From the February 2014 issue of Research Magazine • Subscribe!

How to Offer a ‘Mind-Blowing’ Client Experience

Successful advisors increasingly take a highly personalized approach

Illustration by Shaw Nielsen Illustration by Shaw Nielsen

The wealth management firm Aspiriant believes the client experience is so important that on its website everything else is labeled just that: everything else.

Aspiriant gets what most advisors do not. The delivery of a superlative client experience is the last frontier when it comes to differentiating one advisor from another.

As consultant Randy Fox, a founding member of the non-profit Advisors in Philanthropy, observes: “It’s a critical element that most advisors overlook. It’s a differentiator, a trust builder. It shows clients that you care, honor and respect the relationship. Financial advisors are a dime a dozen, they’re everywhere. This is providing something that says: ‘I’m not like everybody else.’”

So what does it take to create what performance improvement consultant Rick Conlow, co-founder of Minneapolis-based WCW Partners, calls “moments of magic?”

It’s important to start, he says, with authenticity.

“You have to make a decision about what you stand for. You have to help others sincerely and genuinely with a caring approach and you have to do that consistently,” says Conlow. “You can’t just put a plaque on the wall with your set of values. The leader at the top has to walk the talk.”

Personalization is another key driver of the client experience.

“The difference between great customer service and mind-blowing customer service is personalization,” according to Dave Wakeman, whose Washington, D.C.-based Wakeman Consulting Group worked with American Express to expand services to its Black Card members.

As an example, Wakeman points to Four Seasons, which has used data from previous hotel stays to personalize the Wakeman family’s experience. When son Cormac was just two, staff wrote Cormac’s name on the bathroom mirror with stick-on letters and had a Curious George doll waiting for him.

“They have all this data on us and they turn it up a notch every time we stay there,” he adds.

The good news is that today’s competitive environment has started to produce some fresh thinking when it comes to ramping up the client experience at advisory firms.

David Kanani, founder and president of Kanani Advisory Group in Irvine, Calif., last March hired a “director of first impressions.” Among many other things, she greets clients with a handsome beverage menu and cookies baked fresh on site. In the sitting area, a TV cycles through slides that include a personalized welcome with the clients’ names.

“We want to make sure they have an exceptional experience. We are in a competitive business in one of the highest income regions in the country. We are within five miles of a lot of advisors,” says Kanani, who manages $75 million in assets. “I don’t want them to be happy. I want them to rave about us.”

Irvine, Calif.-based First Foundation Advisors, which manages $2.6 billion for wealthy individuals, has added several complimentary services to enhance its offering—among them, an initiative to create a female legacy; a program that screens and administers academic scholarships from client families; and a service that helps clients build, catalog and, eventually, pass on their art collections.

“Ultimately, we make most of our money on banking products and assets under management but if it enhances the experience it makes a better client for us,” says John Hakopean, the firm’s president. “You’ve got to get to that second and third iteration of the client experience today. Everybody can manage money. A lot of people can do planning. That’s why you’ve got to keep pushing and get into some of these niche categories to round out the client you want to work with.”

John L. Evans Jr., executive director of Denver-based Janus Labs, has created a program called WOW that is designed to drive “extreme” client loyalty. The premise is simple: It is the unexpected and thoughtful gesture that makes your clients realize that you offer not only professional advice but a level of service that seems unique to them.

“Practitioners of WOW are constantly looking for opportunities to surprise and delight. This kettle of fish is all about having information—high levels of emotional intelligence to increase a systematic WOW experience. It’s a race for creativity,” notes Evans, author of The Book of WOW, a proprietary publication that will become available on Amazon later this year. “It’s a huge positive you can deliver irrespective of what’s happening in the financial markets.”

One of Evans’ favorite WOW anecdotes involves an advisor who flew with his best client and the client’s twin daughters to Las Vegas on a trip. The twins were turning 21 that day and the advisor wanted to treat them to a WOW moment so he asked the Southwest flight attendant to sing happy birthday to them.

The attendant did him one better. When the airplane arrived at the gate, the pilot came out and escorted the women off the plane with much fanfare. Then, at the gate, they were greeted with a bottle of champagne and the “Happy Birthday” song.

“That’s a value burst,” says Evans. “You want people to tell your story. I promise you that guy will be telling stories about what his FA did on the flight to Las Vegas forever. That’s what you want. That’s a WOW.”

Here’s a sampler of what forward-thinking advisors are doing to take the client experience to the next level:

Empower Staff. Ritz-Carlton or Four Seasons-style excellence can only occur when there is a corporate culture that fosters it. So when Mid Atlantic Capital Group in Pittsburgh adopted Evans’ program, Group CEO Tim Friday appointed a “WOW czar” from each of the firm’s eight work groups to propose WOW experiences.

