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Serving Up Success

Every recipe for a thriving practice has one key ingredient: excellent customer service. Keep this ingredient top of mind, and you will make every transaction the catch of the day.

By Helen Thompson

I don't know much about fish. I never liked it as a kid, never acquired a taste for it as an adult, and never once clipped a recipe for fish or seafood out of a magazine. So when I found myself hovering in front of the seafood counter at a local supermarket recently, I was amused when the guy behind the counter—Mike, he said—smiled and asked what I was looking for. Normally, I answer the “Can I help you” line with “Just looking,” but that answer didn’t fit this question. So, I explained that I was thinking about trying my hand at cooking some fish for my seafood-loving fiancé, but had no idea what to get.

Excellent customer service is the underpinning of any successful enterprise.

About 15 minutes later, I walked out of the store with a neatly wrapped bundle of orange roughy. It wasn’t what I thought I had been looking for, and I spent more money than I had planned, but it ended up being the perfect dinner, and I was back the following week for my next round of cooking lessons. Mike the seafood guy had made a particular impression on me by using specific techniques to make the sale—and won my loyalty, to boot.

The same steps that Mike followed form the core of what I heard from financial advisors and customer-service consultants as I prepared to write this article: Excellent customer-service is the underpinning of any successful enterprise.

Learn from experience
Begin to create your customer-service plan by thinking about where you’ve had really good customer service. What made an impression? What brought you back? What made you feel valued? Write these things down, because you’ll use them to formulate your customer-service plan.

The need for documentation
Writing down the plan serves two key purposes. One, it allows you to communicate your expectations to your entire team. No matter how large or small your practice is, your leadership will help everyone become more conscientious of where they have received good service and how they can put those ideas to work for you, according to Craig Cochran, author of Becoming a Customer-Focused Organization. Secondly, once you have your “dream service” documented, it becomes easier to check yourself, implement best practices and make sure you’re catching customers.

Educate your team
Leadership is tremendously important for good customer service. Cochran’s list of customer-service skills that are leadership driven includes employee attitudes, training and discipline, as well as organizational communications. “It’s easy to lose customer focus,” says Cochran, a customer-service coach who serves as North Metro regional manager with Georgia Tech’s Economic Development Institute. “Communication about the customers—what works and what doesn’t—needs to come from top management on a regular basis.”

The customer-service plan you create from your own customer-service experiences will allow you to communicate your expectations to your team. Provide educational opportunities such as training seminars or mentorship programs to help your team improve, share what you know works and encourage your team to do the same.

Another important leadership element of customer service is the need to recognize where your team’s strengths and weaknesses are. After all, you don’t want the person from the floral shop or the grocery stock clerk telling you the difference between tilapia and mahi-mahi. “When you really do a good job at customer service, you end up getting too much work,” says Marc Bregman of Bregman Financial Services in Lodi, Calif. “Then you have to hire more staff to keep everything under control. But more help won’t make you more money: You have to hire the right help.”

Cochran notes that this is an often-overlooked aspect of customer service, but getting it right allows the team to focus on clients rather than on internal procedures and other things that aren’t important. “It seems counterintuitive, but proves itself again and again,” he says. “When leadership focuses on people—what they need, what information is critical, what tools are necessary and what type of development they require—it really facilitates their ability to focus on the customer.”

Your clients can get financial information from many places: the media, the internet, family members and other advisors. What sets you apart?

Be the best at what you excel in
One of the things that really impressed me about Mike the seafood guy is that he really knew his stuff and used his expertise to help me. Your clients expect the same from you. They can get financial information from lots of different places: the media, the internet, family members or other advisors. What sets you apart? You can start with branding—strong corporate logos and marketing packages that help your name stand out will help clients remember your name first. But shouldn’t the converse be true? Remember their names, too!

Carl Fellhauer, LUTCF, of Trusted Financial Advisors in Colorado Springs, Colo., addresses this by packaging his know-how in a personalized, printed and bound presentation. “Even if it’s just an answer to a simple question, they’ll get the answer in a folder with their name and today’s date printed on it,” he says. “We want them to know that each meeting is that important to us.”

What will really set you apart is your ability to “come around the counter.” Demonstrating your knowledge while fulfilling your clients’ needs (and making the process look effortless) is a key to earning their loyalty.

Systematize your customer-service practices
Everyone wants to feel special, but this presents a different challenge: How can you treat all of your customers right and do so consistently? Time management is a tremendous part of customer service, and solving that challenge is easy: Systematize it. “When there’s no process or system in place and you’re working without a set of guidelines, providing good service becomes really difficult,” says Tonya Mathison, a MassMutual agent in Walnut Creek, Calif. “Taking the time to set up your process is just as important as implementing the process.”

Start with your customer-service plan and figure out how you want to go about implementing it. You can determine what you want to do and set up a process to formalize it, or you can identify what you’re already doing and document that process so that you can delegate more effectively. Once you have that list, it’s not only a tool to help your team provide great service, it’s also a great way to let your clients know what to expect, according to Fellhauer, a member of NAIFA-Colorado Springs. “What the client expects is based on a conversation we have early on in the interview process,” he says. “They won’t get disappointed because we review those expectations every year.”

Mathison, who also lays everything out for her clients—from the very first interview—notes that customer service is a difficult thing to systematize. One of the ways she handles this is by following up every meeting with a thank-you note. “After all, they’ve taken the time out of their busy schedule to come meet with me,” says Mathison, a member of NAIFA-Mt. Diablo (Calif.) and of Women in Financial Services. “So after every meeting, I send them a handwritten note, and I always reference something that we talked about. That shows that we’re listening.”

