While many financial advisors may have focused primarily on portfolio management at one time, the evolution of the financial planning profession has opened up an ever-growing number of services that advisors now offer to their clients on a regular basis. While this shift has allowed advisors to charge a premium fee for high-quality service, it has also resulted in increased workloads, especially as the number of clients that advisors serve (and the types of issues that are brought to the table) grows. But instead of tackling each task that comes to light, as if playing a game of ‘whack-a-mole’, advisors can take a more standardized and systematized approach to create their client service models while still offering high-quality and personalized service – and doing it efficiently to free up time in their own schedule!
First, when it comes to assessing the services that are offered to clients, advisors can distinguish between low-value ‘factory work’ (generally consisting of necessary activities that don’t necessarily require the advisor’s expertise to complete) and high-value ‘focus work’ (activities that require the advisor’s attention, talents, and unique insights). Factory-work activities are prime candidates for automation; for instance, instead of spending time during a client meeting asking a client to review their beneficiary designations, advisors could instead use a standardized email template generated by their CRM system, automatically populating each client’s information and offering options to either confirm current designations or schedule a call to discuss any necessary changes.
After assessing their client service tasks, advisors can better see how their services –not their clients – can be categorized into three basic tiers: standard, special, and personal. The first ‘standard’ tier represents client service tasks that are predominantly ‘factory work’ tasks, applicable to all of a firm’s clients (e.g., reviewing insurance coverage), and can often be standardized and systematized through the advisor’s tech stack tools. Second is the ‘special’ tier, where advisors identify specific and specialized needs that arise in response to systematic processes in the standard tier, but that still consists of ‘factory-work’ tasks that can be addressed with the help of the advisor’s support staff. The last tier is the ‘personal’ tier, which consists of immediate client needs that often involve focus work, requiring more of the advisor’s time and attention. The personal tier involves all of the client’s needs that can’t be standardized or systematized in the standard or special tiers, and helps the advisor ensure that their clients’ personal needs are covered during client meetings and conversations.
Ultimately, the key point is that standardization and systemization can help advisors improve efficiency and support firm growth while still delivering a high-quality client service experience. In fact, creating a client service model that leverages automated processes so that the advisor’s time and energy are focused on high-value tasks not only frees up significant amounts of time for the advisor, but also ensures that clients receive the planning services that match all of their unique needs!
You may remember this game. A purple mole's head randomly pops out of holes cut in the game table, and then you take a heavily padded club to ‘whack’ the mole as many times as you can. The more you make contact, the faster it goes… until you simply can’t keep up or the buzzer sounds!
Life for the average advisor reminds me of a game of Whac-A-Mole. When you start a practice, the pace is reasonable; one can keep up with prospecting, servicing, and running the practice. As you take on new clients, though, the pace of service picks up. And like a game of Whac-A-Mole, if advisors just keep repeating the same behaviors at an increasingly faster pace or with longer hours, there’s no real winning the game. You’ll just keep trying to whack the moles until the buzzer (retirement!?) mercifully tells you that you can stop… or you just get so exhausted you give up and quit trying to get ahead.
The Standard Service Model To Deliver Advice To Clients
We hear a lot about the threat of fee compression these days. But the real challenge is service inflation. Consumers across demographics increasingly want more holistic and integrated services and to talk with their financial planners about non-financial topics like health, lifestyle, and relationships. Which means advisors don’t end up feeling a fee squeeze, but instead will increasingly see profits squeezed as they feel the need to do more and more for clients to justify their fees.
Add to this that COVID brought on a worldwide money-in-motion event for everyone, regardless of income or wealth. Every human on the planet had to check in on the relationship between their work, their wealth, and their well-being – and millions of them took notice and took action. An extra 1.2 million people retired in 2021, and untold numbers of not-yet-retiring people are seeking advice earlier in their lifetimes, further driving demand for advice.
A typical advisor will prepare for each client meeting by checking the CRM for the notes from the last meeting and any conversations since then. Inevitably, something new comes up in the meeting – and in the midst of COVID, a lot of new things started to come up – and the new thing for the client becomes your new challenge, your new ‘mole’ to whack. Multiply that by hundreds of client meetings a year, and the challenge is much harder and far less fun to keep up with than the pizza parlor game.
While it's easy to tell ourselves that we’ll outgrow the problems by hitting the next threshold that allows us to hire a few more staff members to help, the harsh reality is that the problems tend to compound with growth. I recently met with an $800M firm with no service standards or systems. Each advisor is assigned clients and manages those relationships to the best of their ability, within the construct of one or two meetings a year, doing whatever work the client wants or needs that may arise in those meetings (like moles popping their heads up for the advisor to whack!).
