How to make clients feel you are irreplaceable.

    The one thing all thriving investment advisors know about client service can be summed up in one short phrase: Ask the client.

It's not that veteran advisor Charlie Haines doesn't know that his clients want him to invest their money successfully. He knows that all too well. But it's all of the other things they want, often unspoken and even ill defined in the clients' own minds, that he wants to nail down when he starts working with them. That's why Haines pays a clinical social worker to meet with clients to help them define their true goals. "This is life planning wedded with financial planning and we believe it's the future," Haines says.

Joe Biondo is a crackerjack portfolio manager by most standards, even launching a mutual fund, the Biondo Growth Fund, earlier this year to satisfy all of the clients who can't afford his firm's wealth management business. So how does he know what clients want? He and his four relationship managers ask them in interviews, get feedback from a 12-client advisory board and take a multitude of client suggestions from a newly launched Q&A Section in the firm's monthly newsletter. "The response has been overwhelming," Biondo says. "It helps us shape and refine our offerings."

It was a sad day in 2007 when New Orleans-based Resource Management Inc. (RMI) associates arranged to fly the body of a client's son home to help a family that was out of the country and too bereft with grief to do it themselves. "We tell our clients our engagement is so broad it encompasses everything, and we mean it," says partner Randy Waesche, who with partner Michael Zabalaoui has helped clients launch companies, negotiate the purchase of businesses and homes, create pension plans and even unions and invest in highly profitable venture capital and oil and gas partnerships. "There is nothing we won't do for clients and they know it," Waesche says.

While the great service experiences advisors are delivering will vary depending on a firm's principles and its client base, what they share is the ability to provide meaningful communication and client-centric assistance in a timely fashion.

Now, here's the point: While this article features advisors who can highlight meaningful and even touching tales about the service they provide, experts say these advisors are the exception, not the rule, in the industry. "Truly robust client service hasn't been on the radar screen for advisors in a long time," says veteran advisory consultant Mark Tibergien, a partner with Moss Adams, Seattle. That's especially troublesome during a profession's growth phase when it is more likely that service will fall between the cracks. "What's worse is that so few firms have built systems for evaluating client experiences," he says.   

Today, many advisory business are in an all-out growth mode. "[Some] practices are getting very, very large," Tibergien says. In 2000, just 11% of firms in the industry were generating annual revenue of $1 million. Today, the median annual revenue for all firms is $1 million.

While almost all advisors' assets have been buoyed by the rising tide of boomer retirement, experts warn that this rarefied moment in the industry's business cycle simply won't last. Building a meaningful client experience is especially important as clients become more demanding, investment offerings are commoditized and as-yet fairly passive competitors step up their game to get in on baby boomers' increasing need for investment advice.

How do you compete and still maintain a healthy profit margin? By turning a commoditized product into an meaningful client experience. Think Starbucks. Think Build-a-Bear, Tibergien says. "These folks charge premium prices, not because their commoditized products warrant it, but for the unique and thoughtful client experience they provide around these products."
While many advisors want to believe they can keep doing what they've been doing-after all, haven't they been successful up until now?-it really isn't true, say consultants who track and benchmark the industry. "The problem is, when it comes to service, what got you here, won't get you there," says Tibergien. "The big question for each of you is, how do you know if your service strategy is still relevant? Do you know what optimal clients want? And, how do you build that client experience going forward?"

Boomers' looming retirement, that transfixing event involving tens of millions of Americans, will quickly redefine the best advisors, says Ray Sclafani, president and founder of ClientWISE, a consulting and coaching firm in New York City. "Those advisors who truly want to become more relevant in their clients' eyes are those who are thinking about how and where clients want to spend their time," Sclafani says. "The top advisors we work with know that their job transcends just building a client's affluence. They're having conversations with clients about what the next ten and 20 years will look like and what the client wants his and her legacy to be. The most successful folks we coach are those who see themselves as the facilitators of clients' overall goals and dreams."

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