I recently took a client to one of my favorite restaurants and the experience, as usual, was wonderful. "Good evening, Mr. Diliberto, it's great to see you again," was the greeting I got from the hostess. She immediately showed me to the table I had reserved with my favorite waiter. As usual, he made me feel special when he addressed me. "Mr. Diliberto, welcome back. It is always a pleasure to serve you."

What is particularly impressive about this is that we have known each other for some time and he has been invited to call me by my first name, which he does when I am with my wife. But on this, and other occasions like it, "Mr. Diliberto" is what he calls me-and I have never instructed him to do so. He just knows that it is the proper thing to do. And this is true of everyone who works in that restaurant. Of course, they also know that it is good business. And they have me (and many others, I am sure), who reinforce that with their repeat business.

There are other restaurants that also have very good food, but this one understands that they are selling a total experience when they serve their customers. How many times have you been to a restaurant that serves great food but still is one you will never return to because of the poor experience or service there? And how many financial advisors believe that all they need to do to retain and attract clients is to provide good advice?

Let me contrast that experience with a phone call I made recently to a financial advisor whom I know and respect. As you read this, assume that I was a prospect who is returning a call, because the receptionist had no way of knowing that I wasn't. The following is the transcript, as closely as I remember it (I'll discuss the problems I had with it later):

Receptionist: "Good morning. Jones Financial Advisors (a fictitious name, of course). How may I help you?"

Me: "Yes, may I speak to Mr. Jones?"

Receptionist: "Who's calling?"

Me: "Roy Diliberto"

Receptionist: "What is this in reference to, Roy?"

I wanted to say, "None of your business," but instead replied:

Me: "I am returning his call."

I was put on hold for about 30 seconds before she returned.

Receptionist: "Jack is on the phone, Roy. I'll put you in his voice mail."

The next thing I heard was Jack's voice-mail message. Now this may seem like a perfectly OK way to treat someone who calls the office, but we would not tolerate it at our firm. We train our receptionist and others who answer the phone to treat our callers with respect and assume that the person calling is a potential client, one who does not want to feel as if she is being screened. So let's examine what I thought was wrong with the reception I got.

When I asked for Mr. Jones, she immediately asked me who was calling. She should have told me he was on the phone before asking for my name. This may seem like an inconsequential nuance, but the way she did it could lead many to believe that they are being screened. The receptionist at our firm is instructed to tell callers whether the person they want is available before asking who's on the end of the line. The Jones Financial receptionist then gave me a double whammy: She asked me what the call was in reference to and addressed me as Roy.

I know that I am not the only person who does not want to have a conversation with a receptionist about the reason for my call. If I am a prospect, I want to tell the advisor why I am calling. Also, how inappropriate is it for an 18-year-old receptionist to call a 60-something-year-old prospect "Roy"? Am I the only one who is bothered by that? I doubt it. Is there anyone who would be offended if he were addressed by his last name? Of course, there are many people who have no problem with a young receptionist using their first names, but why take the chance?

Then I was informed that Jack was on the phone after I told her who was calling and was put on hold. If I did not know "Jack," I would have felt as if I were being screened and that Jack did not want to take the time to speak to me. Also, she did not offer me the option of going into his voice mail. She simply transferred me. And that was with the knowledge that I was returning his call. And that is all I wanted him to know. If I wanted to leave a longer message than that, I should have been given the voice mail option rather than being immediately transferred. What she implied is that her time to take a message is more valuable than my time.

We have all been told, "You don't get a second chance to make a first impression." So why wouldn't we do everything we could to make it as pleasant as possible? We are very proud of our receptionist. I think it was Bill Carter of Carter Financial Management in Dallas who told me that he refers to his as the "Director of First Impressions," and we have adopted that. Our own receptionist, Pearl, knows that it is her job to make every call and visit a memorable one, like my visit to that wonderful restaurant. We regularly get feedback from our clients about how they enjoy calling and visiting because of how she treats them.

We certainly understand the absolute need to offer competent advice. That is a given. However, in order to make the experience enjoyable as well as meaningful, we need to work on these "little things" that may mean the difference between a client retention rate of 90% and 99%. And if we don't train and communicate exactly how we want it done, the result may be that phone calls are answered as they were at Jones Financial or handled even worse. The following procedures are put into writing at our firm so that everyone understands how important they are:

Calls are always answered by a live person during regular business hours. If I dislike not being able to talk to a person when I need to, I can only assume that I am not alone. Our clients have confirmed this when we've asked.

Callers are never automatically placed in voice mail. We have voice mail, of course, but callers are not transferred to it unless they request it. In most cases, a friendly receptionist takes the message. Often, someone else in the office may be available to help.

We never address clients prospects or anybody else by their first names unless they invite us to do so. I know that doing so would not offend everyone, but I am sure that it would upset some people, because it upsets me. So why take the chance of doing that if we know that calling people by their last names will offend no one?

All calls received by clients before 3 p.m. are returned that day. Calls received after 3 p.m. are returned by 10 a.m. the next day. Many prospects have told us that the reason they are firing their current advisors is that they are not responsive and do not return calls.
All service requests received before 3 p.m. are handled the same business day.

Client calls are always returned first. It may be tempting to return a call from that prospect you have been trying to convert, but our No. 1 priority is our clients.

Clients and prospects who visit are never to be kept waiting for more than ten minutes. Whenever I have an appointment with a doctor or another professional and I am not seen until 30 or more minutes after the scheduled time of my appointment, I feel that she is telling me that her time is more valuable than mine. We never want to give our clients that impression, so we set the times between appointments far enough apart that we know we can see them promptly.

Coffee and tea are served in real china, not Styrofoam cups. You would not serve guests in your home using foam cups, so why do so with your clients? This is part of making the experience special.

No one in our office ever says, "That is not my job." If the person answering the phone has no knowledge of the client's need, he is trained to help by transferring the call to someone who has the knowledge. Our clients need to know that everyone in our firm is willing to help.

Errors are resolved immediately after they are discovered, and when we correct them, we always err on the side of the client. All companies and people make mistakes. What separates the fair from the outstanding firm is the way they are corrected. At our firm, we do so much to remedy the situation that the client often comes out better off than he was before the mistake was made. We have had clients bring up the way we handled a situation many years after the incident. Referrals from clients have mentioned this to us at their initial visits. We understand that every client or prospect is a potential spokesperson for our firm and that they will share both good and bad experiences.

Remember, our goal is to have every client who visits or calls our office remark that the experience was enjoyable and special. Successful businesses, both large and small, prosper when they accomplish that. In the book Satisfaction, the authors tell of a plumber who promised his customers two things: that all of his employees would wear clean shirts and that they would show up on time. (He knew that people complained about workers who came into their homes smelling bad and those who did not come when promised.)

These two little changes set him apart from his competitors and he grew his small business into one of the largest and most successful plumbing companies in the area. Many financial planners believe that being competent and dispensing good advice is all that is necessary to build their businesses, but marketing requires that they set themselves apart from other advisors who are just as competent. Creating a memorable experience will help you to do that.  

Roy Diliberto is chairman and founder of RTD Financial Advisors Inc. in Philadelphia.