Throwdown: SEI’s John Anderson and I debate Client Advisory Boards

Is a client advisory board a good idea? You can find articles on both sides of the issue. You know how I feel about them.
So, when John Anderson, Managing Director of the SEI Advisor Network’s Practice Management solutions, posted to the Practically Speaking blog that he thought you should avoid them (and do a focus group instead), you can imagine my response. And so did he. When I contacted him that same day about the possibility of contributing a rebuttal to his post his response was “What took you so long?” John is a friend and I respect his opinion. On this subject we disagree. I thought you might be interested in the exchange. So, with his permission, here are both posts that appeared on his blog. I’m interested in your perspective as well (I’m talking to you, Dan Allison, guru of focus groups!), so please drop us a comment in the section below.
John Anderson: Why Focus Groups (Not Advisory Boards) Put The Focus Where it Belongs

For years, advisors have asked me if they should do advisory boards. The common wisdom in the industry is yes. On paper, it seems like a no brainer to get a representative sample of your best clients in a room and ask them where they want your practice to go. The idea is that it will strengthen your relationship with them and possibly get them to refer more often. For some reason, the whole advisory board thing never felt right to me. But something else does.

Why boards can be bad

There are a few reasons I have issues with boards:


  • I typically don’t see attorneys or CPAs do advisory boards. They give professional advice and tax compliance – they are professionals. Why do financial advisors feel the need to ask clients for help with strategic business decisions, when other service professionals don’t?
  • An advisory board suggests a time commitment. Are you asking a client to offer free consulting for a year or two? The preparation, time commitment and expense are time consuming, to both you and your clients.
  • In many cases, it can make an advisor look less qualified. Aren’t advisors (planners) supposed to know where their business is going? By asking clients for direction, I think it makes you look like you don’t know what you’re doing.
  • Will clients be honest? Most advisors host their advisory boards themselves. If a client is unhappy with something, will they really tell you to your face that “your baby is ugly?” A professional facilitator can (and does) help, but even then, the client may not be as honest as you would like, due to the personal relationship.
  • Generic advice is already out there. You only have to type in “How much money do I need to retire?” or “How much insurance do I need?” and see the millions of links in the search results to know that traditional planning is changing.


And maybe that’s my overall gripe with advisory boards: Generic advice from a representative list of clients will create a generic advisory firm. What you need is focus or specialization.

How about a focus group instead?

Replicating your target clients

So what is the difference between an advisory board and a focus group? A lot, both in direction and implementation. The focus group starts with the clients that you want to replicate, clients that you want to specialize in, and the beginning stages of a niche. Why create an advisory board that represents a cross-section of your practice when you don’t want to replicate your entire practice? You only want to replicate the target clients.

In an advisory board, you are asking for strategic direction from people who may not be familiar with the industry or compliance, who then may be disappointed that their recommendations may not be put into place. In a focus group, you can identify products, services or ideas that would resonate with that target audience (people just like them). You can identify what marketing tactics would be attractive, what messaging would work, and where to find the biggest holes in their financial lives. In short, the advisory board is about you; the focus group is about them.

How to start a focus group

Starting a focus group is a good way to develop and grow your firm. Need help getting them started?


  1. Uncover your niche. Consider your practice; are there clients who all work for a certain employer or in the same industry? Do you specialize in c-level executives or owners of small manufacturing businesses? What about female heads of households or widows? We all have a way of presenting our process (selling) or a good referral source, which means some of our clients have things in common. Look for that commonality.
  2. Group them together. Let’s say you found 5 – 10 clients who are executives for a certain company. Ask at least 5 of them to join you for a one-time focus group meeting (you can follow with drinks/dessert or dinner). Suggest that the focus group is about delivering a more customized service model for them.
  3. Take notes. The meeting is about them, not you. So ask… what do they read, where do they go? What are others in their company concerned about? What do others talk about and to whom? What clubs to they belong to, where do they go for news that interests them? What types of communications resonate with them? What you are looking for is the situations they discuss, not the solutions.
  4. Build out their persona. Use the notes to build out a persona of the typical “executive of that company” and give him/her a name.
  5. Act on it. Now that you know about that “typical executive:”


  • Does your value proposition match what they are looking for?
  • Does your service model reflect their desires?
  • Is your pricing structure aligned with how they perceive value?

