It's not your people that make clients happy. It's what they do.

When someone asks you what's special about your practice, is “our people” part of your response? Well, it's not. It's what your people do. And the distinction is important.

You may hear from clients that your staff really sets you apart from other advisors. I hope you believe that yourself as well.

But what is it about your people that makes your clients love you? It is a question you will need to answer if you ever need to hire someone else or if you ever have to replace someone on your staff. It certainly is not as deep and broad (and undefined) as their character, although that probably has an influence on it.

Good and caring people usually do good and caring things, but I have known honest, gracious people who had integrity and provided lousy service. I have also served as expert witness against advisors who did reckless or unconscionable things to clients and provided good enough customer service to keep them coming. So, it must be more than just who those people are.

One of the secrets of obtaining usable client feedback is knowing how deep to dig. When you ask a broad question like "What is it about us that you find particularly valuable?" or "What do you like most about working with our firm?” the first answer you will get will most probably be the most superficial.

When I facilitate client advisory boards, two of the first things we want to find out is what clients appreciate most about their relationship with the advisory firm and what they find most valuable about the experience of working with them. The most common answers often include some variation of statements like these:

“Your assistant is just amazing.”

“We love working with your staff.”

“Everyone in your firm takes such good care of us.”

One mistake advisors make is that they stop there. At this point, though, you have practically nothing you can use. These comments will provide you very little guidance when it comes time to hire more staff to accommodate growth or to replace someone when they leave or when determining what to include in your marketing. It is not who your people are that makes the difference. It's what they do.

When I hear comments like the ones above, here are some of the questions I like to follow them up with:

-- Why do you love working with the staff?

-- What is it that they do that makes you so happy?

-- Give me an example of an experience that best demonstrates why they are so good.

You may need to ask two, three or more follow-up questions to really get at what drives client satisfaction. That last question is one of my favorites. If you have a group of clients in the discussion and one person brings up a story, it can set the stage for other clients relating similar stories.

Once you have several stories, you can look for what they have in common and figure out the particular things your staff did that held so much meaning. Maybe it's how frequently they follow up when the client owes you something, or what they say when they do. Maybe it is greeting them with a smile and a personal question when they arrive for the appointment. Maybe it is volunteering to take some extra time to explain paperwork that they sent for signature.

Uncovering the specifics like this is when the feedback yields treasure. Once you know what your staff does – specifically the things that clients really appreciate –  you can include them in your office processes. You can write them into your training program. You can incorporate them into your interview process. You can talk about them with prospective clients.

Saying that you have "great people" does nothing to make your marketing more effective. People expect you to say it, and they do not see you as particularly credible when you do. It communicates nothing about why a client should do business with you rather than the advisor down the street who also has great people.

But communicating important and meaningful details about the client experience your firm delivers can speak directly to what your target clients want most from you and give them concrete reasons for choosing you as their next advisor.

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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.