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Clients Forever

Advisors with near 100-percent client-retention rates share eight of their secrets of success.

By Lynn Vincent

Jeff Christienson swears he’s not making this up. An advisor in Phoenix, Christienson likes to pop up to Vegas a couple of times a year, kick around town, take in a show. One of those times a few years back, he and a group of friends stopped in at the Caesar’s Palace location of Spago, Wolfgang Puck’s trendy restaurant chain.

We were in a hurry and my friend Brian orders a small pizza with pepperoni and onions,” Christienson remembers. “He tells the waiter it’s very important that there are no mushrooms on the pizza because he’s allergic to them.” The waiter assured Brian that his order would arrive mushroom-free, but when the pie came it was covered in them. When Brian politely pointed out that the order was wrong, the waiter replied, “Well I can get you something else, but I have to charge you for that one.”

Incredibly, the restaurant manager said the same thing. The reason? Spago chefs, the manager said, “are allowed to take artistic freedom with the food.”

“If I hadn’t been there I wouldn’t have believed it,” Christienson says now. “Their attitude was, ‘Look, there’s a very long line here. You can just leave, and we don’t care if you ever come back.’”

While most insurance advisors today would say they care passionately if their clients come back, the reality is that many may be—intentionally or not—taking the Spago approach to client retention.

JEFF CHRISTIENSON ESTIMATES
THAT EVERY WEALTHY 100 EVENT YIELDS FIVE NEW CLIENTS OF SIMILAR FINANCIAL STANDING.

Conventional wisdom says it’s easier and more profitable to hold on to existing clients than to drum up new ones. How to hold on to them is another matter entirely. Below, five advisors whose retention rates are at or near 100 percent share eight ways to improve client retention.

1. Tell clients that you appreciate their business.
Christienson believes people like to do business where they feel appreciated. But, he says, “Clients don’t just naturally know you appreciate them. One of the things we do is make sure we tell them that we do appreciate their business.” Whether concluding a phone call or a meeting, Christienson says, he and his staff thank clients for choosing to do business with his practice: “I want them to know that I understand they could go many places to have done what we do for them, and that we appreciate their choosing us.”

2. Make high-end clients feel … well, high-end
While he sends thank-you notes to all his clients, Christienson recently launched what he calls the “Wealthy 100,” a unique way to express appreciation to his high-net-worth clients. The concept revolves around the attraction of exclusive “membership” in an exclusive group.

“The idea was that I would find 100 clients making six- and seven-figure incomes and throw a really special event for them every 60 days. They could come, bring friends, spouses, guests, and that those people would get a chance to meet and mingle, and have fun,” he explains.

“Really special” is something of an understatement. What began with a single happy hour event has evolved into a string of high-end to-dos, including a luncheon with Steve Forbes, a wine-tasting affair and a tour of an exclusive customizer of Harley Davidson motorcycles. Christienson also chartered a jet and ferried his Wealthy 100 to Vegas to goof off for a day.

The Wealthy 100 program “allows me to get together with very best clients on a consistent basis,” Christienson says. It also allows him to build relationships with hot prospects. Christienson estimates that every Wealthy 100 event yields five new clients of similar financial standing: “It’s not rocket science, but people really like it.”

3. Answer the phone—and call back.
Metlife’s Brian Bushwell really likes being personally available to clients, a practice to which he attributes his high client-retention rate, despite what current industry wisdom says about effective time management. “I know it goes against what everybody says about delegating,” says this Greater Essex AIFA (N.J.) member. “If you go to an industry meeting today, they’ll tell you, ‘Don’t answer the phone.’ ‘Don’t let the client get to you.’ They say time is money. But without the client, you have no money.”

That’s why clients calling Bushwell’s office will reach a real person—usually him—anytime after 6 a.m. In addition, he says his firm’s standard practice is to return 99 percent of phone calls the same day, and 100 percent within a 12-hour period—and not always during conventional business hours, either.

Recently, Bushwell happened to check his voice mail at 11 p.m. and heard a message from an important business client, a young guy who runs a company with 300 employees. The client needed some questions answered about premium drafts. Bushwell immediately called the client’s office voice mail and provided the requested information. That meant the client had his answers first thing the next morning—and Bushwell had a loyal customer. “The client called me again, and left me another message that said, ‘This is why I do business with you.’”

4. Pay attention to what the client wants, not what you want.
Statistics show that hordes of clients are just itching to do business with someone other than their current advisor. Lou Cassara, principal at Cassara Associates and a Northwestern Mutual Financial Network representative in Chicago, has interviewed more than 5,000 financial services clients who have defected from one advisor to another. More than eight in 10 clients leave, he says, not because of product performance, but because of a poor relationship with the advisor.

“It almost always comes down to the client’s perception that the advisor was putting his own needs ahead of the client’s,” says Cassara, author of From Selling to Serving and member of Dupage Area AIFA. “It’s a relationship decision and that’s a very important element that advisors don’t pay attention to. They focus on product issues and sales issues, and not on what the client cares deeply about, which is whether the advisor has the client’s best interests at heart.”

