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Industry Spotlight > RIAs

It's Really a Small Thing, After All

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Two months ago, I wrote about a poor customer experience that led me to consider dropping a car service I had used happily for 15 years in favor of an alternate ride-hailing service like Uber. The other day I had the opposite experience, which led me to ruminate on how really simple it is to provide good customer service, and how even someone on the lower rungs of a corporate ladder can have a big influence.

While making last-minute preparations for a trip to Shareholders Services Group’s annual conference for its RIAs in San Diego, I realized I hadn’t booked a room. A quick search on the conference hotel’s site found some available rooms, like a two-story suite for $764 a night. That wouldn’t work. But maybe my frequent-stayer membership at the hotel chain could get me a cheaper room. Unfortunately, while I had my membership number, the affinity site told me my account had been suspended for non-activity. The only way to get back in its (SPG Starwood’s) good graces was to call the customer service number and speak with a representative. My heart fell. Who wants to stay on hold for 15 minutes to talk to someone with a bad accent or a bad attitude? But I called.

Alex (his actual name) answered the phone and was pleasant enough at first. I knew my password, but then he asked me for my verbal password. What could that be, I wondered, before deciding it had to be one of my fallback passwords: some variant of my dog’s name, of course! I supplied it, Alex said yes, that was right, and then came the customer service gold medal question: “What kind of dog is Arwen?” Alex asked. (“Arwen” is not my dog’s real name; I practice good password security, after all.)

I told him my dog’s provenance (a pit bull mix; that’s the breed you find in dog pounds these days) and we proceeded with our business at hand.

It took Alex about five seconds to ask about my dog, but that’s all the time it took to make me really like him and the company he represented. What this no-doubt harried customer service rep delivered was a very small thing, with very little time and effort involved, yet it paid and will pay dividends for his company for some time.

Our cover story this month is our annual list of the most influential people in and around the advisor industry, but this year the IA 25 has a twist — we’re honoring those influential people who may not be as well-known as those who we’ve honored in the past 13 editions of the IA 25. For years I’ve wanted to do this list, and have had a number of people in mind who made the final cut this year. But it can be dangerous to publish such a list. About five years ago I spoke to such an under-the-radar person about my plan to do a different IA 25 list. He begged me NOT to do it, since it might tick off his boss.

How sad, and what a contradiction to what most advisory firms and their partners often say is their most valuable asset: its people. In his June 2013 column (and other writings) for this magazine, Mark Tibergien (who’s been on the IA 25 for every year it’s existed, until this year’s twist) explored what motivates employees. “Employees excel because they are committed to the firm’s mission, they are given challenging work [and] they are recognized for their accomplishments,” he wrote.

In this year’s IA 25, we’re taking a small step toward recognizing those people who excel, even if they’re not making CEO-style compensation.

Like my friend Alex, for whom I gave a glowing review on a survey that followed my interaction with him, the people on this year’s IA 25 make a difference every day, even if they don’t occupy the corner office or are not yet a household name in most advisors’ offices. Make sure you recognize your own Alexes.


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