An advisor engaged his advisory board recently to deconstruct his firm’s planning process. He wanted to know what they found valuable, what did not add value, and how it could be improved. One of the items on the agenda was to show the clients a beautiful new system he had found to bind the plans. It would be a significant upgrade to what they had been doing: more durable, more professional, and it would fit better on a bookshelf. Who wouldn’t want that?
The feedback was fast and unanimous. They didn’t like it. It looks too expensive, it is not what we want to be paying for. Would it change your minds, we asked, if you knew it was the same cost as what you’re getting? Nope. They wanted something that could more easily have pages removed and replaced with updates. Did it matter that, in actuality, these could be undone and redone with replacement pages? It did not. The discussion was over in a matter of a few minutes. We got a clearer and faster consensus than many topics.
So, after the meeting I was chatting with the advisor. That was easy, right? I thought the clients would like the new covers, but I guess we won’t be pursuing that idea. “I don’t know” said the advisor. “I have to think about that.”
One of the challenges of receiving client feedback is being willing to drop an idea you like that your clients don’t. It is easy to fall in love with an idea. Some advisors like high-end presentation. Others love technology. We all have some notion of what is cool, or better. And we don’t like it when others don’t agree – whether they be staff or clients. But you ignore feedback at your own peril.
Let’s take custom internet portals as an example. I know several advisors who invested significant sums to implement custom websites that enable clients to access resources or interact with the firm, only to see adoption rates in the single digits. I believe client pages can be a great tool to facilitate collaboration. But if the clients don’t see the need or the value or find them confusing or difficult to use you will waste your money implementing them. (Often it is not the web pages themselves but the campaign to orient and train clients what they can accomplish by using them, but that’s another story.)
More important, one of the few risks in asking for feedback, like organizing a client advisory board, is the damage that can happen to your relationships if you get advice and fail to take it seriously or act on it. That does NOT mean you will do anything your board suggests – far from it. It means that you will take their recommendations, do whatever homework or research is necessary, consider the benefits and costs, and consider how you can incorporate them into your client experience. There are many occasions we have evaluated feedback from a board, found that the requests were impractical or counterproductive, and reported our findings back to them. Sometimes that was the end of it. Often, we could think of some other way to accomplish what the board was looking for and we could get their feedback on an alternate approach. But we always honor their requests.
And sometimes what that means is letting go of something you think is sexy because the clients have no interest in it.
There is a strong temptation to think you know better. They say they don’t want it, but once they get to have or experience it, they will realize how awesome it is. That’s a trap.
We are not referring to what kind of advice you give – how a portfolio should be managed or what strategy would work best in a particular situation. You are the expert at that and the financial advice is not up for discussion.
There is also a strong argument that clients are not the best source of determining what innovation might make the biggest improvement in how you deliver advice (or structure your business). Steve Jobs, Mark Cuban, and Henry Ford have all famously spoken about the worthlessness of client feedback. But that’s not what we are discussing.
We are talking about the client experience. The interaction between you and your client and what they would find most satisfying or rewarding. And your clients are the experts at what they like.
Ask your client’s opinions on what they like about what you do for them and how you can improve it. Don’t fall victim to the “I know what you said, but I know better” fallacy. Will they leave you if they tell you they want soft covers on their plans and you give them hard covers? Of course not. But they will wonder why they come to advisory board meetings and won’t put their best efforts into it. Listen to them, however, and act on their guidance, even if it is not the idea you wanted to pursue, and they will be grateful and will reward you with loyalty and referrals.