planning more, then focus on how to make your financial planning more valuable, and how to make that value more salient to them. Drawing their attention to it by making them more conscious of the cost isn't likely to help, and in fact can backfire. After all, in other industries 'fees' are something that companies assess specifically to discourage behavior by making it more salient. No one assigns 'more value their airplane's cargo hold' because the airline charges baggage fees, nor I suspect does anyone value the flexibility of their bank's checking accounts more because they charge overdraft fees.

Health insurance companies apply fees, copayments, coinsurance, and deductibles with the deliberate intention of making the costs more salient so people will utilize services less and make fewer claims. Is that really the context you want to set when your clients consider your financial planning services?

Ultimately, the ideal should not be to make your financial planning fees more salient, but to minimize the saliency of the costs and maximize the saliency of the value itself. That will reinforce the actual value that's being delivered and the great work you're doing on their behalf, and keep your focus on how to make those services even more valuable in the future.

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