Remember, the focus group is about creating a better model for them, but it’s also a way to find a specialization that others can’t replicate. It can also build a referral pipeline; a client who is truly engaged is more likely to be able to explain why you are different than other advisors.

Put the focus where it belongs

The whole advisory board thing never felt right to me because the focus was always on the advisor and his/her business. The focus group feels better because the focus is back where it belongs – on the client and creating a better model to serve them (and others that fit that persona).


Stephen Wershing: Client Advisory Boards Deliver More Long-Term Value Than Focus Groups 

Firms that ask for client feedback get more referrals. We know this from solid research including Julie Littlechild’s studies that have been replicated many times. Live interactive feedback is richer than surveys. So when it comes to real-time qualitative feedback, what’s better: focus groups or client advisory boards?

In his column of August 10, John Anderson expresses concerns about advisory boards and laid out several reasons why he believes focus groups to be a better idea. Having conducted well over 100 client advisory boards, I can tell you that it is the most powerful feedback mechanism available to a financial advisor. And John has graciously provided me this opportunity to lay out why I believe advisory boards have distinct advantages.

First the difference: a focus group usually meets a single time, generally on a limited topic, sometimes without the advisor present. An advisory board is an ongoing consistent group that, over time, addresses multiple topics with the advisor present for and involved in the conversation.

Because of its ongoing nature, an advisory board enables deeper examination of the client experience, how it can be improved, and how it can be most effectively communicated to the public and centers of influence. In the initial advisory board meeting, participants are unfamiliar with the process, not sure of their role, and getting everyone focused and in the groove of the conversation takes some time. Without exception my experience is that we get deeper, more meaningful results from the second, third, and fourth meetings than we do from our first. A focus group never gets past that hurdle.

The secret to getting valuable, actionable advice from your clients is in the questions. When I have interviewed advisors who have had a negative experience with a client advisory board I find that the problem most frequently came down to the nature and structure of the questions they asked. To oversimplify, if you want to bring a bunch of clients together to ask them “so, how are we doing?” I can tell you now what they will say: fine. So, what did we learn? Nothing. However, you would not want to ask clients where they want your business to go because they are unqualified to answer the question.

Effective questions aim to explore the aspects of the client experience and how it can be improved. What about our planning process created the biggest changes for you? What portions of our plans or reports do you look at first and which would you remove? If you could change one thing about our work together, what would it be?

Will clients give you honest feedback? Yes, they will. If you create the proper environment. We will often seed the first agenda with a topic we are confident at least one member will have some critical comments about. The key is in how the advisor responds – and we have scripted it out and coached the advisor in advance. The summary of the response is that’s really good feedback, we will give it serious consideration as we update our business plan. Meetings come off the rails when an advisor gets defensive. Don’t react, don’t explain. You need not promise anything except that you will explore ways of incorporating their recommendations (and you don’t know whether you can, but you will report back with your findings). When clients see that you are honestly open to feedback, they are happy to provide it.

John voices a concern that I hear from many advisors  – that asking for meaningful feedback is a sign of weakness. That it will make them look less qualified, less competent, less confident. The opposite is true. Only the most secure and self-confident advisors are willing to go to their clients to ask how they can improve the experience they deliver and be open to considering whatever the clients have to say.

The object of an advisory board in its first few meetings is to understand the client experience you provide and how it can be improved from their perspective. You can make a little progress on that in a focus group meeting but you can get much better perspective as the culture of the board develops. The most successful firms I have worked with break the experience down and look at it a piece at a time. In a first meeting we can address the big questions you might bring up in a focus group: why did you select us? Of all the things we do for you, what do you find most valuable?

But the ongoing nature of an advisory board enables you to dig down further in subsequent meetings. In one meeting we might deconstruct review meetings. In another we might examine the planning process. Later we can critique the firm’s website. Do the messages on that site emphasize what they consider to be unique about your firm? If they were not yet a client but were looking for an advisor, would what they see on your homepage set you apart from other advisors? Would it make them want to know more about you?

Most of the other recommendations John provides apply to advisory boards as well as they do to focus groups. Select board members who represent your target client. Let them do most of the talking. Take notes.

