Journal of Financial Planning: October 2015
Have you ever sat in your client’s seat? Try it the next time you go to your office. Don’t tell anyone what you plan to do. Just walk in the front door and look around with a fresh set of eyes—your client’s eyes.
What do you see? What do you hear? What else do you notice?
Keep walking, looking, and listening. Check out the reception area, the conference room, the copier area, the break room—whatever else you can observe as you walk toward your office.
Then look all around your office, but don’t sit at your desk. Instead, sit across from your desk or at your conference table—wherever your client usually sits.
What do you see? What do you hear? What else do you notice?
As a former adviser and planner, as a branch manager, and now as a consultant and coach, I’ve been in many offices and observed many advisers. From those experiences have come some core beliefs or principles about clients and how best to serve them:
The perspective of the client is the lens through which every decision should be examined. If it’s right for your client, it’s likely to be right for your business, also.
Everything you say and do (and everything you don’t say or do)
communicates a message. Make certain it’s the message you intend to deliver.
Let’s look at some areas where these principles can be applied and some questions you can ask yourself.
How Do Your Clients Know What to Expect?
Navigating through new or different situations can be unsettling and even worrisome for many people. Their minds can fill with questions as simple as, “Where are they located?” and, “Where will I park?” to, “What will I have to take with me?” and, “How long will I be there?” to, “What questions will they ask?” and, “Can they really help me better than my previous adviser?”
How can we create consistency and effectively manage our clients’ expectations?
Use agendas and checklists. Many people need visuals to help them more easily understand processes, so providing agendas, checklists, and even flow charts can help clients better understand what to expect as we take them through our planning process.
Discuss next steps. Spending some time at the end of each meeting setting expectations about next steps will help clients understand the thought and purpose that you have built into what you do.
Document action items. Make certain your client leaves with a list of what you will do and what he or she will do, and by when these action items should be completed.
Define and communicate your service standards. Clearly communicate your service standards, such as how and when phone calls and emails are returned or how they will be notified about the completion of various types of service requests.
How Well Do Your Clients Believe They Are Heard and Understood?
Have you ever been around someone who was multitasking when he or she should have been listening? Too often, we’re in a rush, eager to make our own point, or sometimes we just get distracted—and we don’t appear to be really listening at all.
How can we ensure our clients feel heard and understood?
Take careful notes. One practice describes their focus to clients like this: “At our initial meeting, we bring nothing but a pen, some paper, and our curiosity.” Another practice uses a dedicated scribe to take notes at every meeting.
Provide summary letters. Recapping our clients’ discovery and annual review meetings in a simple summary letter provides a reminder of what was discussed and reinforces that we heard and understood their needs and concerns.
Remember the details. Look for opportunities to demonstrate that we remember the details, including their specific interests and preferences. We know a planner who demonstrated his concern and attention to details by sending a favorite brand of lollipop to a client who was undergoing cancer treatment.
How Have You Made Things Easy for Your Clients?
Let’s face it; your clients are busy people. That’s why they need you. While they recognize the importance of planning for their financial future, they hired you because they know they don’t have time to do it on their own.
How can we cut through the clutter for our clients?
Simplify the complex. When talking about how your clients can plan for potential long-term care expenses, you could put together a simple chart that outlines the various options they have: denial (obviously not the best option); self-pay; depending on family; traditional LTC insurance; or life policy with LTC rider. Your clients can clearly see their choices, and you help them select the most appropriate option for their situation.
Provide context and relevance. When explaining your clients’ progress toward their financial goals, you can help their understanding by first explaining what is going on in the economy and investment markets, how that impacts their particular situation, and the relevance for their future.
Provide clear and meaningful communications. In your verbal and written communications with clients, speak with clarity and use conversational English—no financial jargon, no acronyms, no clichés.
How Transparent Do Your Clients Perceive You to Be?
The word “transparency” is used a lot in our profession, generally referring to fees, and of course, we have to be open about describing what we charge for planning, investing, and other services we may provide. But transparency is important in other areas, as well. The key is to never let your client be surprised.
Provide and discuss your fee schedule. Make certain your clients understand exactly what they are paying for and how much.
Explain the risks and rewards for any course of action you recommend. Just about everything in life is a trade-off between risk and reward. Take the time to make certain your clients understand what can go wrong, as well as your expectations for what can go right.
Prepare your clients for the tax consequences of various courses of action. Obviously, that means you have to be diligent in your research as to what those tax consequences could be.
Be straightforward about what you can and cannot do. Sometimes clients want us to assume a role that we can’t assume, such as trustee or executor. And some clients actually think we know ahead of time what the market is going to do. (Don’t we wish?)
How Confident Are Your Clients about Their Future?
Clients come to us because they care about planning for their future. Although they know—or so we hope—that no financial planner knows exactly what the future will bring, we can help increase their confidence.
Help your clients develop a clear vision for their future. One of our clients spends an entire meeting focused solely on helping his clients create a description of their ideal future, after which he prepares a narrative for them that becomes part of their plan. The level of detail helps maintain his clients’ focus on taking the necessary steps to be successful.
Build risk management into your investment process and conversation. Market corrections and even meltdowns will happen. Make this an important part of your conversations with clients. You could say, “Markets will go down. Guaranteed. When it happens, I will remind you of this conversation.” Then explain the steps you have in place to mitigate market volatility.
Include preparing for the unexpected in your planning process. Areas you can help clients prepare for include employment change, loss or relocation, marital separation or divorce, lawsuit, major illness, injury, loss of capacity or death (themselves or a close family member), identity theft, loss or damage to their home, and natural disasters.
Help your clients get organized and prepare for their family transitions. Many advisers and planners provide financial operating manuals (binders) for their clients so they will have their most important financial information in a single place. This type of organization can greatly increase their confidence that no matter what may happen down the road, their family will be provided for.
If you think about what you do and how you do it from your client’s perspective, you are likely to make decisions that provide a great client experience and benefit your business, as well.
Susan Kornegay, CFP®, is a partner at Pathfinder Strategic Solutions. She helps advisers create and refine their vision for their ideal business and turn it into reality. She specializes in client advice process and service standards, as well as business planning and implementation, team development, and marketing communications.
FPA Annual Conference attendees enjoyed exclusive one-on-one time with practice management expert Susan Kornegay, CFP®, as well as seven other business coaches, as part of the onsite Business Consulting Lounge. Join us next year at the FPA Annual Conference—BE Baltimore, Sept. 14–16 (FPA-BE.org/save-the-date) where you can visit with leading coaches and consultants.
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