If we’re being realistic, the average advisor doesn’t have a client service model beyond deciding whether to grant either one or two meetings (or maybe for those ‘A’ clients, three or four meetings) a year, preparing for those meetings based on the client’s last meeting, and answering phone calls when they come in. Little else is defined, and productivity, client value, and culture are radically diluted as a result. And with the changing preferences, expectations, and demands from clients (new and incoming), the same old rubber hammer is making it harder and harder for advisors to keep pace with changes and the clients they serve.
A (New) System For Delivering Client Service
So how can advisors keep pace with these changes and deliver deeper value and more specialized services more efficiently to their clients?
The solution to these challenges is designing a hyper-efficient ‘service system’ that defines the types of clients, what they receive and when, how they receive it, what it includes, and the operational processes and workflows that systematize and automate service delivery, so it’s actually easy and efficient to deliver. Once you've defined your basic services, you can build on this foundation by layering in more customized services and tying them to your (hopefully, equally structured!) sales process.
Scaling Up Service Without Watering It Down
The main obstacle to developing this client service system exists between our ears, in our mindsets. If we’re being honest, most of the assumptions around client service models were formed during the years of brick-sized phones and BlackBerries. Our mindset tells us that scaling up somehow means watering down the service and value to the client – but that is neither a true story nor a safe assumption.
I want to show you how advisors leveraging our coaching have implemented major changes in their mindset, which – as a result – enabled changes to their service models, ultimately delivering many times more value than the fees they charge… in about half the time.
As a first step, I’d suggest we need to stop treating planning like an event (or a series of events). Most advisory firms that talk about the value of the process still typically have a service model that operates as a reaction to one ‘isolated’ event after another (each meeting and incoming client call), not an intentionally orchestrated process that consistently and systematically tends to each client’s need.
Factory Work Vs Focus Work
The core premise of an efficient Client Service Model is that some aspects of client service can be characterized as ‘factory work,’ which is work that really doesn’t require the advisor’s time or talent on a repeated basis to be done properly. Advisors who perform factory work feel like their lives are a never-ending game of whack-a-mole. No matter how hard or long they work, they just can’t get ahead.
For example, is spending 10 minutes of every client meeting on whether current beneficiary designations are correct really a high-value activity that you, as the advisor, need to do to deliver a good result? No, it’s not.
Could you instead craft a standardized email template that systematizes a personalized communication to each client generated by your CRM, that automatically populates each client’s information and offers them the option to confirm the current designations as correct or schedule a call via your Calendly link if there are changes to discuss?
Imagine further that you deliver these and other standard ‘factory-work’ activities on a predefined cycle, giving your clients the confidence of knowing you follow a disciplined process for delivering all the value you promised.
Clients want predictability and reliability. They also want specialized advice and personalized attention on their most important issues and needs or high-value ‘focus work’ activities that require your time and talent. You will be far better equipped to provide that service if you’re no longer distracted by the factory work that your systems and staff can manage. The less time you spend playing Whack-A-Mole, the more time you can spend delivering ‘Wow’!
Systematizing 'The Special’ In A Client Service Experience
Standardizing and systematizing your service model creates greater clarity for your team (who does what, for whom, and when), promotes productivity gains, and significantly reduces advisor stress while increasing team satisfaction.
Advisors contemplating our service model worry that systematizing their services will dilute what makes their service special. But scaling up no longer means watering down. In fact, the model I’m going to share with you is impactful precisely because it's intentionally designed to systematize a highly specialized experience. The goal is to systematize your ‘special’ so that you can deliver deeper value far more efficiently.
Tiering Services, Not Clients
When designing your own Client Service Model, it helps to think of a wedding cake with three tiers: standard, special, and personal. Each tier reflects a different type and level of service.
The bottom tier represents your standard services. These are the core of your client service model – what some planners call ‘the CFP stuff’ – and are the standard services you want to deliver to all clients of the firm. These services would include the beneficiary designations mentioned earlier, insurance coverage, and a host of other topics.
You might assign your beneficiary designation or life insurance check-in as part of a ‘spring cleaning’ notice sent out to clients every May, or you might set them as a ‘standard’ agenda item for your upcoming round of client meetings. Depending on the type of clients you serve and the scope of your service model, you can also put services on a two- or three-year cycle to spread service and value out over time.
Standard-tier services are predominantly factory work, making them ideal for systematizing. We standardize each of the client service modules and convert them into ‘value drips’ that you can spread out over meetings and/or over the course of the calendar year. These ‘value drips’ are built on predefined processes and workflows, requiring very little of your time once they’ve been designed.
