Tuesday February 7th 2006
Internet and Marketing
Best Internet Practices for Financial Advisors
By Jonathan Hunt, FundNET
Learn how to use the internet to add value to your services, strengthen client relationships, use email effectively and generate more referrals and investable assets from each client.
The Internet offers advisors a new and unparalleled opportunity to both prospect and service clients in completely new ways. As it is a relatively new medium, understanding just what to do can be challenging. This section will focus largely on the usage of Web services that advisors can consider implementing to augment traditional methods of both prospecting and client service. It gives them a guide to work within that has proven to effectively integrate the advisor into the online channel. Done successfully, this in turn has shown to generate happier clients, more referrals, and more investable assets per client.
What are Web Services?
For the context of this overview, readers should consider a Web service to be a commercial Internet service available to financial planning professionals. Technology firms with an understanding of the underlying financial services industry have built various offerings. They act as a Web platform for advisors to work within. While services offered today extend through such areas as Web site packages, e-mail newsletters, online financial planning programs, and even secure client statement reporting services, they are all built to extend the capabilities of the advisor in a compliant, cost-effective manner.
Before You Start
Understand your corporate guidelines
Most Web services are available to all independent financial professionals. Your utilization of such services, however, should be pre-approved through your compliance officer unless the service is an officially sponsored program being run or promoted by your firm. Doing so will ensure you don’t pursue an approach that might be outside your firm’s corporate guidelines (some firms don’t allow advisors to maintain Web sites for example). As dealer or firm policies vary widely across the industry, planners should ensure their firms allow their advisors to utilize various different technology services before engaging the provider. Most firms are quite reasonable to deal with, however, certain firms may not allow advisors to maintain their own offerings, preferring to offer a standardized firm-wide offering instead.
Advisors should be concerned about two fundamental issues with regards to compliance.
Compliance regulations prior to set up; and
ongoing compliance obligations
Once you have checked with your compliance department to ensure your utilization of a Web service does not contravene your firm’s existing policies, you will need to review compliance requirements for the initial setup of your project. The simplest manner to do this is to determine whether your compliance department and service provider prefer to deal directly during setup. If so, let the professionals work it out based upon their preferred compliance approval methods. You will find that most firms that provide such services to the industry prefer to deal directly with the compliance department to ensure nothing is lost in translation. Once agreed upon, have your compliance department send either you or the provider the appropriate logos, disclaimers, etc. along with any criteria for their usage.
Ongoing compliance regulations need to be considered as well. So check with your firm to get a better understanding of the level of contact they want to have surrounding changes to any materials you may wish to produce. The firms will differ in this manner as well. Some compliance departments require that you submit every change to a site or electronic newsletter prior to posting or sending it out. Others, however, are fine merely checking the disclaimer and thereafter reviewing changes as they are posted to a Web site.
Types of Web Services
Building a Site
Best Practice Principle:
Use the best design, photography, and graphics professionals you can afford.
Cheap sites look like cheap suits. Perhaps, even worse, because your clients who view their statements online will view them everyday. A great site doesn’t have to cost a lot. A “do it yourselfer” can, however, cost you a lot of money in lost sales and referrals if you don’t understand both the Web and financial business. That said, keep in mind the following:
Don’t ever over-promise.
Emphasize your speciality, not your generality.
Use a template to save a lot of money.
Make sure you can and do update your site regularly yourself.
Always use a professional photographer and site design team.
A Web site is an extension of your personal brand. That brand is made up of all of the things that are associated with your business. Your marketing material, the way you answer the phone, and all other aspects of your service, or lack of them, all contribute to the overall image of “your” product.
What does not work:
Expect prospective clients to call you because of your Web site.
Your Web site is best used as a positioning and client service tool.
The Internet may have changed a lot of things, but it has not largely changed the way in which people buy financial services products and services. Accordingly, just like you would not expect someone who is unhappy with the services they are getting through their bank or another planner to open the phone book and call you out of the blue, don’t expect this to happen because of a Web site either.
The Web is more of a reference tool. Consider the way in which you might buy a car. You’d be unlikely to order right off of the manufacturers Web site, but you’d certainly research it there. You’d listen to presentations about the benefits of the vehicle, testimonials from other satisfied customers, and even like to know things about the processes involved in leasing, servicing, etc. So it is for financial planners using the Web. Your prospective customers will look to your Web site to understand the framework that you do your business within. They want a reference point to be able to position you with to determine if you are the right person to deal with. Accordingly, start your decision-making process and planning about a site with a reasonable expectation of what works and what doesn’t.
Understanding a Proven Approach
Best Practice Principle:
Develop both an inbound and outbound Internet communications approach.
Almost 80% of Canadians are now online.
You can communicate with roughly 40% of your clientele when they come to view their statements.
The other 40% require outbound e-mail communications.
