Not long ago, advisors only used surveys-if they used them at all-to gauge how satisfied clients were with their services. If the results filtered back showing gaps, advisors could easily take remedial steps to improve their level of service.

That was then. This is now.

Today, advisors have more ambitious goals in mind. With the proliferation of cheap online survey tools (and paper surveys as a backup), it's possible to ascertain all sorts of information from clients and use the feedback to improve business.

Surveys can help advisors make a referral strategy, improve their marketing and communications and help them determine staff compensation and bonuses. Some advisors also use them as part of the due diligence process when buying or selling businesses, according to Advisor Impact, a 12-year-old research and training firm based in New York. The company, which also has offices in the U.K. and Canada, creates surveys for its client firms and helps them understand the feedback.

Mark LaSpisa, a principal at wealth management firm Vermillion Financial Advisors in South Barrington, Ill., has used surveys for two years to improve his firm's relationship with its clients. "If you're trying to build your practice, you need a scorecard of where you're starting, and that's what a well-drafted client survey is going to do," says LaSpisa. "You're trying to figure out why they are your clients, what they expect from you, what they need. These are things a quality survey will address. It improves your insight."

One firm that has used surveys in a broader way is Sharkey, Howes & Javer Inc., a Denver RIA with $300 million in assets under management that uses a custom survey designed by Advisor Impact. "In my experience, surveys tend to validate management's perspective of service levels, be they good or bad," says Amy Thomsen, an executive at the firm, which has 900 clients, one-third of whom are retirees. While she says the firm expects the Advisor Impact survey to give it good grades on its service, the firm also hopes to learn more about what clients want-maybe to help plan the needs of their aging parents or to create business retirement plans.

The firm also wants to know if its clients are using the Internet to research financial topics on their own or seeking the firm's help.
Sharkey, Howes & Javer uses both snail mail and online versions of the survey to make sure as many clients as possible are participating, according to Thomsen. The firm paid Advisor Impact $300 for a basic survey and another $725 for questions tailored to the firm.

Although Advisor Impact, with some 1,000 clients including advisory firms and broker-dealers, has pretty much had the client survey market to itself for the last ten years or so, more advisors have been turning to self-serve Web survey tools that don't require middlemen and are cheaper than third-party versions.

The best-known sites,, with four million customers worldwide, and, with one million users, offer low-cost monthly and annual subscription rates with 24-hour support.

Rob Siegmann, chief operating officer of Financial Management Group Inc., an RIA in Cincinnati, Ohio, with $160 million in assets under management, says his firm is testing out this year. The firm already sent out a hard copy satisfaction survey in 2010-it tried to tempt its 200 clients to answer a mailing in May by putting them into a $100 gift card drawing. Half of the clients responded.

But when the firm then tried an online version using in late June, sending it to 50 clients who hadn't responded to the print version, the feedback picked up: 65% have responded so far, double the average, according to Angie Herbers, an independent consultant in Manhattan, Kan., who helped design and test both versions for the firm.

Meanwhile, Trovena LLC, a wealth management advisory headquartered in Los Angeles overseeing $400 million, has been using The advisory firm asks only ten questions in its survey, which it distributes to 150 clients. "We figured our response rate would go down if we had a longer survey," says Christopher Van Slyke, a partner at the firm.

Personal Financial Advisors, an RIA based in Covington, La., has used for several years. The site helps the firm reach out to a clientele of 180, mostly retirees, pre-retirees, small business owners and physicians.

"We've found it user friendly, and can adapt it to our own specific questions," says Lauren G. Lindsay, a CFP and director of financial planning at the firm. "Many clients use e-mail but prefer to complete our paper-based survey. We mail it, but also link to SurveyMonkey for an e-blast to those clients who prefer an online survey."

Between the hard copy and online versions, the firm has seen a response rate of 35%, Lindsay says. The firm plans to continue using both methods until it finds one distribution method beating the other.

"We ask questions to try to find out what clients like about what we're doing and don't like and what we could be doing better," she says. "The majority who respond are either very happy about what we're doing or unhappy about something. Most of the responses are either one extreme or the other."

The firm uses the survey to find out how clients like to be contacted and how often. "We also use it as a way to offer new marketing opportunities to clients, such as Webinars and client appreciation events, to see what they'd be interested in," Lindsay says.

Van Slyke says the survey has allowed his firm to better access client needs in the wake of the market meltdown. "Because of what happened in 2008 and 2009, most of our clients have stayed with us, but we wanted to measure their level of satisfaction," he says. "It's one thing for me as a client to maintain my relationship with you. It's another to say specifically and anonymously, 'I'm happy with you.'"

He adds: "It's a good thing to get this as a client because it says my advisor cares."

Although you can create your own online surveys using tools like and, those firms seeking more advanced direction as well as access to industry benchmarks are more apt to turn to specialty firms like Advisor Impact, which can help an advisory design its own survey and show it how to use the information. The company's customers include independent advisory and wealth management firms, RIAs such as Moss Adams Wealth Advisors LLC, and investment management companies. Advisor Impact also has relationships with broker-dealers such as Charles Schwab Institutional, TD Ameritrade, Pershing Advisor Solutions and Securities America. These companies in turn recommend the firm's services to advisories.

RegentAtlantic Capital LLC, a fee-only wealth management firm in Morristown, N.J., with $1.8 billion in assets under management, has reached out to clients using a custom Advisor Impact survey for three years. "In the first year, we surveyed clients who pay our minimum fee of $10,000 or more, which eliminated legacy clients," says J. Brent Beene, a member of RegentAtlantic's management committee. "Four years later, we decided we would survey all clients, approximately 900 families. Clients had the option to do it online, but we sent a hard copy as well.

"In last year's survey, done in March 2009 [the lowest point in the market], we sought to measure our clients' satisfaction and use the ratings as a component of our firmwide incentive compensation. So individual wealth managers and client service teams received ratings from clients expressing their level of satisfaction with the manager and with the team.

"All the staff knew that over the next year their performance would be measured by clients through the survey. So when the second survey was given this year, the staff knew they would have to meet or exceed those metrics."

In addition, says Beene, "Last year's survey demonstrated that our clients don't know all members of the client service team. We worked hard on that over the year, and we saw a dramatic improvement in this year's results."

He says the firm also learned which clients were willing to refer friends to the company. "We learned little things," Beene says. "For example, some clients thought our communications were too 'marketing' oriented. That created a new sensitivity for us."

By no means is everyone in the advisory community sold on the use of client surveys or deem the results worth the trouble.

In his first year of practice several years ago, Aaron Skloff, CEO of Skloff Financial Group, a wealth management firm in Berkeley Heights, N.J., had less than a 5% return on a client survey he mailed out. He decided to stop using them.

"People don't respond to surveys unless there is some kind of financial incentive," says Skloff.

Bruce W. Fraser, a veteran financial writer in New York, writes on wealth management and financial planning issues, investments, small business, and green/sustainability matters for many publications. He is writing a book on millionaires. He can be reached at [email protected]. Visit him at