Financial advisors often assume that their clients will mainly judge them on the criterion of investment performance. But research shows that when affluent clients fire advisors, 87 percent of the time it’s because of a poor service relationship. Only 13 percent of the time is it because of poor investment performance.

The irony here is that advisors tend to worry too much about something they have relatively little control over — investment performance — and not enough about the service and relationship factors that they do have control over. You can do your best to make sure that your clients’ portfolios are properly asset-allocated while you work hard to create alpha, but in the big picture there’s little you can do to affect the cyclical nature of investment markets.

That’s why it’s so important to keep the focus on your clients’ overall needs and how to satisfy them. The psychologist Abraham Maslow established that human beings have a hierarchy of needs, with physiological needs like food and shelter at the bottom, and self-actualization needs (striving to become all we are capable of becoming) at the top. Until someone’s more basic needs are satisfied — until they are well fed and sheltered — they rarely turn their attention to loftier goals.

Similarly, as the chart shows, affluent clients have a hierarchy of needs that begins with relationship satisfaction. Next is service satisfaction, and then finally wealth management satisfaction (including but not limited to investment performance).

A client dissatisfied with his client/advisor relationship might not stick around long enough for service satisfaction to become an issue. Similarly, without service satisfaction, good or even great wealth management probably won’t keep your clients happy. So first make sure you build strong relationships through frequent personal contact, a consultative style and attentive listening, and then make sure you’re regularly delivering WOW service to your clients.

Seven WOW Service FactorsA heartfelt “WOW!” is the exclamation we utter when someone delights, dazzles or astounds us with something above and beyond our previous experiences and expectations. At its core, WOW service means raising the bar so that your affluent clients have a world-class experience every time you or your team touches them. WOW service not only makes your clients say “Wow!” to you, but has them saying “Wow!” about you to others, including potential referrals.

CEG Worldwide’s research shows that seven key factors determine whether your clients will feel they’re receiving WOW service:o Competence o Hustleo No surpriseso Warmtho First-to-knowo Listeningo Client-centered orientation

The competence factor refers to your core competence in managing money and investments (including outsourcing any parts you otherwise wouldn’t be competent at). This factor is something that most clients assume — a kind of “table stakes” — because why else would they come to you, a financial advisor, in the first place?

Somewhat surprisingly, however, many clients have a competency concern as to advisor confidentiality. Make sure that your policy and procedures manual explicitly states that employees talking about clients outside the office is grounds for termination, and that everyone you work with knows this. Inform your clients of your strict policy and procedures, and stress that you’ll always hold their dealings and information in strictest confidence.

The hustle factor encompasses perceptions of your reliability. It’s enormously important that if you tell clients you’re going to call them back, or do something in a certain timeframe, that you actually do so. It’s not that hard to always do what you say you’ll do, or if there’s a problem, to immediately communicate by phone about the situation. It’s also critical to be perceived as being a perfectionist. How do your office and desk look? How do you present yourself? Are there errors in the reports and communications you deliver? If you find a mistake or a problem, do you quickly take ownership of it and get it fixed?

Advisors who rate well on the no surprises factor want to know about client issues and complaints and therefore actively solicit regular client feedback on how they and the firm are doing. Soliciting information from your clients — especially negative feedback — is absolutely critical, as is communicating about problems and solutions: “We followed up on the problem you told me about. Here’s why it happened, here’s how we handled it, and here’s how we are going to make sure it doesn’t happen again.” Don’t turn your head away from potential problems, but instead engage them forthrightly and diligently. Undertake a yearly in-depth survey seeking client comments and criticism and follow up on all problem areas.

Next comes the warmth factor. It’s critical that you are receptive, responsive and concerned about your clients’ issues and feelings. Not everyone is a hugger, however, and it’s not necessary for you to go overboard with respect to physical touch if that’s not your style or your clients’. But you must be perceived as being warm, and that means you must actually care deeply about what’s going on for your clients, because if you don’t care, it will be obvious.

The first-to-know factor refers to providing your clients with timely information and giving them regular updates and briefings, especially when markets are volatile, like they are now. Nobody wants to hear about a problem with their investments via a mass letter or news bulletin. It’s essential that urgent information come from your office, preferably directly from you, or at least from a trusted staff member. The more distressing the news, the more necessary that it come quickly and directly from you personally. Remember: Bad news is bad news, but hiding or delaying that news, or having someone unknown to the client deliver it, is never a good idea.

Next is the listening factor. One study showed that 82.6 percent of very satisfied clients felt their advisors were very patient in listening to them describe an issue or problem. Unfortunately, many of us have a tendency to be thinking about our response rather than really paying attention to the person who is still speaking! We think we fully understand other people’s issues before they fully explain them, and then try to save time by short-circuiting communications, which always leads to feelings of frustration and not being fully heard.

Instead, take the approach that 80 percent of problem solving is figuring out what the real question is in the first place. If your clients are stumbling along in saying what needs to be said, go ahead and give them the space to take as long as they need, knowing that you’ll eventually arrive at the underlying problem or issue. Good listening is a skill that is rarely practiced, but local universities have counseling and communications classes where you can actually learn to become a better listener. Many of the other WOW service factors necessitate good listening, so if you need help here, make sure you seek it out.

Last is the critically important client-centered factor. Affluent clients want you to focus on them and their individual needs. To understand their specific needs you’ll need good listening and interviewing skills, along with the ability to ask “second order” questions that get to the heart of things. So, if a client says her goal is to have enough money to do anything she wants, then make sure you follow up with, “Can you tell me what some of those things are?”

Affluent clients also want to be provided with viable, personalized alternatives. They don’t want to be told what to do, but instead want to be given options — along with relevant and important information about these options — so they can make informed decisions. They also want to make sure that the options and recommendations you give them are defined in terms of their individual and specific needs, and aren’t just generalized recommendations that you make to everyone.

Every Touch CountsSince it only takes one mistake by one person to destroy a carefully nurtured experience of WOW service, make sure you blueprint your processes with respect to these factors and that your staff is cross-trained to back each other up in the event of illness or emergency. With your staff dedicated to this level of service, your clients won’t just be satisfied — they’ll regularly be WOWed.

Patricia J. Abram is a senior managing partner with CEG Worldwide in Florida; see www.cegwordwide.com.