“They are our eyes and ears. It gets the creative juices flowing—and it’s contagious,” says Friday. “Gone are the days of simply sending someone flowers for a birthday. The intention here is to create a lasting impression.”

In one recent WOW, a Mid Atlantic Capital employee learned that her contact—an administrative assistant for a third-party 401(k) record-keeper—was taking on a side job teaching Zumba to pay for her daughter’s dance lessons. The employee and eight other Mid Atlantic Capital colleagues drove an hour and a half during off-hours to participate in the woman’s first class.

Friday has taken WOW a step further, creating an “Extra Mile” program that recognizes employees internally. “At random times the WOW committee and others will show up at the employee’s desk with noisemakers, balloons and a gift card,” he says. “It doesn’t need to cost a lot of money. It’s all about stopping and saying ‘Hey, we really appreciate you’ to people with whom we have daily interactions.”

Keep It Authentic. Certified financial planner Christina Povenmire, who heads CMP Financial Planning in Columbus, Ohio, had been trying for years to develop a “secondary message” to impart to her 55 clients. Nothing fit until Povenmire, a self-described health nut, began to share her own success at living a healthier lifestyle.

She routinely talks at client meetings about the importance of diet, nutrition and exercise, and she’s given most of her clients a book by neuroscientist Daniel Amen.

“The whole theme is to help clients live the healthiest life possible, financially and beyond. I’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback,” she says. “I was always looking for that secondary message to give credibility—something that would let them know I care about their business, of course, but I also care about them. What I found is that the best theme is sharing something that runs true for you. Then you can talk about it passionately.”

Share the Love. Since 1996, CPA David Pope has grown his accounting business from three to nearly 1,900 clients with these principles in mind: Give them access. Listen. Make them feel important.

Pope, president of three firms in Wyoming and Colorado, says the clients he has lost over the years were those who focused on pricing only. “The clients who stayed and grew with me were the clients I cared about—and the ones my employees cared about,” says Pope, who considers a caring nature vital to an employee’s job description.

The love starts at the beginning, when a new client receives a care package that includes sweets and a coffee cup with the company logo. There have been heroic moments—like when Pope retrieved a client’s server from smoldering rubble when the man’s construction equipment facility burned to the ground on a New Year’s Eve. Pope took the server back to his conference room and hired an analyst who was able to extract the hard drive and retrieve 96% of the data.

Six months ago, Pope started a blog in which he shares personal news such as the death of his bull terrier Maggie along with professional insights. “There’s so much more to life than accounting,” he says. “I think my clients see that.” The blog had 10,000 hits during the first four months it went live.

“We are competing against people who are willing to lower prices to get a client. If we had followed that paradigm, we would have died a little more each year,” says Pope. “That’s why we have tried to separate ourselves.”

Make It ‘Rare and Wonderful.’ On its website, high-end wealth management firm Aspiriant, headquartered in San Francisco, says its clients experience something “rare and wonderful” as a result of a forward-thinking business model that encompasses things like love, empowerment, “brainy” and farsightedness.

As an example, New York City advisor Lisa Colletti headed a team that helped a senior level investment company executive prepare for retirement. Not only were there decisions to make about pension elections and payouts but Colletti worked on a complex cost basis project that took months to sort out, in part because many historical documents had been destroyed during the 9/11 attacks.

Last year, the retired executive and his wife asked Colletti to chair a family meeting and share the parents’ $110 million net worth statement with their two adult children for the first time.

“Working with this family has been the quintessential experience every advisor talks about being involved in. Being brought into that conversation was the biggest compliment any client could give,” says Colletti. “When you get into the type of planning we are doing and the amount of time we are involved in these relationships, there needs to be a feeling of being cared for and loved. I am taking care of these folks the way I would take care of my own family.”

The Technology Play. While the human touch is critical to any successful client experience, there is a growing role that technology can play to maximize good will, according to Neesha Hathi, senior vice president of Advisor Technology Solutions for Schwab Advisor Services in San Francisco.

“It feels to me as if many advisors, by brute force, have created a superlative client experience. That’s the human connection and while it’s a really important part of the secret sauce, you need to reinforce that with something scalable,” Hathi says. “That’s where we think of opportunities with technology. If you can’t scale the relationship management model, what you can do is help scale the relationship manager.”

The cloud and big data are bringing more and more information to client-facing advisors, she notes, and web analytics can track how clients are interacting with an advisor’s website or mobile apps. All of that, Hathi adds, allows the advisor to create relevance about what clients need and what’s important to them.

In response to demand for anytime, anywhere service, Schwab recently introduced a branded mobile app that enables advisors to have a 24/7 connection with clients.

“Technology is foundational in helping advisors meet their clients’ expectations,” she said. “Technology is going to make it easier to create a superlative client experience.”

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