As communication becomes increasingly virtual, from telephone calls to emails, it becomes harder and harder to ensure that interactions between the staff and clients of any firm maintain their personal touch. Yet maintaining that personal connection with the individual client is crucial; in fact, a recent study in medicine found that radiologists are dramatically more effective in their analysis of scans of patients they've never met, simply by attaching a photo of the subject to help make the interaction more personal.

The opportunity to reinforce such connections is equally relevant in a financial planning firm, and equally feasible to implement. Just as the radiologist demonstrates a better connection to their patients with the photo - and report feeling more empathy on behalf of their patients - so too can client photos be attached to client files, or loaded into the main page of a client's CRM record, to ensure staff bear in mind the human being at the other end of the account/phone call/email message.

In addition, the reality is that the need for a visual personal connection in a virtual environment goes both ways. As a result, it's perhaps equally important to include a picture of all your staff members on your website - or even in the signature of their emails - to help clients understand who they're relating to as well. And the issue is relevant for the financial planners themselves, too; while planners will typically meet with their clients in person, at some point before a client is a client, they're a prospect who might visit your website to do their due diligence. When a potential client looks you up on your website, what is their first impression? Do they have a chance to make a visual connection and actually SEE you?

Making Virtual Relationships Personal

In "To Sell Is Human" Daniel Pink highlighted recent research by Yehonatan Turner, who decided to see if he could improve the work of radiologists evaluating X-rays, CT scans, and MRIs. In a world where radiologists nevera actually meet patients in person and instead just look at one electronic image after another, trying to identify both the primary ailment being studied and any "incidental findings" (abnormalities that weren't specifically being studied but are observed as a part of the radiologist's evaluation), Turner decided to try making one simple adjustment: he attached a picture of the person being studied to the radiological image itself.

The experiment was fairly straightforward. About 300 people coming in for CT scans agreed to have their photographs taken as a part of their visit, and the photo appeared next to the patient's CT image when the radiologist (who didn't otherwise know the purpose of the research) evaluated it. The results of the radiology evaluation were recorded when the information was delivered back to the patients (who were, after all, there for a bona fide health purpose). Three months later, the radiologists were given the same images again of 81 of the patients who had an incidental finding the first time, but in this instance it was without the photo or any acknowledgement that the image was a repeat (which wouldn't otherwise be recognizable given the high volume of images that radiologists typically evaluate from day to day and week to week).

The results were significant. In the repeat evaluations, the radiologists missed 80%(!) of the incidental findings that they themselves had identified the first time around. Not only had the radiologists been more meticulous when they had seen the photos, they actually reported in subsequent surveys having felt more empathy towards the patients they were evaluating. Later research has found that not only are the results superior when the photo is present (in this second case, researchers studied the radiologists' ability to recognize a patient/radiology image mismatch), but the radiologists don't take any more time in doing the radiological evaluations with photos either; in other words, the pictures aren't making them take their time in the analysis, the presence of the picture just appears to make the radiologists outright more accurate (in fact, the researchers found the radiologists appear to be taking less time, although the time differences were not statistically significant)!

In the context of radiology - and especially the growing field of teleradiology, where radiologists study results of scans that may have been done a long distance away and just transmitted to the radiologist's location - the results are incredibly important to improve patient outcomes, and are already being incorporated into other situations where there is a separation between the patient and the lab. But the issue is not unique to medicine, where there is often a separation between the patient and front-line staff from those who do the analysis behind the scenes; it may be equally relevant in the world of financial planning.

Humanizing Clients For Financial Planning Staff

Arguably, the financial planning context presents numerous similarities to the radiologist study. While there's a financial planner who may work directly with the client - akin to the client-facing doctor - a great deal of the analysis and supporting work is often done behind the scenes, just as the radiologist and analytical labs support the doctor. After all, the paraplanner who helps to write and analyze the plan may have never met the client in person, nor necessarily have the operational staff members vested with the weighty responsibility of processing insurance applications, or transfer forms to move the client's entire life savings.

Accordingly, perhaps it's time to consider some simple improvements that financial planning firms can implement to humanize the experience and improve the connection with the client. For instance, a photo of the client(s) might be attached to the physical client file, or the draft of their financial plan as it's being reviewed. A picture of the client(s) could be prominently displayed on the main page of their client record in the Client Relationship Management (CRM) system, so that any/every staff member who pulls up the client's record is reminded of the human being anytime a related service issue arises.

