There is never a bad time for good communication. For independent financial advisors, communication is one of the cornerstones of a good practice. Good communication leads to satisfied clients. Satisfied clients tell their friends and family. They are a valuable part of marketing in organizations that frequently don’t advertise.
Investors appreciate frequent advisor communication in good times and bad. Good advisors know all this and work hard to stay connected. But from an organizational perspective, an economic slowdown is an opportunity to test the systems of your client communication and relationship management. Are you really caring for your clients? Are you invested in their long-term success? By revisiting the role of the advisor and looking at the practices of good advisors, we can assess the areas that might need improvement.
During slowdowns, hiding is often the norm. It is all too common for an advisor to avoid clients out of fear, especially if they are inwardly uncertain about the strategy they have crafted for the client. But research gives us some insight into why this tactic can be disastrous. Client-centric advisors see growth in the number of new clients, especially during tough times, because unhappy investors are more likely to be searching for a firm with better service and communication.
Clients appreciate and often need the contact with their advisor, not because they are looking for miraculous answers, but because they feel more comfortable seeing that their advisor is calm and collected in spite of a downturn.
Are you client-focused?
As advisors, we should periodically stop and ask ourselves, “Do we really care about our clients, not just about their investments?” If I am a client, what am I seeing, hearing or receiving from you? Have you continually looked after me since I set foot in the door? Clients sense if they are being placed on a stringer while you catch bigger fish. The frequency and the focus of client communications are fundamental and crucial to being client-focused and maintaining good relationships through the ups and downs.
Next, ask your team, “What are the most frequent complaints you hear?” and “What do you suspect we aren’t hearing?” Let’s say that your team turns up a few areas of concern. Perhaps your quarterly statements aren’t clear enough or your clients get voicemail more often than a voice. Maybe you figure out that clients are getting frustrated that what they communicate to one advisor sometimes doesn’t make it to the other members of the team.
Examine your entire communication plan from end to end to make sure it supports the client-centric experience you intend to provide. If you don’t have a plan, it’s important to develop one. Don’t end up with a patchwork solution that makes little sense, fails to address critical touches or ends up adversely affecting other areas of your practice. A good contact management system is an important tool to assure successful implementation of your plan. How often are clients contacted? What methods do you use for keeping in touch? What should your clients’ experience be when they contact you?
If those contacts are going well, consider other opportunities. Set up some informal gatherings for clients. Have an expert come in and give a talk. Set up a breakfast presentation at your office and plan some time before and after for informal social interaction.
Re-examine the role we play as advisors
Really good advisors know their role and live it well. They are shepherds. They are educators. They are respectful, empathetic, thoughtful and creative. A good advisor acknowledges his or her client’s emotions. If you know your clients well, you know who is going to be the most nervous in bad markets. Don’t try to bury their feelings. Work with them.
This is where you really earn your living. Demonstrate that this bad period hasn’t taken away their long-term goals. A good advisor helps the client express their long-term goals, developing a plan that meets their need and their willingness to take risk. They use that plan to develop a portfolio and then adhere to the plan. It doesn’t change because the market changes. Continually educate your clients so they live with their goals in mind, not their fears. You can help yourself by learning about the cycle and history of recessions in this country. Learn about trends so that you can explain to your client that the market will often respond with big ups out of nowhere, often six months prior to the end of a recession, and that down times are a natural part of the life of an investor.
Put returns into perspective for them. Help them distinguish the difference between outcome and strategy. Remind them that even though bad times are a part of life, they are to be anticipated by a long-term, life-long investor. Show them how alternatives to their approach are much riskier than staying the course.
Staying connected to your clients in tough times may also mean that you do more than deal with their investments. If you are going to provide a high level of service, are you doing more than building a portfolio? Are you creating plans for long-term care? Disability? Property and casualty insurance? Estate planning? How knowledgeable are you about IRAs and retirement planning? Your practice may already reach into these areas. If not, consider your typical client’s needs and consider if broadening your scope of services makes sense to your practice and your clients.
Even this may require a new level of communication, though. Sometimes, you have to deliver hard news. There is no easy way to tell a client, “You haven’t saved as much as you should have” or “You may need to work a few years longer.” A trusted advisor who cares won’t try to paint over these moments. Advisors with integrity will gently speak the truth and gain the respect that comes from open honesty.
The advisor/client relationship is like many other relationships we know. Without good communication, they are prone to falter. With good communication, they are primed to flourish and bear fruit. The primary difference is that in this relationship, you are the one held responsible for making it work. Value your clients, work on your communication and watch how it makes a difference in your practice, no matter what the markets are doing.
Mont Levy is principal and CEO of BAM Advisor Services in St. Louis, Mo.