There is scientific evidence that some couples experience a ‘honeymoon effect’ in their marriages. Unfortunately, for those impacted, it means the love-induced euphoria is quickly replaced by a rather more harsh reality that has you wondering what happened to the fairy tale. It’s not pretty but, as is often the case, the perils of personal relationships hold out some helpful lessons for client relationships.
While the ‘honeymoon effect’ might not carry the same emotional impact when applied to clients, it’s worth asking ourselves what we can do to ensure that the ‘high’ of a new advisory relationship doesn’t wane. It begins by heeding the waning signs.
Relationship Red Flags
Not unlike a bad marriage, it’s easy to ignore the warning signs of a bad client relationship. Often we know a client doesn’t fit our ideal, but take them on anyway. Other times, the client looks good on paper, but has expectations that are out of whack with reality. In either case, the solution is not only ensuring we have a clear definition of our ideal client but that we have a process to assess fit as part of the initial meeting – before the prospect becomes a client. I wrote about the connection between ‘fit’ and engagement in this article if you are interested in reading more on the topic.
Among the steps to consider are the following:
- Define your ideal client by asking yourself the following question. What characterizes the clients for whom I can do my best work?
- Set minimum standards. Based on your assessment of the ideal client, translate those into minimum standards – a set of qualifying criteria to work with you and your team. The standards will, of course, differ from one advisor to the next, but could include such things as willingness to invest time to create a comprehensive financial plan, demonstrates realistic expectations etc.
- Assess fit. As part of your initial meetings ask questions that assess fit and determine if the client has realistic expectations. If they don’t, you can’t help them no matter how hard you try. Consider the following questions:
- Can you tell me about your experience with your last advisor? What worked and what didn’t?
- What would have to happen in five years for you to consider this a great relationship?
- How often do you expect to hear from me throughout the year?
- How would you describe both of our roles in meeting your financial goals?
The First 60 Days
Perhaps the honeymoon effect is amplified in marriage because it follows a period of ‘dating’, during which we’re all on our best behavior. Nothing is too great an imposition, calls are returned quickly and no one has made a single mistake – at least none we notice through our rose colored glasses. The same holds true for client relationships, which raises a question. How do we keep the feeling alive once the prospect has become a client? Part of the answer, however small, is to recognize that the on-boarding process extends beyond the paperwork.
So in addition to ensuring you have a clearly documented on-boarding process, find ways to reinforce, with the client, that he or she made a great decision to work with you? A few ideas:
- Send the client something tangible, like a book, to say welcome
- Ensure someone on the team follows up directly after the first statement goes out to ensure everything is clear
- Make an unexpected call just to see if there are any questions during the transition process
I’m no marriage counsellor, but I’m going to guess that mismatched expectations are one of the biggest causes of marital strife. The same is likely true of your client relationships. There is nothing wrong with promising the world to prospective clients as long as you can deliver and as long as ‘the world’ is clearly defined. Absent of clear definition, you may find that my definition of ‘great service’ means you’ll stop by my house once a week to discuss the intricacies of my plan.
When it comes to managing expectations, the answer is clear. Define it. Document it. Communicate it.
- Define it. Define exactly what a client can expect, ideally linked to segment. At a minimum that definition should include frequency of contact, other communications (e.g. education), client appreciation and scope of offer.
- Document it. I’m a big believer in using a written service agreement that maps out what a client can expect. It’s something that is created and reviewed at the outset of the relationship and then as part of the annual review so you can look back and ensure you have delivered on your promises. You can download a sample client service agreement here.
- Communicate it. Don’t assume that because you have told a client what he or she can expect on the day you met, that they’ll remember. Expectations love a vacuum and they will expand to fill the empty space created by lack of communication. Review your service agreement as part of an annual review to remind clients of what you have done and discuss any gaps.
The 90-Day Survey
If client feedback is part of your overall plan, that’s a great thing. Remember, however, that a new client may not receive a survey for 12 months or longer. To demonstrate your commitment and unearth any lurking problems, consider sending a one-page survey 90 days after a prospect becomes a client. You can download a sample survey here. Ask them how things are going, despite it being early days. Look at the transition process or comfort with the new plan. Given them an opportunity to speak up now if there are any problems, rather than letting them fester for months.
Here’s a bonus idea. If you are sending that one page survey to a client who has been referred by a center of influence, ask if you can share the results back with the COI. It will give you an other chance to say thank-you and reinforce the level of service you’re providing.
When you think about it, the way to avoid the honeymoon effect involves a hefty dose of common sense and most of the ideas focus on better communication. It really is a bit like a marriage.