Inbound – Understanding the Opportunity of the Online Client Statement
A large number of your clients want to view their client statements online. Wise advisors promote the use of this communications channel as it gives them the ability to:
manage the emotions and expectations of the investor while that client is online; build their relationships with them online; and determine service opportunities and problems through online polling.
Statistics show us that approximately 40% of investors are interested in reviewing their investment portfolio at least once a month over the Internet. The numbers also point to the fact that these same clients visit their statement on average five times a month *. This provides the representative with a solid opportunity to communicate with customers as they arrive to view their investment holdings.
Best Practice Principle:
When thinking about where to position your content, consider only what your clients want to see.
Clients will only look at what they are interested in. Typically, this means they will return to their client statement again and again but not visit other parts of your site. To ensure your important content gets read, insert it on the pages they must see prior to logging in.
As the Internet is best used to extend and deepen your relationships with existing clients as opposed to prospect for new ones, you’ll want to structure your communications with content designed to do so. Done properly, you will find the clients you are able to communicate with in this manner will typically refer more people to you than those you service in exclusively a traditional manner. Similarly, if you do not already have all of the client assets in the house, you will be able to gather a greater amount from those clients who participate online if you engage them with fresh personalized content.
Best Practice Principle:
Rotate your content every week to engage your clients.
Clients will visit their online statements on average five times a month. As such, it will become a primary communications channel. Take advantage of this and develop a content strategy using topics you normally talk about when you see or call your clients. Schedule 15 minutes a week for you or your staff to find and update Web content in these areas:
your staff and your personal life;
articles you read of a financial nature;
human interest stories; and
Remember that clients deal with you because they trust you and value your opinion. Make sure that you, therefore, extend that opinion online by commenting personally on material you post or link to. If you do this, it will engage your clients who will, thereafter, spread the word on your services and participate as fully as they can themselves in your service offering. If you do not personally actively involve yourself in your site, however, it is unlikely that your clients will either.
Outbound – If they Don’t Come To You
Of course, you will not be able to communicate with all clients through an online client statement offering. Some investors are simply more interested in their garden than the regular movements of their portfolio. To be able to communicate effectively with this group, you will have to contact them proactively with e-mail.
Best Practice Principle:
Gather e-mail addresses and the permission to e-mail your clients at every opportunity. Then segment and e-mail your clients and prospects according to their interests.
Have a general e-mail newsletter that touches all clients at least once a month.
Use an e-newsletter service to add financial informational content and pictures to build brand.
Add your own personalized comments to talk directly to the clients.
Customer service today is all about reaching your customers through the channel that they are most likely to respond to favourably. For many clients, this means the use of e-mail. It is also the most cost-effective and timely manner available today for advisors to communicate with their clientele.
While it is safe to assume that your clients do want to hear from you through this channel, remember that it is always proper “netiquette” to ask first. Likewise, remember that no one likes Spam (unsolicited e-mail). Use the e-mails to bring clients back to information on your site and to gather additional service information.
Best Practice Principle:
Poll your clients online at least annually
If you ask your clients, they will tell you when they are having problems, what they like, dislike, and how you can make your service better. Polling your clients online is one of the most cost-effective and efficient manners to increase client satisfaction.
It is a simple fact of life that people like being asked their opinion. Online polling is an extremely easy and cost-effective way to do this that will uncover both opportunities and problems alike. Simply adding a polling service to an existing site or using a standalone version will create goodwill with your clients because they know you’re listening.
Whose Business is This Anyway?
Finally, remember just whose business this is. Your Web strategy is as important an aspect of your business as any other. Done properly, it has the ability to propel your business to new heights and make life considerably easier for you, your staff, and your clients. The strategic direction of your Web strategy is thus best left in the hands of whoever is responsible for your marketing and service decisions. While technology obviously plays a part in any decisions, those decisions should be made on a business level, not a technological one.
Rely exclusively on your firm’s Web offering.
The Web is the most cost-effective and efficient mass communications medium available to planners today. No one firm, however, has all the best tools. Count on yourself and industry professionals to develop and maintain your Web strategy just as you do to develop your clientele.
The 40% of clients who actively use online access will fluctuate by roughly 10% given the state of the markets and investment performance (i.e., you will see that roughly 50% of people will be interested in viewing investments online during good times, versus roughly 30% when markets are lower).
** The frequency of clients who check their online statements has also been subject to change according to market conditions (i.e., clients will check their statement on average five times a month when markets are down but this will increase to over seven times a month on average during periods of good market conditions). Figures determined using representative data collected by FundNET Systems Inc. throughout 1998 to 2003.s
Jonathan Hunt is the President of FundNET Systems, a communications software firm for the Independent Financial Services Industry. Featured in Advisor’s Edge, Investment Executive, Registered Rep and the Report on Business, Jonathan is the author of the Internet section for Advocis’s Best Practices Manual.