advisor client meeting

I recently read a story about a U.S. firm that differentiates itself through communication. The firm’s advisors make monthly one-on-one phone calls to top clients. The firm sends clients an annual list of call topics designed to cover all issues relevant to clients’ investments and goals, and each advisor is prepped on the topic in advance of the calls they make to their individual clients.

Calls are timed to help prompt and educate clients about decisions they face at a particular time of year, and the calls are scheduled to fit conveniently into a client’s calendar.

While most of the call is spent addressing the monthly topic, the advisor also discusses current events and the client’s questions, comments and concerns. Interestingly, the firm said client questions and tasks tend not to pile up when clients are given the opportunity to regularly discuss important issues. The firm also observed that these proactive calls lead to fewer reactive clients, especially when the market is bumpy.

Not to leave behind clients who don’t quite make the top client list, the advisors offer quarterly calls for those who are likely to become good clients. Wisely, they use the same general topic list but consolidate the topics into four calls annually instead of 12. The firm has observed that these calls have the unintended benefit of clients monitoring the performance of their investments less frequently. That is a very good outcome for clients who tend to overreact to market movements.

I was impressed. While this communication approach may sound simple, in fact it’s a significant and unrelenting commitment. Choosing topics, scheduling calls (and rescheduling calls to accommodate the inevitable calendar changes), teaching advisors about each topic, and providing support to answer unexpected questions — and then lather, rinse and repeat.

The return is the reaction from clients. The most valued clients say this approach to regular communication is exactly what they want. The firm’s data show that the approach resonates particularly well with executives — those in every advisor’s target high-net-worth audience. In addition, the approach resonates with prospective clients, and serves to set the firm apart from competitors. In short, clients are engaged and happy.

Wow! As someone who enthusiastically studies client behaviour and seeks out experiences that clients value, this was music to my ears. It made me want to encourage more firms and advisors to offer a new and improved client communication experience. So, I will.

Build a different approach to communication

Communication, not product selection, is the great differentiator in our industry. Clients have a difficult time navigating the differences among the vast number of indistinguishable — to them — product offerings. Clients are not product experts, and do not wish to be; they leave that to you! Instead, they want to know about things they can influence and decisions they need to make.

On the flip side, how many stories are there about clients who leave advisors for poor communication, or lack of any communication at all? Even if they don’t leave, they are certainly not keen to refer their advisors to other potential clients.

Here are a few tips for advisors to consider in building a new approach to communication.

Start with topics that close obvious gaps. It will not take a great deal of effort to identify pain points and close gaps for your clients. For example, they need information about tax changes, estate planning at a certain life stage, and different kinds of insurance (versus products) that serve to adequately protect their families. A nod to compliance: this information could include topics the regulators want us to help clients understand, such as the impact of fees (and how you’re balancing fees versus value on behalf of the client).

Once you’ve developed general material on a topic, tailor it to individual clients or groups of clients. The base information will remain the same for many, but their personal circumstances and needs should be overlaid.

Consider adjacent topics. For example, the world is beginning to talk and think differently about retirement. Have you seen the new Peter Mansbridge commercial? Instead of communicating about only financial preparedness, what about broaching other topics that clients should be thinking about as they plan for retirement? This could include health and wellness, social connections, purpose and mental stimulation. You could even bring in guest speakers to offer webinars on topics outside your comfort zone.

Collect data and continually incorporate client feedback. These communications will not entirely replace the “market updates” that many advisors offer today, but communications should cease focusing solely on that standard fare and put the spotlight on broader, more value-add topics. Once you find a set of topics that resonate and settle on a rhythm to client phone calls, webinars and other communications, clients will engage with and value the communications. And engaged clients are the ones who offer referrals. But don’t take my word for it — seek feedback and regularly assess data insights.

Crawl before you run. The company in my example is running a marathon. Before making this type of commitment, I suggest you crawl. Instead of rolling something out broadly, pilot a call topic or concept with a few clients, collect feedback and adapt. To limit the time commitment, consider offering periodic client webinars instead of one-to-one calls. Start small, gather feedback from clients, and then work up to something more.

A suggestion for firms: To support your advisors in launching new approaches to client communications, consider:

  • leveraging client data and analytics to identify topics that interest clients;
  • utilizing your communications team to support advisors with an approach and language that will resonate with clients; and
  • preparing and giving advisors “approved” presentations and content.

Susan Silma is a lawyer and former regulator with a deep understanding of the client perspective, and she is passionate about simplifying and humanizing the client experience in financial services.