The keys to success or failure are the same whether you are considering a focus group or a client advisory board. Choose the right participants. Design effective questions. Get competent facilitation. The only difference is that with a client advisory board you can go much deeper, explore more topics, develop a better group dynamic, and get more valuable guidance because the group develops over time. And that’s what makes it a more powerful vehicle.



  1. Rich A.September 15, 2017

    Hello Stephen

    Nice healthy discussion. My thoughts on this should be reduced to novice status. Except for our own Advisory Board meeting you facilitated 1.5 years ago, and then a number of advisory and focus groups I have been involved in a previous career, I certainly cannot pretend to be the expert. But I would like to share observations.

    In John Anderson's rationale, it feels like the classic role of an advisor… where advisor sits at one side of a rectangle table, and the clients on the other. Further, the reasons boards are cited as bad seem to be more objections than strategy. For example:

    • Other professionals don't do them, why should we? I think we can all agree that most attorneys and CPAs have transactional relationships with clients, and advisors can be bigger picture, which is what advisory board advisors seek in these venues. Yes of course, for short spurts of time attorneys/CPAs spend considerable time with clients, but it mostly about a specific task. And even attorneys/CPAs agree that they are not as prominent in building deeper, broader financial and personal relationships as financial advisors. So then, why would we want to take their cues?

    • Time commitment. If a client's role on an advisory board is articulated and time commitment detailed, they have free will to say yes or no. It is not that much time over two years. And they probably feel honored to be asked, and would like the opportunity to look under the hood of the firm that is responsible for their financial life. Let your client decide, which is always best practice in working with clients.

    • Advisor may look … dumb. This gets to the heart of the classic Tarzan view “me advisor … you not.” Today and tomorrow, it is all about transparency. And better, about being vulnerable. One of the best books on the topic is "Getting Naked" by Patrick Lencioni. I personally aspire to get to this level of transparency with all my relationships, and work hard at it. Read the book, and you might decide to get on the same side of the table as clients. Or at least use round tables.

    • Will clients be honest? If the advisor is honest, better chance the client will be forthcoming with the advisor. Especially if the advisor is transparent. And especially if professionally facilitated. And some clients may not be forthcoming. Which is why you have a group.

    • I don't get the point of Generic advice, but again it goes to the classic view Anderson seems to hold on our role with clients. Yes, if an advisor is a commodity in her/his approach, then his “Generic” point makes sense. The point of the Advisory Boards is to uniquely serve your market, well. Not be a lemming.

    I do agree with Anderson on building a Niche. We have two strong Niches that keep us busy, and that create an environment for other advisors to refer us. We are specialists in directly held real estate planning, and serve as advisors for advisors on their client’s insurance review and need matters. And no different than any other niche, what helps in serving these audiences is transparency and getting feedback in any way appropriate.

    Like I said, what do I know? All I do know is how this rationale looks to me. And based on that, I like Advisory Boards.

    Rich A.

  2. Bruce PetersSeptember 15, 2017

    Isn't this really a matter of yes/and rather than either/or? If so, what might be the strategy that is most effective to get you where you're trying to go. Aren't these just two entirely different animals thrown together by lack of clarity about objectives?
    Do many advisers just want to get this off their "checklist" of things to do that some guru advocated?
    I believe that many advisors are simply terrified of open ended questions that emanate in a CAB that actually require listening, require action and intimacy.
    Do you truly care about serving your clients on a human scale in the most effective or possible way.
    If so, what will get you there most effectively.
    Do you know the answers to:
    When the client became a client? ( the context and details of their circumstance)
    Why did they become a client? Their actual reason. Not your made up story of why that reflects what you think you know.
    Why do they stay?
    What would cause them to leave?
    What else are you not doing for them that you should be doing?
    What other question or questions should you be asking that serve those you serve?

  3. Stephen WershingSeptember 30, 2017


    Thanks for commenting!

    You offer a lot of good thoughts and observations. With the time commitment in particular, we always just ask clients if they would want to continue doing something like the meeting they just participated in and only a tiny minority ever turns an advisor down. So John might fear the time commitment on the part of clients, but clients don't seem to be concerned.

    Also, I think you can build a niche more strongly with a carefully selected group of clients from that target market. I'm not sure why niche has more to do with one idea than the other.

    Thanks for stopping by and for your thoughtful comments.


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