In addition, she keeps a box of greeting cards ready for whatever client event comes up. “It has every kind of card you can think of: wedding cards, baby cards, thank-you notes, blank notes, something I find that I think is pretty,” she says. “If any occasion comes up, I have a card for it. And it works!”

It’s not about what you want
No matter how much I am starting to appreciate fish, I have yet to want anything to do with salmon. But there’s always someone who insists I don’t know what I’m missing. Make sure you are not one of those people. You can set up your service standards according to your favorite customer-service experiences, but always treat your customers the way they want to be treated.

That means getting to know them. One of the hardest exercises I ever did as a retail bookstore manager was teach my staff how to ask the right questions. Switching from “Can I help you?” to “Can I help you find something today?” still leads inexorably to “Nope, I’m just looking.” Train yourself and your staff to ask open-ended questions, which lead to genuine conversations with your customers. Since you’re in the business of cultivating relationships instead of book-selling, it’s a good idea to take notes on what you learn so that each time you touch base with your customers, you can speak to their lives directly.

For a great how-to on asking your clients open-ended questions, check out A Little More Conversation by Paul Calendrillo.

Cultivate thoughtfulness
For Mathison, getting to know her clients reminds her of dating. As she moves through her initial meetings with prospects, she has a structure in place: introduction, discovery and fact gathering. Each meeting presents an opportunity for a new phase of learning about the client, and she makes an extra effort to get details that she can act on during future meetings. “If they put cream in their coffee, I know that,” she says.

Train yourself and your staff to ask open-ended questions, which lead to genuine conversations with your customers.

Think of this as an ongoing process that can serve two purposes. One, getting to know your clients allows you to provide them with customized service, always a bonus. But there’s also that tricky matter of getting feedback from your clients. Forget the surveys and the focus groups, says Cochran. “Brainstorm where you’re already talking to customers, and leverage those interactions for getting feedback,” he says. “Scaled surveys in which they rank you from 1 to 5 on professionalism and friendliness have a lot of failure modes and are hard to respond to. For instance, when you get a 3.75 on friendliness, how do you take action on that?”

Rather than go through the process of creating and sending a survey, Cochran says to build a few minutes into the end of your appointment and ask one or more of these questions, the answers to which you can then use to formulate a course of action:

  • What have we done well lately?
  • What have we done not-so-well lately?
  • What would you like to see us do differently?

Give a little something extra
Did I mention that Mike the seafood guy gave me a $2 per pound discount on the orange roughy I bought and threw in an extra fillet? I would have bought it anyway, but he wished me a long and happy marriage and joked that it was my wedding gift from him. He’d picked up on the word fiancé and made sure that I knew he was paying attention. He’s earned my business, in spite of the really fancy gourmet market that opened around the corner not too long ago. You can do the same for your clients.

Mathison has had clients’ cars washed during their meetings and has sent breakfast baskets to clients in major life transitions. “I just try to listen for extra special things I can do for people,” she says. “But that’s part of their becoming friends as well as clients, and getting to know them on a personal level.”

Cochran is quick to note that you don’t need to contrive a friendship, but giving that little extra or providing additional service is one of the best ways to start getting referrals. “People want to do business with their friends,” he says. “It’s impossible to be friends with everybody, but if you’re the friendly face offering extra value or added services, they will automatically think of you when the need comes up.”

The funny thing about providing extra value is that it’s often something you don’t realize is valuable. “As demographics shift in the financial-services industry, that means there’s a whole bunch of people who may not be as educated on the basic information as you would expect them to be,” says Cochran. “Educating them is nothing but opportunity.”

Remember to set your own limits, though. “When it comes to customer service, we provide world-class service to people,” says Fellhauer. “But I don’t take phone calls at home or while on vacation. I do let them know they can send me an email and we’ll take care of it. That’s one of the reasons we let people know, up front, what they can expect from us.”

Stuff happens
An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, but eventually something will go awry. At the least, your staff is inconvenienced, but if there’s a serious problem, ducking it will undermine your client relationship. “I could just take the stand that we did what we were supposed to, and if it doesn’t go through, then it’s not my problem,” says Bregman, a member of NAIFA-Stockton and chair of the association’s Young Advisors Team. “But it is my problem. ”

Take it as an opportunity to shine. “Smart organizations learn from their mistakes,” says Cochran. “If someone is motivated enough to contact you and tell you something went wrong, that is the biggest opportunity any organization has for establishing loyalty.” Jump on what they say, and once you’ve established that it’s a legitimate complaint, take action to make it right, he says.

And make sure you always follow up. “Once you’ve taken action, be sure to let the complainant know what you did,” he says. “If he doesn’t realize that something’s been fixed, there might as well have been no fix. It’s all about perception.”

For more of Cochran’s tips on how to develop your leadership-driven customer- service skills, including downloadable checklists and surveys, check out his article Keeping Your Clients Front and Center.

It’s common sense
You knew a lot of this stuff already. Let’s face it: Customer service isn’t something that generates earth-shattering developments. You can imagine the headlines now: “Research proves, once and for all, that customers want to be treated well!” That’s what we all want. But even the most seasoned customer-service professional sometimes needs a refresher course from time to time. You have the opportunity to be a leader in this arena by helping your staff become your front line of customer-service experts. After all, you never know when someone who looks suspiciously like me will walk in looking lost, just waiting for the question that will elicit, “Well, my seafood-loving fiancé and I are getting married soon and buying a house, and I’d like to try my hand at getting our financial shop in order, but I have no idea where to start.”

Because right now, I’m just looking.

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