Surveys can help you ask for their opinions-and let them know that you're listening.

Editor's Note: Julie Littlechild co-authored this article. The following is the first article by the authors in a three-part series on client surveys.

Ask most financial advisors if they think getting feedback from clients is a good idea and you will get a unanimously positive reaction. Ask those same advisors if they have surveyed their clients and about three quarters admit that a good idea doesn't necessarily translate into action. Only a small minority of advisors has actually surveyed clients.
It seems, then, the first question is not "how" to survey clients but "why" you should do it in the first place. In addition to allowing you to stay on top of changing client needs, interests and expectations, the reasons abound. We'll start with some basics and then look more broadly at how surveying clients can also directly support your overall strategy.

1. Do what's right. The argument starts with doing what's right for, and demonstrating commitment to, your clients. The good news is that clients are generally satisfied with their financial advisors. Advisor Impact, which works with financial services firms and their advisors to improve productivity and profitability, last year surveyed 6,300 clients, who gave their advisors an average rating of 4.6 out of a possible five points. Not bad.
2. Mitigate risk. Despite high satisfaction, some clients are at risk, but a well-structured survey is like an early warning system. In fact, the number of clients at risk, for a given advisor, ranged from 0% to 24%. The Advisor Impact survey considered a client to be "at risk" if he or she rated an advisor a "3" or less out of 5, which by definition meant that the client was neutral, somewhat or very dissatisfied with the overall relationship. Approximately 7% of the 6,300 clients surveyed fell in to the "at risk" category, which could represent $7 million to $10 million of assets at risk for reasons that are likely within your control. We consider a client at risk if he or she is neutral, somewhat or very dissatisfied with the overall relationship.
3. Build client loyalty. Advisors mitigate risk and build loyalty by getting the offer right and delivering with excellence. A survey helps you understand both aspects of loyalty, by gathering information on what is most important to clients, what kinds of communications they value and what level of contact they expect.
4. Prioritize your activities. At the highest level, if you have asked clients what they value most, you will be in a better position to prioritize your time, focusing on those activities that are most important to clients. If we assume we know what is most important to clients, we may be getting it wrong, resulting in wasted time and money. The list in Figure 2 shows the factors that clients considered most important, out of a list of 16 different service dimensions that were tested.
Let's get a little more specific about how a survey not only can build deeper relationships, but can link directly to your overall business strategy. We've identified several potential corporate goals and how surveys can support those goals.

Goal One: Align Team
Compensation To Business Goals

Use a survey to monitor satisfaction with team performance and then relate that data to your compensation plan as an incentive driver.

Goal Two: Brand The
Business Effectively

Use a survey to gather more information on what your clients consider the most important aspects of the service you provide, what they value the most and how they define your role in their lives and use that information to effectively position yourself with clients, prospects and sources of referrals.

Goal Three: Deliver Service
Levels That Meet Client Expectations

Use a survey to gather information on what clients expect with respect to direct contact, as well as what other types of communications they value. You can also use information to manage the expectations of specific clients who may be demanding too much contact, relative to the value they bring to the business.

Goal Four:
Streamline Service Delivery

Use a survey to understand client comfort with holding some reviews by telephone, as well as their comfort in working with other team members.

Goal Five: Increase
Average Revenue Per Client

Use a survey to identify specific clients who are willing to refer, have an interest in other services you provide or who may be working with other financial advisors.

If it all sounds too good to be true, then you should be aware of a few risks.

First, you'll need to realize that structuring an effective survey question is part art and part science. It's easy to make mistakes. The most common mistake is to ask two questions in one. For example, "I am confident in the team's knowledge and efficiency." When a client provides a rating, are they rating knowledge, efficiency or both?
Research clearly demonstrates that a survey can lead to greater client loyalty by reinforcing the service (and services) that you provide to your clients. The opposite, of course, is also true. If most of your clients are dissatisfied, then a survey can reinforce the negative feelings. Our experience clearly shows that the vast majority of clients are somewhat or very satisfied, so this tends not to be an issue.

