How do you know what your clients are thinking in real time, as the markets jump around unpredictably, as clients go through life changes which are largely invisible to their advisor unless the clients proactively contact them? Is there a new, deeper level of client thinking, feeling and experiencing that 21st century advisors can tap into?
Until recently, the standard in this area has been annually assessing the satisfaction levels of advisory firm clients to help firms measure their service levels and see progress in various areas of advice, service and ongoing communication. The leader in this area has always been Absolute Engagement, which has crafted thousands of those client satisfaction surveys for advisory firms over the last 15 years.
Over time, the survey instruments evolved from questions about the overall satisfaction with the firm to asking clients for feedback in different aspects of their advisory relationship. If the advisor desire it, the surveys can become a suggestion box for services that could be added or improved. For instance, clients could tell the advisor how often they want to meet with their advisor in a 12-month period or how to better structure the client meetings they attend. Client input, if you will, which is a step beyond client feedback – and the results were collated and posted on an Absolute Engagement dashboard that was personalized for each firm.
Julie Littlechild, Absolute Engagement’s founder and CEO, greatly improved the value of this data when the firm began collecting and displaying individual as well as collective results. This allowed advisors to see which clients were satisfied and which were, well, on the border and might be inclined to seek out another professional relationship. Advisors could go to the dashboard and see the clients who reported a ‘3’ or less, which allowed them to reach out conserve some valuable relationships and collect candid feedback about any gaps in service levels.
That, of course, required the Absolute Engagement surveys to give up anonymity, where clients were identified with the scores and input they provided. Interestingly, Littlechild reports that this (rather dramatic) switch didn’t diminish response rates. “People didn’t seem to mind that the surveys weren’t anonymous,” she says. “By and large, they welcomed the opportunity to provide feedback.”
Once clients were “on the record,” it opened a lot of new avenues for Littlechild and advisory firms to explore – with the goal of fostering deeper levels of engagement. Absolute Engagement’s newest survey format – which is live but will be fully fleshed-out in the next month or so – will help advisors uncover what their clients are worried about, whether they have issues that need to be resolved, whether they’re as comfortable today with their financial situation and the markets as they were, say, three months ago when they responded to the previous survey.
“Since the pandemic, and now the market movements, we are in a very different environment than we were a few years ago,” says Littlechild. “Our position is that advisors have to respond to the facts on the ground. How do you respond now? What topics are top-of-mind today as opposed to three months ago? How do we get the right advice to individual clients when they need it in the moment?” she adds. “We’re addressing this idea of not having to wait for your quarterly meeting to ask your pressing questions. A client might respond with: I talked to my husband tonight and we’re thinking, we want to do a world tour next year. How is that going to impact our plan? Can we afford that?”
The new real-time feedback platform, an enhancement to the traditional Absolute Engagement surveys, is broken down into three parts: prospect connect, new-client connect and client connect. All surveys are customized for each client advisory firm through an onboarding process where Littlechild and her team interview the advisors, propose survey formats, and advisors can adjust them. On the back end, there is optional consulting on how to translate the data into more meaningful client interactions.
How does it work? Prospect connect is a largely standardized list of questions that get to the heart of why the client has scheduled an appointment, and the issues that he or she most wants to discuss. This, Littlechild says, can trigger an improvement on the typical “meet and greet” meeting, where the advisor spends most of the hour talking about the firm’s services and credentials. After getting the prospect connect responses back through the Absolute Engagement dashboard, advisors can set up a personalized agenda that will focus on a conversation, rather than a presentation, and delve immediately into hot-button issues.
New-client connect is designed to build on what the advisor has discovered through prospect connect. How confident is the new client in his/her financial picture? What issues, going forward, would the new client want to address, and in what order? How is the new client feeling about various aspects of investments and risk? Once again, these questions can be customized to help the advisory firm find out what its planners want to know to deliver the best, and most customized, initial meeting(s) to a new client.
Perhaps the most interesting part of the “connect” platforms is client connect, which is designed to see how each client might be feeling currently – about a variety of things, notably including the markets. The dashboard allows the advisor to see the sequence of past responses. Is the client’s confidence in his/her financial situation deteriorating or becoming stronger? Are there any new issues that their clients are now concerned about, or new milestones in their lives that shouldn’t wait until the next quarterly or annual meeting?
“This is going down this path of personalizing communications a bit more, so advisors can communicate with their clients about what they’re experiencing,” says Littlechild. “What are your biggest challenges right now? Is it talking to the kids? Is it about staying healthy and managing stress? These,” she adds, “are the sorts of things that help advisors not only have better conversations but personalize their communications more effectively. How do I get closer to my clients, to understand what they’re thinking and what they’re feeling and where they’re challenged, so that I can evolve my client experience, have deeper conversations and plan more effectively?”
Of course, once these issues are surfaced, advisors will need to act on the information. “I was talking with an advisor just the other day, where the feedback led them to do some stress testing on their model portfolios,” says Littlechild. “There were practical implications, but it started with a conversation that clients had never had about their confidence in their financial picture. The advisors had never gone there before, because there wasn’t a process to tease out this information in a consistent way and tee up the conversation.”
Each client survey will include four consistent questions, which will determine an index rating on each client’s overall confidence in their financial situation. The data is still coming in, but Littlechild has already seen some meaningful overall shifts as the markets have bounced around, with aggregate changes that have been consistent (though not, obviously, uniform) across clients who work with different firms.
A future topic is whether the clients of some firms are less likely than others to panic when the markets go on a roller coaster. What are those firms doing that others are not? What are they saying to clients in their ongoing meetings that have insulated them from financial/headline anxiety? Can some best practices be teased out of this data?
A great deal more of that client meta-data will be available by the end of September, when Littlechild is scheduled to address this topic in more depth during a keynote at the Insider’s Forum conference in Salt Lake City (September 28-30) – in what should be one of the year’s groundbreaking presentations. What are we learning from these deeper, increasingly real-time dive into client perspectives? How have overall client satisfaction ratings fluctuated from one time period to the next, and what are the most likely causes? How is that real-time data facilitating increasingly effective advisor-client conversations and relationships?
In the past, Littlechild has presented aggregate survey results that have measured fluctuations in overall client satisfaction levels. That data has been boring; the overwhelming majority of clients rate their satisfaction levels with their advisors as a 4 or 5, and nothing much changes from year to year.
But now, we have a window into how clients’ feelings are changing, about their changing view of their own futures, how what they want to talk about is shifting in real time. The new surveys are opening the possibility of much better two-way client communication, which enhances the one-way messaging of a client newsletter or blog by helping advisors see more clearly what each of their clients is thinking about lately, and what larger issues are rising to the surface.
More importantly, advisors can see, on a dashboard, what their individual clients would like to discuss via a quick Zoom call or in the next quarterly meeting.
“The last couple of years have taught us that things change rapidly, and that we need to stay on top of that and have better conversations with clients,” says Littlechild. “For the first time, you can check your responses before your quarterly meetings, and see patterns of what your clients are starting to get worried about – in time to incorporate those topics into your meetings and communications proactively.”
Bob Veres' Inside Information service is the best practice management, marketing, client service resource for financial services professionals. Check out his blog at: www.bobveres.com.
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