The solution, says Cassara, is for advisors to switch from a sales mentality to an attitude of service. “People love to be served, but dislike being sold,” he explains. “Clients want advisors who understand their situation, who will take the time to educate them, who will respect their assets regardless of size, who will help solve their problems, keep in touch and monitor their progress.”

Understand, Cassara says, that the client’s personal feelings about the advisor will override any product performance: “A client doesn’t care if his mutual fund made a point more or less than the next guy’s. What the client cares about is that you are paying attention to him as a person.”

5. Be likeable.
Of course, it doesn’t hurt to be a person that clients enjoy being around. Cassara’s 5,000 interviews have also revealed that clients stick with advisors who show them respect, pay attention, communicate well and are fun to be with. Unfortunately, Cassara says, too many advisors are “pretentious, self-centered, manipulative people who answer questions when they have no answers.”

MAKE CLIENTS FOR LIFE:

Let them know how important their business is to you.
Make your high-end clients feel special.
Be available to them when they need you.
Put your client’s needs and wants before your own.
Show genuine interest in them.
Make clients feel important.
Establish regular contact with them.
Keep your clients up-to-date on the information they need to know.

“They’re out to sell something and clients get that,” Cassara says. To improve client retention, advisors who see hints of themselves in the description above must reevaluate their own core beliefs. Cassara suggests you ask yourself questions such as: Is my purpose to make money or make a difference? Are my agreements limiting, exploiting and manipulating, or are they truthful, transparent and authentic? Am I competitive and adversarial, or supportive and collaborative in my relationships?

The real trick, says Cassara, is for advisors to answer themselves honestly. “Unfortunately, many advisors are not telling themselves the truth about these things,” he says. But they could hold on to more clients—and cultivate new ones—by “bringing more truth and integrity to the business relationship.”

6. Make clients feel like they matter.
Mike De La Garza keeps his clients by turning business relationships into personal ones. A MONY representative in Houston, De La Garza began learning to do so from a very young age—and from a seemingly unlikely source: an insurance agent.

“My father died without life insurance when I was 1,” he says. “At that point, my mom purchased permanent life insurance on all of us, and the insurance agent would come by every week and collect the premium. He would always bring us bubble gum or candy, and check on us to make sure we were okay. He made us feel like we mattered.”

De La Garza now tries to make his own clients feel that they matter, sending holiday and thank-you cards, buying and giving the latest business books to CEOs, delivering flowers on birthdays, even arranging public recognition on clients’ birthdays. Like the time during a Hispanic business owners’ meeting when he had the restaurant kitchen whip up a last-minute birthday cake, then asked the meeting moderator for a moment to stop and present the cake to his client, who was in attendance. De La Garza not only kept that client, he gained two more from the same meeting.

7. Don’t neglect your clients.
De La Garza also has gained lots of clients from advisors who sold product—then disappeared as though abducted by aliens. He recently picked up several affluent clients who had not heard from their advisors in three years. Another new De La Garza client runs one of the biggest businesses in Houston and has a huge 401(k) program for his employees. He told De La Garza that his ex-advisor had not been out to see him in four years.

MORE THAN EIGHT IN 10 CLIENTS LEAVE NOT BECAUE OF PRODUCT PERFORMANCE, BUT BECAUSE OF A POOR RELATIONSHIP WITH THE ADVISOR.

“I can’t imagine that kind of thinking, especially with a client of this size,” De La Garza says. “Sometimes advisors seem to think that business clients have purchased what they need and won’t want to change anything. But CFOs and CEOs want to know what’s going on.” He makes it a point to ask clients how often they would like to be contacted, and then he makes it a point to visit them at least a couple of times a month.

Bottom line on retaining clients, says De La Garza: Don’t take them for granted.

8. Educate your clients.
Nor should advisors take for granted that clients already know as much they need to. Brian Gordon, an LTCI specialist with MAGA Ltd., in Chicago, keeps his clients by educating them—and keeping them educated.

He’s considered other high-touch approaches—like the time a company wanted to charge him $7 per client to “touch” each one seven times a year. “I asked to see some of their materials,” he remembers. “The birthday cards were like postcards with a computer printout of my face on them. I didn’t want my clients looking at that. It looked too mass-produced.”

So Gordon has opted for an informational approach to client retention: “We try to touch them at least twice a year with pertinent information that they need to know.” Most of the “touches” take the form of a newsletter that contains policy updates, information on new types of coverage and changes in the LTCI market. But Gordon isn’t shy about delivering adverse information, either, such as news of an imminent rate increase.

“We want them to hear it from us, not from the carrier,” he explains. “Clients appreciate us being up front about the information. It gives them options and time to adjust their budgets.”

Gordon’s key to client retention is creating well-informed clients. “They know what they have when they work with us. They’re well-educated on the product, they understand what they’re buying up front, and they’re making the decisions. That’s why they stay with us,” he says.

Lynn Vincent is a frequent contributor to Advisor Today.

 


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