Prospering in Difficult Times

By Barry Chaffe, Chaffe/Malcolm + Partners Inc

“Well Sue, that’s a fair question. What need are you trying to address?” It was late when her call came in and I was in the process of packing my things to head home. But she asked if one of our products could strengthen her practice and it’s always a pleasure to talk with someone that wants to build their business. The caller, we’ll call her Sue, had started off by explaining that she was a financial planner and ran a successful practice.

She replied “I need better software for communicating financial results to my clients. The statements we send out today just aren’t enough.”

“I wish we could help Sue, but our firm doesn’t make any products even remotely similar to what you’re looking for. But I applaud your search for a tool that improves communication with your clients. Mind if I ask you a related question?” You never know how someone will respond to such an open-ended question. So I was pleased to hear her reply “Nope, fire away.”

“Sue, is doing a better job of reporting results your top priority?”

“Well” she said, “my clients have been asking for better reports for years, and business is a bit slow, so it seems like the timing is good.” “Sue, I agree that this is a good time to make improvements to your practice. But do you mind if I share with you my opinion of the most important challenge facing your profession right now?”

She was quiet for a moment, but then replied “Um, no, go ahead, you’ve got me curious now.”

Curiosity is always a good thing, at least in my opinion. “Sue, trust of everyone involved in the financial sector is at its lowest level in decades. Maintaining the trust of your clients is the key to keeping them around. And inspiring trust in folks that are looking for a new advisor is the key to earning their business. There is no shortage of prospects these days as disgruntled investors say goodbye to their long-time advisors. So, what does it take to inspire trust? Transparency. Honesty. Ethical behaviour. You’ve built a successful practice Sue, so I’m sure you have all of these qualities. But being transparent, honest and ethical isn’t nearly enough. It’s absolutely essential that you clearly and repeatedly communicate these qualities to your audience. So ultimately, it all boils down to communication. Something that advisors already know. But sadly, a truth that can sometimes be forgotten.”

Sue sounded a bit puzzled. “Just to make sure we’re on the same page, what sorts of communication are you talking about?”

I replied “I’m talking about the simple, common-sense basics. Meetings. Phone conversations. Letters. E-mails. Newsletters.”

“Uh huh” she responded. “We do all that. Well, not the newsletter, but everything else.”

“But Sue” I asked “do you communicate often enough to earn trust? Investors need to hear from you a lot in difficult times.”

Her response was a little less certain. “Well, we sure try. But we’re only four people, so there’s only so much communication we can handle.” I knew Sue couldn’t see me, but I still couldn’t help but nod. “To communicate as often as investors require these days, you need to have a client care system in place that makes communication fast and easy. Do you have a good system in place Sue?”

She named a very simple contact management program. “It’s always been enough for us.”

“But the world has changed Sue. Is that product able to meet your current communication needs?” In a thoughtful voice, she said “We use it to make notes about meetings and phone calls. Then we can refer back next time we deal with that person. And we use it for e-mail.”

“Can that system remind you when an investor is due to hear from you? And send out letters and e-mails to multiple people at the same time? Or target a communication to just those of your clients and prospects that would be interested? These are the cornerstones of effective communication.”

“Well, not exactly” she said. “We deal with one investor at a time. We don’t send out e-mails to multiple people because it isn’t confidential…each recipient can see the whole distribution list. And there’s no way I know of to search for people with something in common…if we had to, I suppose we could export to Excel and try sorting our records.” She didn’t sound too convinced though.

“Sue, if these critical activities aren’t quick and easy to do, how likely is it that they’ll get done with the frequency and focus necessary to meet the needs of today’s investors?”

I heard her start to respond, and then she thought better of what she was going to say and instead there was a moment of silence. Finally, she said “I follow your drift. And you’re right, we aren’t in a position to fire off lots of communications at the drop of a hat, it’s way too disruptive. But let’s be honest. You hear so many sales pitches about client care systems. Don’t they all turn out to be expensive and difficult to use?”

I smiled. It’s hard not to like someone that speaks their mind. “Yup, some are. But not all. And fortunately it’s easy to find out which ones work and which don’t. Simply talk to folks like yourself that are using a system. Ask hard questions. Make sure the system delivers exactly what you need”.

“But how would I get in touch with them?” she asked.

“A reputable vendor will be more than happy to supply you with a list of clients that are willing to talk with you. It’s no different than your business. You refer new prospects to some of your existing clients, don’t you Sue?”

“Sure, we do it all the time.” she replied. And then Sue asked the question that most folks overlook. “But my team knows how to use our current system. How painful is it going to be to start again from scratch?”

“I’m not going to mislead you Sue, it can potentially be very painful. So limit your search to vendors that offer common-sense, practical training solutions. Vendors that downplay training or suggest that your team simply phone when they have a question are simply trying to close a sale and aren’t committed to your success. You need a vendor that understands the critical importance of training. And let’s face it, there will never be a better time to learn a new system than now.”

To make a long story short, a business relationship between our two firms began to blossom during that conversation. And today Sue’s practice is already beginning to enjoy the benefits of more timely, more strategic and more frequent communication with clients and prospects.

Advisors like yourself are currently doing business in a very difficult environment. With difficulty comes stress. And with stress, it’s easy to lose sight of priorities. But we all know that the public’s trust of the financial sector is at an all-time low. And we also know that a comprehensive communication program is the only way to develop and maintain trust. The question is, does your client care system make it easy to communicate properly with investors and earn their trust? If not, shouldn’t you make replacing it your top priority?

Barry Chaffe is President of Chaffe/Malcolm + Partners Inc., a software development firm located in Waterloo, Ontario, Canada. Chaffe/Malcolm’s products include Investment Gold, the ultimate client care system for wealth management professionals. Investment Gold is used by more than 8,000 top performers across North America.

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