Customization versus standardization: it’s a challenge to find the right balance in most industries, and financial planning is no exception. In fact, the prevailing view in financial planning has been that standardization simply has no place here–when every client is unique like an individual snowflake, the whole essence of financial planning is about customizing to the individual needs and goals of the client, right?
Yet the reality is that this viewpoint confuses standardizing the process and inputs going in, with the outcomes that come out. While standardization may have once meant that not only was the process always the same, but also the results at the end, this is no longer the case; instead, it looks more like Starbucks, where a highly standardized process also helps the company to better deliver that individualized, personalized coffee order. It’s only through standardization of the process that Starbucks has simultaneously become a remarkably efficient and profitable company, capable of charging a premium for an effective customer experience for what is otherwise a commoditized product, and become the company that introduced comically long hyper-personalized coffee drink orders to our coffee culture.
In the financial planning context, this means it may be time to let go of the insistence that standardization of a financial planning process and deliverables are at odds with customized individual solutions for clients, and instead recognize that bringing better consistency to the process may actually be the thing that allows us to create more trust and make that personalized financial planning experience for clients better than ever.
The Difference between Process Inputs and Outcomes
When weighing the costs and benefits of standardization, it’s important to recognize the crucial difference between standardizing the process going in, and standardizing the outcome for the customer/client.
Although the two are often viewed interchangeably, the reality is that they’re not. Certainly, some of the earliest forms of standardization were all about standardizing not just the inputs but also the outputs – thus was the rise of mass production manufacturing assembly line innovated by Henry Ford to produce the Ford Model T. The more consistent the parts were, the more consistent the outputs (the final car that was produced) could be, and the more efficient the process could/would be to create them.
But the reality is that standardization has come a long way since the origins of the assembly line. One of the virtues of a standardized process is that ultimately, it allows for multiple products, services, or outcomes to occur based on a series of standard inputs. For instance, think of a teddy bear: the basic materials used to construct a teddy bear can be standardized to the last bit, but that doesn’t mean you can’t end out with a wide array of bears that all look different on the outside when the process is done. The same is true for a whole host of other goods: just because the underlying parts are standardized, and the construction/creation process is standardized, doesn’t mean you can’t still mix and match different standardized components to produce a remarkably customized solution!