You probably have been in a situation where you were asked, “How’s it going?” and you responded, “Great,” regardless of how it was really going. If so, you understand the quintessential problem in our industry. What does it really mean to do a great job for your clients? How do you maintain consistency for all your clients while still giving them individualized service? Is there any way to measure this?

As many of you know, Wil Heupel and I co-founded Accredited Investors. As we have passed on leadership to our co-managing partners, Becky Krieger and Brian Martin, Wil has taken on the task of working on our client service model. One of the first things he undertook was to develop a scorecard for our standard of care. He pulled in Steve Gilbertson and Brandon Jones, two of the firm’s shareholders and wealth managers, and they came up with measurable criteria to ensure that our clients were receiving the level of care they need if our firm is to keep growing. Since one of our objectives is to have a majority of our new clients come from referrals, we wanted to find a way to make sure we were doing what we said we would.

As all business owners know, when you set standards, you set expectations. And it’s only the things we can measure that get the most attention. So even though we can look at standards of care, it’s harder to measure the quality of our client relationships. (We’ll talk about that in another article.)

When we started to measure these standards of care, we broke them down into five subject areas: Do we have meaningful client interactions? Are we sending out discussion letters? Are we completing our high-priority tasks? Are some tasks overdue? Are we paying attention to transaction alerts?

Everything starts, though, with our firm’s “Wealth Management Index.” This is a system that prompts clients with discovery questions. It allows us to dig into the “why,” “what” and “how.” It forces us to make sure that we are annually reviewing and advising on all relevant aspects of our clients’ plans.

Then our standards of care require us to audit the planning itself (rather than the plans).

Meaningful Client Interactions
Our standards demand that we have at least three meaningful client interactions a year. This means direct contact with clients where we talk with them about their planning and important topics. It’s generally face-to-face, through Zoom meetings or extended phone calls. This doesn’t include the information we send them about their investment performance or our views of the market or invites to events (things most firms should offer without having to ask).

We also look through the client agendas that have yet to be developed to make sure we are covering what needs to be covered and that we do not have an out-of-date interaction plan.

One of the things we learned during the pandemic is that our clients did not think of a phone call as a substitute for a meeting. We thought that randomly calling them for check-ins would show them we were thinking of them. But even if the clients appreciated this, they didn’t necessarily view it as part of their direct work with us, even when we were solving a direct problem with the phone call.

Discussion Letters
After each meeting with clients, we send them discussion letters outlining what we talked about, what is left to do, who is responsible (including whether the client is responsible), and when we expect it to be completed. We have found these to be helpful, since they make it clear what the client expects and what we said we’d deliver. We want these letters out within a week of the meeting at least 90% of the time, and within two weeks 100% of the time. If the letter takes longer than that, it’s overdue. Our CRM software allows us to track the status of these letters (as well as all the tasks laid out in them).

We have four types of advisors on our client relationships: client directors, lead wealth managers, wealth managers and investment managers. We all have dashboards showing a daily bar chart of who may be falling behind on their letters. Generally, the lead wealth manager is responsible for the content, and a wealth management assistant formats and sends the letter out.

High-Priority Tasks
All of our high-priority tasks are expected to be completed by the end of each month. For example, in December we were busy making sure every client had taken their required minimum distributions for the year. A high-priority task is something that is usually both urgent and important or something we committed to do for the client. Discussion letters help the clients understand what we are treating as high priority, giving them a chance to offer their input on it so that we’re all clear and can manage expectations.

Overdue Tasks
We create our list of tasks after finding out everything that needs to be done for the client, something we discover through the Wealth Management Index process. After that, we keep on top of those tasks that are overdue.

Our standard is to have fewer than five tasks overdue per wealth manager. We look at both the percentage of individuals with overdue tasks as well as the gross number of those that are late. There is a tremendous amount of work going into each client relationship, so the number of tasks for the entire firm (which serves 600 families) is in the tens of thousands throughout the year. Managing our ability to complete those tasks is critical to delivering on our promises.

Transaction Alerts
Whenever money flows into our clients’ investment accounts, our team members get a daily list of deposits and withdrawals and we let the investment team know whether they should be invested or remain in cash. We can automate the process somewhat with cash, but we still must look at individual accounts to be sure we are handling things correctly. This is an especially important job, because if money that was supposed to be invested is missed for a period of time, we must go back and calculate what the client’s returns would have been and provide a fee credit. This doesn’t happen often, but it is certainly financially painful when it does.

If we want to be able to hold to these standards, we have to have an understanding of our staff’s capacity. Accredited’s Steve Gilbertson leads a work group that develops productivity and capacity standards. The staff evaluates its workload using several factors. One is how time-intensive the work is (how complicated the client situations are, how cooperative the clients are when it comes to getting us information and how engaged they are in the planning process). Staff also considers the emotional intensity of their work. (What is the client going through that takes additional time? How anxious can they be about their situation? Do their expectations regularly change or are they consistent?) The emotional intensity element is interesting because it represents how the planner is affected by the client’s interaction. What may seem intense to one of us may not be to a different planner.

There are other workload factors as well, such as the number of meetings, the number of tasks, the number of different teams in which a wealth manager is involved (the more teams, the more time it takes), and the other internal company responsibilities that take up the staff’s time.

From these evaluations, we can get a sense of how productive our team members are. This lets us know whether someone raising their hand to take on new clients can actually do it. There’s a concept we use called the “entrepreneurial operating system” (EOS), which categorizes staff members according to “people who get it” (those who understand what needs to be done), “people who want it” (those who wish to take on a bigger load), and “those with the capacity to do it” (those who either have the skills or time to handle what they say they want to). Measuring capacity in this way helps us predict when we have to hire and for what positions.

At Accredited, we’ve found that creating measures for standards and capacity lets us explore how well we are serving our clients. That means when we ask them “How’s it going?” we can believe them when they say, “Great.”

To learn more about this and other things we are doing, please join us at our annual Be Our Guest program on June 6. For a $1,500 donation to the Foundation for Financial Planning (or $1,000 per person if you send multiple people), we will spend a day going through everything we do to serve clients. For more information, please reach out to me at [email protected].

Ross Levin is co-founder of Accredited Investors Wealth Management in Edina, Minn.