Adviser Jason Kirsch learned some uncomfortable truths when he surveyed his clients last year.

The founder of holistic planning firm Grow heard that he sometimes talks too fast, and too much, without really listening. Clients also wrote in the survey that the documents he sent them can be hard to understand.

It wasn’t all negative. Kirsch found out that he generally communicates well, but he was chagrined to hear that his initial contact with clients at times seems too automatic and lacks a personal touch.

In all, it was a good learning experience and Kirsch says he was especially grateful for comments that suggested improvements.

“I know my strengths and weaknesses, but I don’t know all my strengths and all my weaknesses,” he says. “It’s mind-opening when I find out something I didn’t know.”

The knowledge has also led to change. Kirsch has re-evaluated the documents he gives clients and has tried to talk less and listen more. The impersonal email templates, however, are probably not going away.

“If I did spend more time crafting personal emails, I would have to transfer that cost to the clients. That’s not in clients’ overall best interest,” he says.

CONFIDENTIALLY CRITIQUING
Surveys can be a great way to find out what clients really think about a planning practice of any size. Kirsch’s firm, based in Los Angeles, sends surveys every six months. Clients who leave the practice and those with short-term relationships get a survey within a month after the relationship ends.

It takes Kirsch about a day to create and review each survey. He uses Survey Monkey software and says he gets a nearly 100% response rate from short-term clients. He hears back from about 40% percent of ongoing clients.

That response rate is similar to what Evelyn Zohlen has gotten from the two client surveys she has done in the past two years. Zohlen, founder and president of Inspired Financial in Huntington Beach, California, tried to make asking for feedback part of client meetings, she says, “but some people are uncomfortable giving negative feedback face to face. We still ask, ‘What more can we be doing for you?’ in meetings, but we also ask for feedback through online surveys.”

Zohlen uses a vendor that handles every aspect of the surveys, from writing the questions (Zohlen choses the topics) to sending the survey and analyzing responses. The process costs about $500.

As she expected, some clients were happy and glad to say so; others were less happy and wanted a way to tell her.

“It was interesting to see how many people said that they would like particular services, such as insurance reviews and college savings advice, but didn’t realize that we provide them,” Zohlen said. “Heck yeah, we provide them!”

Zohlen and her staff then created a single-page summary of services they offer. “It’s like a menu, and it’s been a powerful tool with both existing and new clients,” she said.

REGULAR CLIENT PULSE CHECK
Diane Woodward, president of Oak Tree Wealth in San Ramon, California, has also used client surveys. “I wanted to know how I’m doing. Are they happy? Of the things I offer, what do they find most and least valuable? Are there things they want more of or that I can do better?” she asks.

Like Zohlen, Woodward uses a vendor who lets her choose from question banks. She also added her own queries. “I wanted to know if they find the newsletter helpful, as well as our meetings and after-meeting summaries,” she says.

“I’ve had a women’s health and money event that involved a nutritionist and a personal coach … and I’m doing an event on cyber security. I want to know if clients like these events.”

They do like the events, Woodward discovered. Her clients would also like more financial education. “I’ve added a quarterly webinar on various topics,” she said.

The questions were approved by Woodward’s compliance department and the survey took 15 to 16 hours, plus $500 to $800 to the vendor.

“I like to take clients’ pulse every two or three years,” Woodward said. “It’s a little scary to open myself to criticism, but if I’m doing something wrong, I want to know it.”

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Ingrid Case

Ingrid Case

Ingrid Case, a Financial Planning contributing writer in Minneapolis, is a former senior editor for Bloomberg’s Markets Magazine.