The final risk is entirely within your control. If clients take the time to complete a survey, then you need respond. Clients need you to acknowledge their feedback; a simple method is to provide all clients with a summary of the results and any steps you plan on taking based on those results.

So if the "why" seems clear, you might ask, "Why not?" While lack of time or expertise seem the most obvious reasons for not surveying clients, many advisors point to a more insidious obstacle, and that is fear. As it happens, that fear is irrational because most clients are satisfied, but it's a fear that advisors will have to manage in order to do what is right both for his or her clients and for the business.
The next question, then, is "how." Specifically, how you gather feedback from your clients depends largely on your objective. If, for example, you want objective and quantifiable feedback on fairly simple issues, then a written survey is your best bet. If, however, you want to gather qualitative feedback on bigger concepts that are difficult to explain, for example a switch to a fee-based business, then a focus group or client advisory board is the way to go. Telephone surveys are also an option as a replacement for a written survey. The only drawback is the possibility that clients won't be as honest with one of your staff and they may tend to respond quickly, rather than thoughtfully.
Many advisors favor Web-based solutions to a traditional written survey, largely because the data entry may (or may not) be automated. A word (or three) of caution. The first issue is client acceptance. When asked, only 40% of clients either preferred e-mail (17%) or had no preference (23%). Perhaps more importantly, the reason that data is compiled so easily and automatically is that it tends to be presented in a highly simplified manner (averages, cross-tabulations, etc.). You may need a more meaningful analysis of the data. For example, you will want to see data on a client-by-client basis, not only averages for the overall group. You should also be able to isolate the responses of your top clients, as you define them. A final issue may be customization. Your needs and objectives are, and should be, different from other financial advisors. A one-size-fits-all survey isn't a good idea. The incremental cost of using a customized solution is worth the investment.

However you choose to survey, there are a number of factors that will ensure that your survey results are actionable and meaningful.
Include questions on four aspects of your relationship: satisfaction, expectations, needs and preferences. The first two will help you structure the client service process, and the last will help you gather better information on your clients to support client communication and marketing.
Keep it short. Ensure that your survey is no more than four pages, with plenty of white space. Your survey should look easy to complete within five to ten minutes.
Dig deep. It is not only important to understand how clients rate your performance on specific service dimensions, but also the value they place on those dimensions.
Ask actionable questions. It is important to generate feedback on aspects of the practice that are within your control.
Include a deadline for returning the survey. In order to allow you to analyze your survey results effectively, you will need to ensure that you receive all responses by a specific date; a postage-paid envelope is a big help.     

Include an incentive to respond. An incentive to complete the survey should be included. A drawing will work, and should be clearly linked to the deadline you have established. Our clients typically draw for a dinner for two, but check with compliance on rules regarding incentives and lotteries.
Make the client's name optional. While it is frustrating to get specific suggestions from a client whose name is not included, making the name optional will increase your response rate and encourage clients to respond more honestly. We typically find that 80% of clients do provide their name when it is optional.
Code surveys to allow you to isolate the responses of your high-priority clients. It is helpful to see your data cut by client segment, but ensure that your codes only identify the segment, not the individual client.
Follow up with all clients. It is important for clients who completed the survey to know that you have reviewed their comments and are making changes to reflect the needs of your clients.

Include an open-ended question. In order to analyze the results of your survey efficiently, you should structure all questions with multiple-choice responses. You will, however, find it helpful to include a final question that asks clients how you can improve the business.
As a final note, ensure that you leverage the results of your survey. A small additional investment of time can net significant returns. Use the results to show prospective clients how you work with existing clients. In a similar vein, provide a summary of your results to centers of influence and prospects.

In the next article, we'll look at key success factors in a practice, and how surveys can help you assess performance over time, based on the experience of individual advisors.

Julie Littlechild is the president of Advisor Impact and Rebecca Pomering is a principal with Moss Adams LLP. For more information on client surveys contact [email protected].