On April 17, 2008, at the most recent Financial Advisor Symposium, Marie Swift of Impact Communications moderated a panel of experts representing virtually every corner of the electronic communications world. The audience got a lesson in how to spend less time communicating more with their clients.

It all starts with the electronic world around us. We see these new communication tools every day when we click a Web site link that plays a video, or when we read an e-zine (electronic magazine) received by e-mail, or when we make a new connection on www.LinkedIn.com (or any other social- or business-networking Web site). What most of us don't do, though, is take the next logical step, which is to appreciate the power of these tools, first, and find out how to incorporate them into our own communications, second. The panel, entitled "Using Electronic Media to Market Your Business and Get     Closer to Your Clients," was designed to impart this information.

Starting With The Communications Audit

Panelist Kirk Hulett, senior vice president of strategy and practice management for Securities America Inc., says, "Advisors should identify the gaps in their internal and external communications procedures by conducting a communications audit." One does this by reviewing all of the components that apply (or should apply) to his practice, and asking the following questions:
What does your business plan say about how you will communicate with (or "touch") your clients and prospects?
  What level of knowledge should each of your employees have about electronic communications technologies?
Does your policies and procedures manual make clear your expectations and requirements about electronic communications with clients?
Have you adequately trained your staff in electronic communications technology, including your customer relationship management (CRM) and e-mail applications?
  Do you provide to clients, via your Web site, a client welcome kit and access to electronic copies of financial plans, investment statements and other critical information?

    "Most advisors will find gaps between actual and 'best-practice' communications performance," says Hulett, "and these questions often elicit a better understanding of what the gaps are and how to correct them."

I asked Hulett, both a highly visible and valuable member of the Securities America team, how he would electronically communicate with his clients were he a full-time advisor rather than a broker-dealer executive. "I would spend lots of time making sure my CRM is robust, contains good quality, updated information and the functionality needed to automate electronic client messaging so that I'm touching my clients at least 12 to 20 times a year.     Further, I'd have a robust Web presence, but a practical one that [circumvents] financial information my clients can get elsewhere. And, finally, my Web site would have a client portal so that each client could [confidentially and securely] access their financial plans, wills, tax information-whatever they need to be involved in the management of their personal finances." Ideally, says Hulett, he would be almost completely automated so he could spend most of his time on important client relationships.

Mastering the Basics

Any mention of CRMs or e-mail as client communication tools might seem a bit obvious, yet advisors often forget that these tools we take for granted are still absolutely critical to an effective communications program. Instead, advisors might use more labor-intensive communication solutions and employ CRMs too simplistic to serve as the foundation of a sophisticated marketing and communications plan.

One's CRM, for example, should be comprehensive enough in content and features that an advisor can search for and isolate groups of clients or prospects and send them targeted marketing pieces, says Hulett. It should allow advisors to store notes from client meetings and phone calls and track the tasks prompted by these conversations.

The CRM should also let the advisor monitor work flow so client service requests don't fall through the cracks. It should include a shared calendar so the entire staff can see the schedule of appointments and events for each of the firm's clients. And finally, the CRM should send out automatic reminders about clients' anniversaries, birthdays, etc., so that a firm can give its customers the "touches" they deserve.

As for e-mail, Hulett says use it when appropriate. "Ask clients and prospects which communication medium they prefer and record their preference in your firm's CRM system, but always use the telephone when discussing sensitive information since most clients won't have access to secure e-mail systems." E-mail can also be used for transmitting client newsletters, economic commentary, a client survey or just a quick note to say, "Despite all indications to the contrary, the stock market will rise again."

Of course, if one is to up the ante on her use of e-mail for client communications, she must have her clients' e-mail addresses-both those that never change and those that change frequently (for whatever reason). Panelist Kip Gregory of The Gregory Group in Washington, D.C., author of the book, Winning Clients in a Wired World (Wiley, 2004), suggests sending clients a self-addressed stamped envelope requesting updated e-mail addresses and other contact information (which is old school) or posting a form on your Web site to collect this information electronically (which is new school). Or do what your doctor does: Whenever a client calls, check to make sure the contact information you have on file for him is up to date (old school) ... unless you'd rather keep up with his address via a business networking site like http://www.Plaxo.com (new school).