It is a pleasure to deal with friendly, satisfied clients who treat you like a beloved family member.
It can be enraging and scary when, all in a moment, those same clients abandon their loyalty, challenge your competency, and even file complaints.
What upsets the balance and makes contented clients contentious?

In a word: service.

Raising the bar on client service

Your quality of service will decide whether you win or lose the battle for business among financial advisors and the growing horde of alternative investment choices charging over that not-so-distant ridge.

Everyone is gunning for a piece of the action, but by building a business with top-notch service at the core, you fortify your ability to fend off competitors who want to move in on your domain. To keep clients with you in the winner’s circle, you need to be someone they readily call for advice, someone they rave about to their friends. At the end of your career, you want people to say, “Remember that guy? You can’t find ’em like that anymore.”

How do you do it?
Start by asking yourself how deep your commitment to service has been in the past.
Do your clients languish on hold or routinely land in voicemail jail?
What is the nature of their most frequent complaints?
When callers reach your assistant or partner, are their questions handled by someone who enjoys his or her job?
Are you always friendly and treat the last call of the day like the first?
Do you consistently convey that service to others really matters to you?

How high can you jump?

Imagine a McDonalds where a smiling team wearing old-time derby hats serves up your burger and fries while you listen to a pianist coaxing the strains of Thelonious Monk from a baby grand. You’ll find one on Broadway in New York City. Picture a bank that has a drive-through window open until 8 p.m., keeps hours on Sunday, and serves hot dogs in the summer. The bank exists—it’s in New Jersey. Both of these businesses look beyond the ordinary level of service in the industry. They’ve rethought procedures that were probably initiated by long-departed predecessors. And they’ve done it within the confines of a standardized parent organization.

Your firm may have guidelines of its own to follow, but that shouldn’t stop you from developing your own creative ways of providing top-quality service. Make your clients feel important by giving them creative, thoughtful gifts. Dallas Burney in Florida sends his clients bottles of gourmet barbeque sauce to show his appreciation. It’s simple, yet unusual enough to set him apart. “I like to do something to get a grin.” he says. An Ohio advisor, Eric Nilson, organizes a cruise for his best clients, using the time as a unique retreat to pick their brains and strategize.

Define what service means

Your team and your clients have a right to know what to expect. Many a complaint stems from a
misunderstanding. For example, are your fees clearly explained?
You can stave off quite a few client service problems by picking good clients in the first place, and
by identifying your service goals in a written mission statement.
Ask clients what they want. It is not up to you to decide what your clients want. “Ask questions to
find out your clients’ priorities,” recommends Hal Brill, an independent advisor in Colorado.
Because Brill specializes in socially responsible investing, he must clearly understand the values of
his clients as well as their financial goals. Ask your clients about their expectations and ambitions.
How frequently do your clients like to be contacted? How often do they want to speak with you on
the phone? How many times a year would they like to meet?
Clarify your accessibility. Clients and colleagues should know how to reach you via voice-mail,
pager, e-mail, and cell phone. If you designate an assistant or partner to be responsible for one
aspect of client service, make sure the responsibilities are clear to people in your office and to the
client. One 12-year veteran sends letters to clients introducing the designated team member as a
specialist who can serve their needs.
Set clear service standards. Foster great service by establishing standards, such as answering
phone calls within three rings and responding to client inquiries within 24 hours. Tape yourself and
your team, and review how you sound to callers. Outline the responsibilities of your team members.
Should clients who invest larger amounts receive better service? Talk to your team about it and
make decisions in advance. “Most of the larger clients don’t demand as much of our time,” says
Shelli Jones, a sales assistant with a large producer. “I believe that they all deserve the same
quality service whether they have $2000 or $20 million invested.” The ideal situation is to have a
book of ideal clients who are all deserving of your service, but you may have to make
accommodations for certain top-tier clients.
Empowerment. Advise team members when it is acceptable for them to act on your behalf. Clearly
delegate common customer requests among teammates and back up their decisions. Make sure
they understand how to handle irate callers and how to conduct themselves in sticky situations.
Measure your results. Surveys are helpful for measuring client loyalty. You can also gauge your
clients’ feelings by candidly asking about the service you provide. And remember service doesn’t
begin and end with you. Take some time to talk about service with team members who interact
frequently with clients.

Create a Service Advisory Board

To help maintain your focus on client service, collaborate with colleagues who have similar
approaches. Bold plans require bold folks. Form a mastermind alliance, a group of such likeminded
colleagues, and agree to meet once a month to talk about the service challenges you face.
To improve your service, invite a wide selection of people to serve as members on your new
service advisory board. Tell them that you are committed to setting a new level of service for your
clients and that you would appreciate their candid feedback. Take members to lunch or invite them
to visit your home or office. Let them be your eyes and ears to great service.
Next, widen your scope further. Ask savvy investors and novices alike to call your office and test
the kind of service they receive. Ask the same of your son, daughter, niece, or cousin. Even pay the
neighborhood whiz-kid to call. Ask what they liked and didn’t like about the service they received
and get their suggestions on how you might convey a deeper commitment to service.
It often takes an objective observer to point out the things that really need to change. But for that to
work, you must be open and committed to admitting change is needed. A little focus goes a long
way to improving your business and the morale of your staff. In part two, we’ll offer you insight into
the other essential dimension of client service: your ability to empathize and and communicate your
personal care to your clients.

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