The phrase “value-added service” is used quite often, but what does it really mean? How can advisors ensure that they live up to the promise?

The core of true “value-added service” is building a strong, trusting relationship with each client and business customer. Not only is it gratifying to build and sustain these relationships, it is important to the advisor’s reputation, ability to attract new customers and to the bottom line.

In the financial world, the strength of these relationships is more important than ever. Customers have more choices in products and more places to go to get them. Wholesalers, such as brokerage general agencies, can choose which carriers to represent and to whom to sell. And insurance companies can distribute their products through many channels, including independent brokerage, insurance marketing organizations, banks, brokerage houses or direct via e-retailing.

Each relationship needs to be nurtured, just as advisors and brokers need to nurture the end customer who buys the policy. The question is, ‘how to be best positioned to establish customer relationships firmly?’ Here are some suggestions:

1. Understand each customer and be proactive in meeting his/her needs. It is important to spend effort constantly to establish trust and improve upon mutual commitment. It is always less expensive to keep a customer than to bring him back after having lost him.

2. Establish mutual goals. Develop a joint business plan that clearly articulates goals, actions, accountabilities and timelines. Working toward a common goal will reinforce your commitment to each other. Routinely evaluate progress and recalibrate as needed.

3. Ensure honest, 2-way communication. Listen to the customer. Respond to problems quickly, offer insightful, constructive feedback, and ask for the same in return. Building mutual trust leads to solid business-client relationships. Only then will the client bring additional business, as well as valuable referrals that increase the firm’s network of customers.

4. Stand out from your competitors. Articulate unique competencies and the advantages clients gain by working with the firm. Target messages to promote these capabilities.

5. Deliver a consistent brand image at every customer touch point. From phone staff and correspondence to marketing materials and Web presence, all should be designed with a consistent look and common tone, and deliver a positive customer experience.

6. Balance the use of technology and the human touch. Delivering service with speed, accuracy and productivity is very important. It is equally important to provide a personal touch in managing the customer relationship. Efficient and informative e-mails can be an effective communication tool for targeting a niche market. But remember that while the speed of problem resolution or instant gratification through e-mail adds value, face-to-face communication is also critical in solidifying and maintaining business relationships.

Finally, always show appreciation for the customer’s business.

The goal is the kind of value-added service that builds relationships. The above are steps for getting there. Take them, and before long, the impact will show up in improved results.

Terry Colosi, CLU, ACS, CPIW, is life insurance business development manager with Genworth Financial, Lynchburg, Va. Her e-mail address is terry.colosi@genworth.com.

Remember that while the speed of problem resolution or instant gratification through e-mail adds value, face-to-face communication is also critical