Trust your clients – don’t fear the question


I am just wrapping up a very busy client advisory board season (yes, it turns out there is a seasonality to advisory boards). I had the experience several times of firms that had significant issues they could have brought to their boards and decided not to. One even cancelled their meeting outright. They were afraid of how their boards would respond to the issues we were discussing. And I believe they represent lost opportunities.

In some cases it was recent or pending changes in personnel, like a principal departing the firm. In some cases it was a reluctance to discuss a potential new service offering. In others it was asking about client involvement in a particular initiative. “Oh, we don’t want that questions to come up” I was told. I disagree. Don’t fear the question.

In each of these cases, I believe the firms could have received valuable guidance and strengthened relationships with some of their top clients had they brought the issues to them. Let’s examine some of the reasons advisors are afraid to discuss these topics and the couple ideas on how to address them productively.

Why advisors fear issues

In my experience, there are three main concerns that prevent advisors from bringing issues to their client advisory boards:

They believe board members will be offended – Advisors would tell me that we cannot suggest that idea to the advisory board because they will be insulted by the concept. Sometimes I get the impression that advisors feel like getting clients involved in a marketing idea, for example, is equivalent to offering a man a large sum of money to sleep with his wife. It is practically never that way. Provided you craft the question with care, clients are generally happy to discuss the idea and are frequently honored that you would ask. As long as you don’t implement over their objection. Go into it being open to the answer “no” from the board and you should be fine.

They fear it will show weakness – I think this is an entrepreneur thing. They fear that any deviation from a tightly controlled script will be interpreted by clients as the situation being wildly out of control. All businesses evolve, develop, and have setbacks. Your clients have more faith in you than you think. And they want to help. You advise them on planning for the unexpected. Do you really believe they would be shocked that something unexpected happened to you? Employees, even partners, leave once in a while. Sometimes you make a bad hire. Investments sometimes don’t pan out. Marketing plans fail. It happens. Everybody knows it. Involving your clients in working through your response to the unexpected is an act of commitment to them and will earn you loyalty in return.

They won’t or can’t deliver – One of the most common misplaced fears I hear from advisors is that the advisory board will tell them to do something that they cannot or do not want to do. Putting a question to your advisory board does not commit you to action – at least you should not structure it that way. Your promise to the client advisory board should be to give serious consideration to any feedback they offer you. If there is a way to improve their experience that makes good business sense, you will do everything you can to figure out how to implement it. It is not “whatever you say I will do.” And if you are diligent about making improvements in your business based on their guidance you will build enough trust capital to turn down some of their requests without losing their loyalty. Structure the questions the right way and set the expectations appropriately and it will not be a problem. You can report back to the advisory board on how you considered their feedback and why you decided not to pursue it and, as long as that does not happen all the time, the board will be fine with it.

Guide to moving forward

Here are a few principles to take the fear out of taking sensitive issues to your advisory board.

Ask the right kinds of questions – This will influence the success of your client advisory board more than any other issue. Start with asking open ended questions rather than closed ended. (A closed end question is one that can be answered with a yes or no.) Instead of asking “should I do this?” ask “how valuable would this be to you” or “how much would you utilize a service like this if we offered it?” Ask questions about the client experience and how it can be improved. Ask board members about how something might affect their personal experience of your firm not how they anticipate other people would experience or respond to things. Avoid questions clients are not qualified to answer.

Set appropriate expectations and don’t overpromise – Let the board know what you plan on doing with the information. Let them know who else will have input. And let them know that while you will give their feedback serious consideration, it is still your responsibility to make decisions about your business.

Ask questions only about things you are willing to change – If you have no intention of making a change to a particular service or aspect of your business, don’t ask for feedback. If you are thinking about a new logo, for example, and you are willing to consider the opinions of your advisory board, get them involved in the evaluation. If there is one new logo you love and you’re going to go with it regardless of what anyone else thinks, don’t pretend they are part of the decision making process. Maybe give them a preview before it is unveiled to the public. If you are determined to roll out a new service, ask them about how you can best communicate it or what they think would get people talking about it, but do not ask them whether you should do it. If you are open to their guidance on whether or not to introduce that service then bring it up as an issue. One advisor I worked with had been working for the better part of a year on developing a variation on a college planning service. We brought it to their advisory board. The participants liked the idea but indicated they would not be willing to pay much to get it. The advisor ditched the idea, and it likely saved them thousands of dollars rolling out a service that would have failed. I spoke to another advisor not long ago who said his board kept making requests that he refused to implement. I suggested to him that if it were a repeated pattern it probably indicated a poor facilitator and he admitted that he was trying to run it himself. But the point is that they repeatedly discussed ideas the advisor was not willing to consider. Eventually, the board disbanded.

Be judicious about committing to action – Sometimes it is appropriate to decide a course of action at the conclusion of a discussion during a client advisory board meeting. More often it is not. There are still facts to be gathered, analysis to be performed, and other people to get input from. So rather than making a promise to take a specific action at the end of the discussion, promised to consider their feedback and report back to them at the next meeting.

Don’t fear the question. Trust the process. And trust your clients – they want to help you succeed. Posing the right questions and setting the right expectations means you never have to fear your clients’ feedback.

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