The office environment and the client-centered experience.

Understanding and improving the office environment encompasses a number of divergent elements. On one hand, we could be talking about the general mood and attitude of staff. On the other hand, we might allude to the crafty positioning of furniture and artwork. Or, we might be discussing the lighting and air temperature. In the end, however, we need to study all of these things and more before understanding the impact your office environment has on your clients and prospects.

I recently visited a financial advisor's office and noticed that the receptionist was behind a wall, separated from the reception area by a sliding glass window (similar to a doctor's office, for instance). I do not know about you, but I always wonder why they feel it necessary to put up such a wall. What are they hiding back there? It occurs to me that clients and prospects walking into such an office might have similar feelings. Do we really want our clients and prospects to be apprehensive when they first enter the office?

Compare this with the experience of walking into an open reception environment in which the client is immediately greeted and offered a beverage. The client experience has just changed from a feeling of foreboding to a feeling of importance. Many upscale hotels have taken this concept to higher levels. We are moving away from the "take a number and we will get to you eventually" style of service and toward a client-centered experience.

One definition of the client-centered experience is that "the client comes first, no matter what." This means arranging things so that when your client or prospect arrives at your office, they are treated as though they are the most important person in your life. This means seeing to your clients' and prospects' every comfort and need. In order for this client-centered experience to work it must be true throughout your organization, not just with you. Your staff, if you have staff, must be trained to treat each and every client as though they are the most important person to them as well.

A recent visit to an advisor's office was greeted with the offer of a cup of coffee. Yet when the coffee arrived, it obviously had been brewed hours earlier and simply tasted bad. Although the advisor had the right idea in training staff to provide for the comfort of visitors, at some point the decision was reached to purchase the cheapest brand of coffee and then once brewed, let it sit for hours. Do you really want the first impression to be one in which the client ends up with a bad taste in his or her mouth? The simple solution is to first buy top-of-the-line brands of coffee and brew it fresh just before clients arrive. Oh, and while you are at it, dump the Styrofoam in favor of real china cups. Apart from being environmentally bad, Styrofoam can occasionally leak all over your clients.

It is generally acknowledged that the first and last contact you have with a client or prospect in that initial meeting shapes the character and quality of the relationship that follows. First impressions count for a lot. But the last impression you leave with that same client or prospect can either cement the relationship or damage it irreparably.

As an example, the last time I purchased a new car the dealer couldn't do enough for me while I was purchasing the car. Once I got home, I noticed that the trunk was missing a cargo net that was supposed to be standard on that model. When I returned the next day, they wanted nothing to do with me. It appeared to me that as long as I was buying a car, I was important. When I wanted something outside of that, I was not. It took me several months to finally get this net that probably cost them five bucks. Will I go back to that same dealer when it is time to trade in my car? What do you think? The same holds true for financial advisors' practices. How you treat the client-both in the beginning and on a consistent, on-going basis-has a great deal to do with how they view their importance to you.

The client-centered experience can be greatly enhanced by some subtle yet important changes to the office layout and overall environment. Creating a warm and inviting area in which to greet clients when they arrive is a good first step. Colors should be lighter, inviting light and energy into the room or building. Don't arrange furniture that blocks access to the rest of the office area or that is tucked away in some corner, possibly giving the client or prospect the impression that they are in the way. Make the furniture part of the client-centered experience. The best and most comfortable furniture should be for your clients, not for your backroom areas. Add some visual interest, such as plants or artwork. Tone down the so-called "Ego Wall." This is the wall with all your awards, certificates, diplomas, etc. Though a certain amount of this information is helpful, avoid drowning your clients and prospects in your credentials.

Years ago, it seemed to be a rule of thumb to have an office set up with the main desk and chair built to be higher than the two side chairs where the clients would sit. This so-called positional advantage placed the clients lower and forced them to look up to their advisor. Such cheap psychological tricks do not work in today's modern environment, and may even cause the clients to distrust you. Setting up a meeting area with equal seating is preferable, and creates a better and more harmonious balance to your meeting. Some advisors suggest eliminating the table between you and your clients. For the sake of the first meeting, it may be preferable to simply sit adjacent to each other. Without a table, there is no obstacle in the way of clear communications. If you cannot eliminate the table or desk, consider moving your chair and sitting to the side of the desk where your clients or prospects are seated. This simple act conveys the message that you are interested in hearing everything they have to say. The formality of the meeting has just been replaced by a closer, more informal discussion of that person's needs.

This type of approach may not work for subsequent meetings, as you might need to refer to materials such as paperwork, proposals or applications that need to be discussed. But, for that first client or prospect meeting, inviting a more relaxed atmosphere that stresses the client-centered experience undoubtedly will result in a more successful rate of new client acquisition. Adopting an office environment that stresses the importance of the client-centered experience is a key to improving your office efficiency and the effectiveness of your financial practice.

David Lawrence has more than 20 years of experience in the financial services profession and is the current president of the Financial Planning Association of Tampa Bay.