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With planning down pat, RIAs learn their Ps and Qs

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AUSTIN, Texas — Financial advisors confident they have every technical planning method down pat still see client service as an area of personal and professional growth.

For evidence, just ask the roughly 600 fee-only advisors and other attendees at NAPFA’s spring conference, where fully seven sessions focused on client experience as opposed to, say, seminars on sophisticated tax or investment strategies.

“We’re all deeply curious about this issue: client service, client experience, client engagement,” Cheryl Holland of Columbia, South Carolina-based Abacus Planning Group said in a session before a packed standing room only audience.

The techniques preached by Holland and other advisors in attendance revolve around planning, to be sure. But great client service also comes from technology and office setup, an understanding of the challenges of retirement or the death of a loved one and old-fashioned courtesy and friendliness.

“People are going through a lot of change,” said Janet Briaud of College Station, Texas-based Briaud Financial Advisors, in another presentation. She cited baby boomer retirements and “a lot of anxiety out there” in stock markets and the political system.

“We’re at a period of time that there’s an anxiety that’s there that’s different from what we’ve seen in the past,” Briaud said, adding that planners are all looking for ways to deliver clients “a service that’s more directly with them and in tune with where they are.”

For starters, advisors should make sure they have mastered the tech side of the client onboarding process, where there is often a “breakdown,” according to Cameo Roberson of Union City, California-based Atlas Park Consulting & Finance. Using every tool available in their customer relationship management software is a good place to begin, she said.

“Advisors are so busy working in the business that they don’t have time to work on it,” Roberson said. “It’s all about experiences now. Everyone has access to the same tools. It’s how you leverage those tools.”

Holland’s RIA — which has more than $1 billion in assets under management — uses automated reminders and template messages for client milestones like a son or daughter’s 18th birthday. She includes a health care power of attorney form for them to fill out alongside the birthday greeting.

After a client’s first year, Abacus arranges for their family to meet with the firm, along with what Holland calls a “human capital module” examining their skills, talents and goals in fuller detail. After 10 years, Abacus donates $100 to the charity of their choice.

Holland’s practice also offers four universal rules she got from business coach Dan Sullivan that she used to keep taped to her phone: Show up on time; do what you say; keep your promises; and say “please” and “thank you.”

“Everything else — yes, you have to learn and master — but these are the basics and you need to train it for all your team members,” said Holland.

Abacus clients and team members meet in three different kinds of meeting spaces varying in size and level of formality, but all contain clocks so no one needs to check their phone.

Holland also extensively trains and deploys the practice’s “first impression team” — staff members who answer the phone. Briaud’s RIA, which has nearly $550 million in AUM, also takes phone communication seriously: calls must be answered after two rings. Another rule calls for staff to run out to clients’ cars with an umbrella if it’s raining, according to John Bohnsack, another advisor at Briaud’s firm. He notes weather in Texas has lately more resembled that of Seattle.

Both Briaud and Bohnsack swear by planning tasks which, though not very challenging in themselves, can prove beneficial to clients, for instance, checking state databases for any unclaimed property and reviewing tax return reviews. About 30% of returns have errors, and one client saved $50,000 on taxes a couple years ago.

“The best feeling that you have is telling a client that they don’t have to pay as much as they think in taxes,” Bohnsack said, adding that the share of returns with errors is “consistent no matter what firm you work for.”

Holland and Briaud both place an emphasis on active listening. Briaud’s team has “learned to be OK with tears, with sadness, with anger” when meeting with grieving clients and to be flexible with their time if those meetings run longer.

They also stress novel uses of office space. One client who was concerned about her transition to retirement gave Briaud the idea of holding meetings nearly every month in a large repurposed storage room in the practice’s office for clients who are in or approaching retirement. About 30 clients attend the meetings, she said.

In addition to discussing finances, the clients touch on the more difficult task of giving up one’s lifelong job. Many of Briaud’s clients come from the academic world, so the former professors will make presentations in their areas of expertise or guest speakers come in.

Briaud compares a CPA who once told one of her practice’s clients not to worry about his miscalculation to the tune of $35,000, because she's so wealthy, with the process of getting even a small amount for a client through unclaimed property. The difference shows, she said.

“We do all this planning and all this work and we make a difference in people’s lives just by one little tiny thing,” Briaud said. “The message for us is that it seems obvious but it’s not obvious. People aren’t doing these things.”

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