Tom Reimer of Accretive Advisor made a presentation last week at FPA Experience 2012 in San Antonio, Texas, on finding the right fit between your client and your practice. One of the significant points in the program was the importance of providing a consistent process to everyone who came in the door. He likened the process to McDonald's; that each of your clients should get exactly the same experience regardless of when they come in.
I can see lots of advisors objecting to this comparison.
Most advisors probably don't think of their practices as a mass production facility for inexpensive fried foods. As Alice Waters, one of the originators of the local food movement and proprietor or of the world-renowned Chez Panisse in Berkeley California commented about her one experience with a Big Mac, "It wasn't the experience I was looking for."
A better model might be the French Laundry – one of the most prestigious and perhaps the best restaurant in America. Guests are treated to an exceptional experience. Fresh and elegant ingredients are lovingly synthesized into memorable meals. For anyone lucky enough to get a reservation, it is one of the best culinary experiences available. That sounds a lot more like what the advisors I work with strive to create.
There is something the two establishments share, however, and it brings us back to Reimer's point. Ask any experienced restaurateur what makes an establishment successful and, perhaps right after food quality, they will say consistency. It is critically important that the person who orders the beef short rib and rosemary potatoes get exactly the same dish served the same way a month from now as they do today. It is impossible to build a reputation in the community if every time the shift changes in the kitchen the dishes come out looking or tasting different. Similarly, if a customer's experience with the wait staff is excellent one day and mediocre a week later, the reputation suffers.
I have seen advisory practices determine to create a French Laundry of the financial business (or strive to provide everyone with, heaven help me, a "wow" experience), only to have the effort undermined by inconsistent execution. An agenda may go out before the meeting or may not. The receptionist remembers the preferred beverage of some clients and not others. Sometimes a follow-up letter goes out the next day, sometimes it goes out two weeks later. Someone forgets to follow-up on the transfer of assets. Mistakes find their way into plans or reports. One advisor follows the process to the letter and another improvises or skips things he doesn’t consider that important.
Say what you want about the food quality at McDonald's – the experience is remarkably consistent across thousands of locations. For better or worse, you know exactly what you will experience before walking into one.
There is room for lots of different kinds of experiences in the advice business – not everyone needs to copy the model of a private bank. I know at least one planner in the Garrett planning network whose practice is modeled on a dentist's office. Clients come in once a year for a plan review, they get one hour, they schedule their next appointment before they leave, and the card goes out a week before the appointment. There is even a frosted window that slides open so the receptionist can acknowledge the clients’ arrival. The firm's services a high volume of middle-class clients. And it is very successful.
Consistency and predictability are critical to client loyalty and referrals. Few things are as damaging to your reputation as a prospect telling the client who referred him "that stuff you said about your advisor – that's not at all what I experienced."
What is your client process? What happens when they walk through the door? What happens in the planning meeting? What is the follow-up after they leave, and when does it happen? Regardless of the level of experience you aim to provide, it should be documented in procedures and periodically audited.
Before you embark on improving or upgrading your service, make sure all of your clients have the same experience each time they visit. Then you can decide if you would rather be a diner, a casual restaurant, or an upscale French bistro.
Stephen Wershing, CFP® is President of The Client Driven Practice. He coaches financial advisors to be more effective and successful, and attract more clients and referrals, by developing more client-connected and client-driven practices.