The Client Experience Matters

mints on the pillowby George Ray

“The financial planning experience is a combination of a dental exam, math class, and marriage therapy” according to Dr. David Lazenby, speaking at a recent FPA Retreat conference. No wonder advisers have difficulty attracting new clients and getting referrals.  What couple wants to go through that kind of experience – annually? And, why would you recommend it to your friends or family?

There is no doubt that we could must improve not only the delivery of our services, but more importantly the perception of value and the client experience.  These days we are no longer competing solely with other financial advisers or advisory firms, but with companies like Amazon, Zappos, Nordstrom, and Apple. Companies who have learned how to provide their customers with memorable (even ‘remark-able’) client experiences whenever an interaction takes place. Companies who our clients love and wish we could emulate with the experiences that we provide.

Investment Advisor Nov 2013I just finished reading Michael Kitces’ article titled ‘What if Financial Planning Was More Like Build-A-Bear?’ in the November 2013 edition of Investment Advisor magazine (you should also be following his Nerd’s Eye View blog). If you have children, and have a Build-A-Bear store in a mall near you, the experience is probably familiar (my daughter had her 9th birthday party at one with her friends). As Michael describes in his article, the company takes ‘a product long since commoditized’ (teddy bears) and turns the process from ‘a few minutes at a cash register or website into a multi-hour interactive experience’ for you and your child. The child has a ‘much deeper buy-in’ because he or she is building a ‘new friend’, and Mom and Dad end up spending twice as much money to get the ‘same commoditized product’ (Yes, this is true, Michael).

Wait a minute. Did you get that? Let me say those two phrases again – ‘much deeper buy-in’ from the client and ‘willing to pay twice as much’. What adviser doesn’t want clients who are fully ‘bought-in’ to him and his firm, and willing to pay more for the client experience he provides — if indeed there is superior value?

So, what could we do to enhance the client experience? The Investment Advisor article suggests that changing the experience to be more interactive for the clients will create stronger relationships which will lead to more referrals. People need help with basics like organization, so we could assist them by sorting through their statements and prospectuses to help them decide what to keep and what to discard (although I’ve seen few advisers who are willing to do this), but we could go even further.

I’ve always told advisers that there is a big difference between data and information. That difference is primarily one of perspective – who’s looking at it. Data is raw. It may be organized, but it’s still just data. Until it is converted into relevant and useful information for the user (by placing into the proper context), it offers little value. As an example, advisers will often simply take a report from a money manager or fund company and pass it along to their client. In most cases the report was written for the adviser (not for the client) and has very little value to the client.  The fund company may have taken data and converted it to useful information for THEIR client (i.e., the adviser), but now the adviser must take what is data (from his client’s perspective) and turn it into useful information for HIS client.  This is where value is derived.

Mr. Kitces also says that delivering a financial plan to a client as a ‘giant tome, even though we collectively acknowledge that virtually no one reads them’ is not an ideal experience for the client either. Ideally, showing the client the results and recommendations through a live presentation using interactive software may be much more effective. The good news is that more and more advisers are starting to use iPads and large flat screens in their conference rooms to attempt to provide a more graphical and flexible solution for client discussions. The bad news is that we are still in need of more improvements to financial planning software before it becomes easy for most advisers to use it to interactively deliver that great client experience. As I mentioned above, financial planning software typically takes client data and uses it to prepare useful information for the adviser, but software companies need to work harder to help the adviser translate and organize the client’s data back into useful and relevant information for the client. (Companies like Dr. Lazenby’s ScenarioNow and firms like eMoney appear to be working toward this goal.)

I also love Michael’s suggestion to use mind maps to illustrate a client’s situation. I’ve frequently used mind mapping and electronic tools like Mindjet’s Mind Manager software to map out difficult concepts that I’m trying to understand. John Bowen of CEG Worldwide (and his co-authors Patricia Abram and Jonathan Powell) do a nice job of showing how mind mapping could be used to create a ’Total Client Profile’ in his book ‘Breaking Through – Building a World-Class Wealth Management Business’ (page 53). Imagine if the map could be interactive – allowing the adviser and his client to navigate through it during their planning meeting — and make changes, and see the consequences, as they review it.

And something else that I believe needs to be incorporated into the client experience is the use of data visualization.  We see these types of graphics used often to organize and summarize big data into visual information that can be more easily digested. I believe that it will become easier for financial advisers to produce this style of visual graphics that will be useful in client meetings. You can see examples at Visual.ly

Michael says ‘People will pay a lot more to an experience-based business that charges them for the feelings they get from engaging than they will to a business that sells stuff or charges for services rendered.’ I agree. Please read the valuable insights he offers in his Investment Advisor article, and look for ways that you can improve the client experience for your clients today.  Ask your financial planning software provider to incorporate more interactive tools and features into their software.  Watch for new tools coming from companies outside of our industry and consider how they could be used to improve the client experience. It matters.

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