Relationships with employees are just as important as those with clients. (Illustration: George Abe/© theispot.com)

How can employees be more important than clients? This notion feels counterintuitive. After all, your clients pay your bills and fund your growth.

Most advisory firms operate with a “client-first” strategy, meaning that pleasing clients comes before everything else. While serving clients with great care and attention defines your firm’s mission, the health of your enterprise depends on employees. Without them, you would not have the capacity to grow, the ability to deliver an exceptional client experience or, in some cases, the technical qualifications to perform vital functions.

Every employee represents a point of leverage for your firm. The single biggest inhibitor to growth in the advisory business is a lack of capacity for more clients. Technology helps, of course, but in the end this is a people business. Even the great technology companies like Google, Apple, Microsoft and IBM don’t operate with robots alone. They employ thousands of talented people to help them innovate and execute on their plans.

Most advisors we know have a “go-to” person in their firm, someone they turn to for an opinion or to get things done. Certain key people know the details of the business and where to look for important pieces of information. Others have a finger on the pulse of the rest of the staff and are able to guide the leader in relating to employees.

Regrettably, these are the very people many leaders take for granted. Like the much-used dominant hand that opens doors, picks up the telephone and twists off a bottle cap, these people often get treated like dependable appendages rather than irreplaceable and respected individuals. Imagine how hard it would be for your firm to function without your valuable employees.

Don’t Tell Me, Show Me

It’s easy to give lip service to the key people in your firm. You thank them publicly at different events, wish them a happy birthday and send them to conferences. But how do you treat them throughout the days, weeks and years?

Let’s role-play a few scenarios.

Imagine that you are in the middle of a serious conversation with a frustrated and overwhelmed top employee when your biggest, richest client calls to speak with you. What do you do?

Imagine that your largest client is verbally abusive to your staff. One day, he comes into your office and lets loose on your best employee with a stream of vulgarities and insults. What do you do?

Imagine that your valued employee is planning to take his kids to see their favorite performer and the date has been in the calendar for months. When the day arrives, a major client needs something from this employee by the next morning. What do you do?

You have probably lived through many of these hypothetical scenarios already. Are you showing your hand every day, demonstrating who is most important to your business? At a minimum, are you showing your key person how much you value him or her?

In our current environment, where the talent shortage has been documented ad nauseam, it is critical that financial services firms invest in a human capital plan that is aligned with their business strategy. Take time to measure your success in this regard. How often are you introduced to quality candidates? What is the degree of turnover in every position? What is the rate of career progression or increased responsibility for each person?

Management can benefit from employee feedback. Consider conducting 360-degree evaluations of partners or at least of the business leader. Employees can be reluctant to give strong opinions, but if conducted properly and anonymously, much can be elicited from these assessments. It may be wise to hire an outside consultant to facilitate the survey and help partners interpret results and strategize improvements.

In my previous firm, we solicited annual performance evaluations from the employees who worked for us, the partners who worked with us and those we reported to. Even the managing partner subjected himself to this process with members of the Executive Committee doing his assessment. This was a dynamic and positive experience because each year we were reminded of the things we needed to continue to develop to be better partners.

How Do Your Clients Rate?

Likewise, providing employees with an opportunity to evaluate clients also improves employee engagement and satisfaction. One of the unintended consequences of rapid growth is the acquisition of clients who do not value your services or advice and, in some cases, are abusive or disrespectful of the people who work for you.

Consider asking employees to evaluate the clients they serve or touch. You might ask them to rate clients on certain criteria:

  • The client shows respect in each of our interactions.

  • She effectively implements our recommendations.

  • Her biggest priority is investment performance.

  • She is committed to the financial plan we have developed for her.

  • She uses our website and client-facing technology effectively.

  • She rarely questions us about the fees we charge for the value we deliver.

  • She provides the information we request on a timely basis.

  • Our interactions are constructive and she usually appreciates the work we do.

  • She is proactive in telling us her goals, such as to buy a new house, change jobs or donate a large sum to charity.

Employee surveys of clients help build a community and a culture that you all value. This process gives employees a sense of empowerment. They see that their opinion matters, especially when working with difficult clients. It also provides insight on clients, helping you decide who to keep and who consumes too much time and attention at the cost of productivity and good service to other clients.

It’s not easy to manage a business. Interpersonal dynamics are complex and sometimes emotional. As a leader, building a high-performance culture is what you signed up for. Anything less is an abdication.

Show your people some love. Leaders who treat their employees with respect and consideration reap the rewards of strong, loyal relationships with the important people who ensure the firm’s ultimate success.

— Read Mending the Gratitude Gap on ThinkAdvisor.