SpaceX, Falcon 1 (Photo: NASA) (Photo: NASA)

Like a lot of people who grew up in the 1980s, I was awed by the Columbia, Challenger and Discovery space shuttle launches and grew up wanting to be an astronaut.

In fact, I even attended a space camp where I saw a shuttle. One thing you learn quickly about space shuttles (and all aircraft) is that they have mission- critical systems that must function correctly for everything to go right during a flight.

Mission-critical functions include the navigation system that guides the shuttle’s automated flight path and the booster rockets that distribute heat correctly so the rocket is sent skyward instead of rupturing.

In business, advisory firms also have mission-critical items that must function correctly for them to deliver a meaningful customer experience. If any of those critical items are missing or broken, the resulting experience and core value proposition of an advisor’s brand will suffer.

You can help your firm move towards success by identifying the necessary mission-critical items through the use of the acronym STEP.

S = Service

Service is synonymous with your core value proposition.

What core services does your firm offer clients, and how do they bring value to clients?

It’s important to be specific in your definitions. Go beyond “financial planning” and carefully spell out both the methodology and beliefs about financial planning that act as the foundation of your service offering.

If you do not have a structured, clear definition of what you do, all else will fall apart.

T = Trained Team

Hiring the right people is critical for every type of organization, but it’s even more important for a relationship- and advice-driven industry like financial services.

When speaking to advisors, I tell them to hire for attitude, then train for competency. Your employees have to live your firm’s values, and it’s tough to change an individual with a poor attitude.

However, even the most values-aligned employees still need continual training to polish their skills and keep your clients at the top of their priority list.

You need to be continually training yourself and your team. Think of your business as an operating system, like Android or Apple iOS. If you aren’t constantly updating your system, it won’t function properly, your apps will crash, and you’ll open yourself up to security issues.

Keeping your firm’s operating system — your people — up to date and current will also keep your business and customer experience humming.

E = Experience

We’ve defined the  “what” and the “who” behind your client experience — now we need to add the “why.”

Why should an investor choose you? What are you bringing to the table that creates an exceptional experience that is unique to their needs?

Think of the experience you provide in this way: If I have a lawnmower business, I use lawn mowers and people to complete the basic task of mowing lawns. But the experience is what happens around that core task.

If I want to create a unique experience, then my workers will call ahead to let a client know they’re on their way, mow with special cross-cut patterns, and clean up sidewalks and driveways after the mowing is done.

Those extra layers that are provided on top of the basic product you offer create the reasons for a client to choose you over another firm, which may offer a similar service or value proposition.

P = Process

Your process is the “how” in the list of mission-critical items. Your deliver your client experience through an operational process that everyone in your firm must know and follow.

From the first time someone works with you and your team to the hundredth meeting with a long-time client, how your clients will interact with your team should be defined from start to finish.

Similar to evolving your “operating system” with continual training, you also need to evolve your internal processes over time to stay relevant.

Twenty years ago, we didn’t text, click one button to buy whatever we needed, or get push notifications on our phones; your process should remain true to your core values while remaining flexible to adapt to meet modern needs.

Measuring Success 

There are many metrics that can gauge the effectiveness of the experience you offer clients, but I advise prioritizing client tenure over all the rest.

The amount of repeat business you receive and the length of your average client relationship will be the leading indicators of your client experience’s  true impact.

This is an easy way to assess your firm, and it should involve each of the four parts of the STEP system — so that you can see how your firm might improve the experience it offers clients and move toward greater success.

Jarrod Upton, MBA, MS, CFP, is Chief Operations and Senior Consultant at Herbers & Company, an independent growth consultancy for financial advisory firms. He can be reached at jarrod.upton@herbersco.com.