At least one article in every issue of every professional magazine tells you that you should offer great service to your clients. Provide a "wow!" client experience and you'll drive up your retention rates, build client trust and generate those all-important referrals.
Who can argue with such terrific advice? Except - it seems to be missing something. What, exactly, is great service? How do you define it? How can you measure it?
If you think these are dumb questions, try detailing the quality of your service on a spreadsheet. As you stare at that blank field, ask yourself: If we can't define client service, or measure it, how can we start to improve it?
I've just finished writing a research paper on client service that attempts to answer some of these vexing questions, and I referenced other research by Julie Littlechild of Advisor Impact. Littlechild is our profession's expert on conducting client surveys and, more important, on helping you interpret and act on the information you gather. She provided me with the first clear definition of client service I've ever seen.
"A meaningful service standard, in any profession, is characterized by a clear definition of what a client can expect, communicated to clients and reviewed regularly," Littlechild told me. "There should be a process to ensure that those standards are appropriate for, and understood by, clients, and a means to measure success in delivering on those standards."
MIX OF CONCEPTS
When I polled my own audience about service standards I quickly discovered that even this definition has problems. The conversation gets muddled because our idea of service is an untidy mixture of six key concepts that themselves are never defined precisely.
1. Clear expectations. Clients should have a baseline standard to measure your service. Setting these expectations in advance gives you a huge advantage toward meeting or exceeding them. For example, say you tell your clients that you will meet with them once a year to review their financial situation, and contact them quarterly to ask if anything has changed since the last time you talked. If a year goes by and the client hasn't gotten that phone call or an invitation to meet, then you've violated those expectations.
You're also making implicit promises. Suppose, when the prospect is still evaluating you, you pick up the phone whenever that person calls. But after she has transferred $3 million into your AUM billing system, you aren't nearly so quick to return her calls.
2. Actual client experience. This includes all the little things your firm does to make the client comfortable and communicate that you value the relationship. Is the client greeted immediately and made comfortable, or does she walk in the door and, after a minute or two, sit down to wait in the lobby facing an empty reception desk? Are your clients offered their preferred drink when they sit down for a meeting?
Some advisors make note of the client's religious faith, and send appropriate religious holiday cards. Others will take note of their clients' interests and, once or twice a year, send them a really great book that somebody on staff thought they might enjoy.
3. Responsiveness. This is often a communication issue, but it also covers how you handle requests. How quickly do you return phone calls? How easy is it for clients to request (and receive) cash out of their portfolios? How well do you anticipate client anxiety about the markets? Do you offer them information about the state of their finances before they've had a chance to ask for it?
4. Personal conduct. This boils down to the way you handle yourself with the client. Are you respectful? Do you consistently do the things you say you're going to do?
5. Professional service. Think about the quality and quantity of the work you do and the advice you give. Are you taking the time to listen to clients and understand what they want and need from you, and from their lives? Do you take time to educate clients about their options and any financial issues they may not fully understand? Are you handling the paperwork of their lives? Great service also refers to the quality of your professional work and advice.
6. Relationship quality. This is related to professional service, but focuses on how well you recognize and address clients' unique needs, customizing your advice and service accordingly.
When you meet with clients, do you immediately turn to the numbers, or jump to the first item on the agenda? Or do you take time to find out how things are going in their lives, and probe for ways you can help address a problem or issue that has come up? Do you visibly care about the quality of their lives?
Once you break down the nebulous idea of service into its component parts, its quality becomes easier to evaluate. A spreadsheet can track the number of times you promised to meet with your clients, and the number of meaningful contacts and meetings they received. You can monitor how quickly phone calls are returned, and brainstorm a lot of nice little touches that make clients feel valued and appreciated.
Steve Wershing of the Client Driven Practice, a Pittsford, N.Y., coaching firm, recommends that you start driving up the quality of your client experience by raising the quality of your office staff experience.
Studies show that employees will treat clients largely the way they're treated. If they work in a positive and supportive environment, they tend to be motivated, positive and attentive to clients. If you try to raise your client experience when your employees are unhappy, the effort is likely to fall flat.
In her recent research paper, Littlechild connects client service with client satisfaction - and then she links the degree of client satisfaction directly with your bottom line. Your service goal is not to create merely "satisfied" clients, her report suggests, but to go a step further and build a portfolio of "engaged" clients.
Looking over the client surveys her firm has conducted, Littlechild estimates roughly 14% of all advisory clients can be categorized as "disgruntled," another 22% are "complacent," 36% are "content" with their advisor relationship and 28% are engaged.
WHERE REFERRALS COME FROM
Now here's the punch line: 100% of those engaged clients provided referrals in the past year - and that accounted for almost all referrals received by the advisors surveyed. That's a key point: Until clients cross from content to engaged, they will not refer business to you.
Littlechild reports, and my own survey of advisors confirms, that excellent client service - defined as the first five components of my earlier list - is the foundational building block of engagement. If you've mastered those service issues, your client base will at least be content; without them, you cannot get clients all the way to engaged.
To push them over the line, you really need to master the sixth component: relationship quality. You have to visibly care about your clients and focus on their unique needs. This part of the service package is as important, by itself, as all the others combined.
As you unravel all the different components of service, and gradually raise your game in each of these areas, client surveys give you a way to measure effectiveness. You can see how clients experience your service, and you can track your progress from year to year.
The management and marketing gurus will still fill articles with empty phrases like "provide great service" or "delight your clients." But now you have a detailed blueprint that actually shows you how.
Bob Veres, a Financial Planning columnist, publishes the Inside Information newsletter and website for advisors at bobveres.com, and also produces the Insider's Forum, set for Sept. 17-19 at the Hilton Anatole in Dallas. Post comments on our discussion boards at financial-planning.com/forums. Readers can also send feedback to email@example.com.
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