The firm might request a picture from the client, or ask to take one of the client, during the initial client process, with the explanation that it's people is simply to help all of the firm's staff understand exactly who they're working with (presumably most clients would be happy to acquiesce to a photo in such circumstances?). Of course, it's important to maintain client privacy, but that shouldn't be an issue in this context, as the client photo would only appear with documents or parents of the client information that are already secure (e.g., with the client's existing physical file, or attached to the client's existing electronic CRM record).

Humanizing The Financial Planning Firm For Clients

While the focus of the discussion thus far has been on humanizing the client for the staff member, the reality is that the need to make a connection goes both ways - which means it's equally important for the staff to be humanized for the clients, who may otherwise only interact with them virtually by telephone and email.

Accordingly, perhaps the easiest first step to let clients connect with the team is to ensure that your website includes a biography and pictures for all of your team members; not just the financial planners, but anyone/everyone with whom a client may ever interact. Give clients a way to visualize and relate to the person on the other end of the phone call! If email is used regularly in the firm, consider even adding a small photo to the signature of any outbound staff emails so the recipient can always keep a visual connection to the sender (but keep the file size small so you don't clog up your client's email box!).

In a similar manner, it's also important for the financial planner themselves to have a picture of themselves on the website. Of course, for an ongoing client, he/she already knows what the planner looks like. But in the context of a prospective new client, the reality is that the planner's website may actually be the first impression the prospect ever sees, so it's important to make a good one! Potential clients - perhaps even referrals doing their due diligence - who visit your website and do not feel a personal connection to you as the planner will be unlikely to follow through with a contact to become a client! For instance, imagine your prospective client came to your website and saw one of the two "advisor biography" pages below; which one do you think is more likely to make a potential connect, the standalone "wall of text" to the left of the blue line, or the one on the right that has a picture (and video) to accompany it?

The bottom line is that if your goal is to do customized, individualized financial planning to the unique needs of your clients, it starts with a personal connection. And in an increasingly virtual and digital world, it becomes all the more important to make sure that the human being remains visible to establish, and maintain, that connection.

  • Rob Oliver

    I recently started taking photos of my clients to keep in their file and in my CRM app. If nothing else, it helps jog my memory when they call out of the blue or when I am preparing for a meeting with them.

    I explain that the photos will not be used outside of the firm. I’ve only had one client turn me down so far.

  • Maria Marsala

    When I started coaching, the thought of coaching people I’d never met, well, the thought was ridiculous. When I got through with school, I’d have an office and meet my clients.

    I mean how could something like that work? All my work before that dealt with F2F connections and building strong business relationships — much of which was done with my competitors!

    But working with someone that I don’t necessarily meet does work. Two things I learned about not having photos was that a) my own personal, engrained judgments don’t pop out. b) it made me a better listener.

    However, by the end of the first month, I ask clients for their photos. I find it more personal that way.

    There are CMS programs that will “import” photo’s of clients from LinkedIn, Facebook, etc. This feature should be one of the things on your “want” list when purchasing a CMS program. Of course, make sure it’s “compliant”.

    “perhaps the easiest first step to let clients connect with the team is to ensure that your website includes a biography and pictures for all of your team members; not just the financial planners, but anyone/everyone with whom a client may ever interact.”

    That’s so important as is using the same picture on your social networking sites, too.

    But please use a current photo. I had a shocked look on my face recently when I met someone I’d been connected to on LinkedIn for a long time. My shock look, automatically came about because was the person I’d been looking at online was in his 30’s and the guy in front of me was in his 60’s — and they had the same name!

Michael E. Kitces

I write about financial planning strategies and practice management ideas, and have created several businesses to help people implement them.

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Wednesday, September 2nd, 2015

*Understanding Longevity Annuities and their Potential Role in Retirement *Trends & Developments in Long-Term Care Insurance *Understanding the New World of Health Insurance @ FPA Illinois

Wednesday, September 9th, 2015

*Future of Financial Planning in the Digital Age *Modern Portfolio Theory 2.0 @ FPA San Diego

Thursday, September 17th, 2015

*Future of Financial Planning in the Digital Age *Social Media for Financial Planners *Understanding Longevity Annuities and their Potential Role in Retirement Income @ FPA Colorado