“You have made Bill’s day,” I was told by his wife, Charlotte. Bill was out when I called last year and I told Charlotte that the reason for my call was to invite him to serve on our Client Advisory Board. When he returned my call he was, in fact, enthusiastic about serving a three-year term. And his response was not atypical. In fact, I have never had a client refuse to serve when asked.

When we started our board about 15 years ago, we never anticipated the positive responses we would get from clients when they were asked to serve or during their tenure or the appreciation they express when their terms are up. We even had one member coordinate his vacations so that he would not miss a meeting.

Our Client Advisory Board consists of nine clients with staggered three-year terms. We meet twice a year at the Four Seasons Hotel. We start our meetings at 10 and serve lunch at about 12:30. Our selection process stresses diversity among our clients and the planners who service them. For example, our current board of nine is represented by five senior planners. Among the members are professionals, retirees, business owners and corporate executives.
Over the years, we have had marketing specialists, third-party administrators, doctors, lawyers, psychologists, small business owners, management consultants, executives at public corporations, retirees and people from many other walks of life.

In spite of the fact that some members leave each year and are replaced by others, the chemistry and the dedication to the board have remained constants over the years. We do not pay them, nor have any of them ever asked for compensation. We, however, pay for their monthly enrollment in a program called “Health Advocate.” This is also provided to all of our employees and helps people navigate issues they may have with doctors, health insurance claims, hospital stays, etc. We pay this monthly expense for as long as they are clients. We also give them a parting gift, usually a leather portfolio.

It would take many more words than I am allotted in this venue to detail all of the areas where our board has made a difference. We have asked and received their valuable input in the design of our brochure, our financial life planning process, our performance reporting, fee structure, marketing strategies, Web site development, client communication, client events, review meeting agendas and many more subjects.

One example of the way they helped us was in our quarterly reporting. Of course, our reporting software provides us with many reports and options. We would spend much time discussing the combination of reports that our clients would be most interested in seeing. We decided to put it before our Client Advisory Board. In preparation for the meeting, we actually sent each board member a sample of every report that we could generate and asked them to choose what was most important to them. When we met, it was obvious that they had done their homework. They reviewed the reports, made notes on them, discarded most and came to a consensus that we still use today.

However, our professionals and clients both  agree that it is time to revisit our reporting. This will be the major agenda item for our next meeting in November. And while we made no decisions at our May meeting, they told us that reporting how other indices have performed was not relevant to them. They reminded us that we stress planning and individual goal achievement, and that neither of those is relevant to how an index may be performing. This November meeting should be quite interesting.

Another area where they were extremely valuable was in the development of our brochure. Our first draft of our brochure contained some images that they frankly told us were not representative of who we are. For example, under investments we showed a picture of a person driving a red sports car. After hearing their feedback, we asked ourselves, “What were we thinking?”

There were many other areas in the brochure that were revised as a result of their feedback. We used this brochure effectively for several years, and a complete revision was needed when we adopted our new financial life planning process. We got their feedback very early in the process. We still use this brochure and are extremely pleased with how it turned out. As a matter of fact, the person who designed the brochure was a member of our client advisory board who owned a small advertising firm. In addition to our input, he elicited feedback from the other members of the board before the project was finalized.

We have just totally redesigned our Web site, which took two years to complete. We showed the original recommendations from our development company to our Client Advisory Board. To a person, they didn’t like what they saw. The graphics were too dark, they told us; it didn’t flow freely; it showed people engaged in high-risk activities, such as mountain climbing and skydiving; and the pictures were of people much younger than our target market. Once the revisions were completed, we presented them at another board meeting.

They suggested some minor tweaks, which we agreed to. While implementing this feedback extended the development, it was worth the time and effort and we are proud of the result. We are certain that, without the help of our advisory board, our Web site would not have represented us as ideally as we believe it does now.

At one of our Client Advisory Board meetings, we were discussing review meetings. One of our members provided us with some frank feedback. He told us that while he enjoys schmoozing with us, he would prefer more substance. Specifically, he wanted more information than we were providing at that time for how he was progressing with his goals. He clarified that he did not mean portfolio returns, since he gets that each quarter.

This started a very productive discussion, and one of the conclusions was that we should provide not only long-term goals but more specific checkpoints along the way. This may seem very obvious, but it was not being implemented as universally for all clients as it should have been. An example was a long-term client of ours who had credit card debt exceeding $50,000. Each year, we met we stressed that they needed to do something about that debt and each year it seemed to increase. After that Client Advisory Board meeting, we decided to ask these clients to reduce their debt by $5,000 in one year. They exceeded that and, rather than point out that they were still in debt by more than $45,000, we congratulated them on the attainment of that goal.

We established a new goal for the next 12 months and that continued until today when they are totally free of all credit card debt. It all sounds so simple as I write it and I wonder why it wasn’t implemented more often. I have no answer for that except to say that the board suggestion is what made it happen.
Last year we honored all of our present and past advisory board members by having a luncheon at the Four Seasons. It was a wonderful affair and was purely social, except for one comment that was made to all them: “RTD would not be as successful as it is if it weren’t for the people in this room today.
Major changes have been implemented because of your dedication and feedback. This luncheon is a very small way of saying thank you.”