Regardless of the variation, not only are you better at servicing clients with this disciplined, proactive approach, but you are far better able to demonstrate the value you deliver to clients.
Surfacing The ‘Special’ For Clients Within A Standard(ized) Service Tier
Once you define and systematize the standard layer of services, offering those services shifts from ‘creating everything from scratch every time’ to ‘maintenance mode’, generating a massive boost to productivity and profits while delivering more value to clients and more time to you and your team.
Using this ‘systematized specialization’ model lets you automate standardized services without undermining the quality of the experience for clients because the reality is that what goes in the standard layer of services is the most conducive to being systematized in the first place.
When clients receive ‘value drips’ related to their individual situation (which they are, they just happen to be related to a lot of others as well), they still come across as a personalized experience because your systems are built to implement these value drips with each client’s specific details.
What makes this system work so efficiently, yet personally, is that along the way, this mass-servicing strategy very intentionally and effectively surfaces any client issues that warrant attention – by delivering the core value drips en masse and prompting clients to reach out when they have issues to dig further into – freeing you up to drop in and deliver specialized advice and personal attention to the client in a hyper-attentive, hyper-efficient way in the areas that genuinely require attention.
For example, advisors like Benjamin Brandt have declared October as “Rothtober” for their clients, where the firm pulls out of its tech stack the relevant information about Roth conversions for each client. The system checks to see who is appropriate for this conversation, and clients are invited to click on a scheduling link to discuss their Roth conversion options.
Only those clients with specific needs or questions will use the link to schedule a call, but you’ve used a mass communication approach to surface very specialized questions and concerns in a hyper-personalized way for the 5% who raised their hands and said they needed to speak with you. This servicing strategy removes the busy (factory) work from the equation, leaving you more prepared and present for client meetings.
The key is that your communication (through emails, value drips, or whatever format) outlines the work being performed, why it’s important and has value, and the steps that need to be taken. It then invites the client to get in touch to talk it over – or simply sign off on your proposed solutions (or to keep with the existing status quo, if that’s appropriate).
With this surfacing strategy, firms can mass service the standard and shift their focus to the special, which is the middle tier of the service cake.
Systematizing The ‘Special’ Layer
The ‘special layer’, which is surfaced by prompting clients to respond to mass delivery of the standard layer, is also one where the advisor can automate and standardize the specialized services relevant to specific groups of clients. When advisors niche their practices, this layer of services becomes hyper-specialized; notably, it is not quite as efficient when you have more than one type of client whose needs you need to serve.
Fortunately, though, even advisors who have an existing practice that is more ‘diverse’ in its client base can refine towards a more systematized special over time. For instance, advisor Adam Cmejla decided 4 years ago to shift his ‘generalist’ practice into one that has a focused niche in Optometry practice owners, which sparked a 4-fold growth explosion over just 4 years for the firm… and also brought some high-quality problems like keeping pace with onboarding and servicing clients with more specialized needs while still servicing the existing clients.
All of Adam’s clients get the standard services on an annualized schedule, divided between meetings, calls, and value drips. Then each of his segments has its own special services defined and developed into service modules that have customized workflows that ensure consistency. This includes a segment of Optometry practice owners within 5 years of an exit (with a long list of very specialized needs), practice owners that have already sold their firms and retired (and need fewer services to maintain and enjoy their retirement), and a base of 30 remaining ‘legacy’ clients (whose revenue funds his Service Advisor as a legacy service model).
To implement this in a systematized manner, Adam and his team of two have standardized, systematized, and automated nearly 70 workflow processes into their Redtail CRM, allowing them to manage a 7-figure revenue while still taking Fridays off when Adam can spend time flying his plane (a lifelong dream fulfilled) and another 6 weeks off each year.
There is no one-size-fits-all here. Your clients should determine your specialized services, and they can vary between financial and non-financial, as you feel comfortable. You might have executives who need deferred compensation reviews each fall and lonely widows who love that you host a Valentine’s day “Brunch & Bridge” event for them. You might include a value drip that asks young doctors about needed changes to their professional liability insurance or an annual valuation review for your clients within 5 years of selling.
This middle layer of systematization is really an extension of the bottom layer, where you are offloading ‘factory work’ on your tech stack with the help of your staff, but now the middle layer is more specific and specialized to the particular type of clientele you serve. To create this part of your service model, you’ll need to define your specific client segments and the services that each will receive, by tier, on what schedule, and in what format.
For advisors with a niche, developing the special layer of the service cake offers an efficient way to deliver uniquely specialized advice. The more typical advisory firm with a generalized client base including multiple segments (women, small business owners, executives, retirees) will need to create 3, 5, or even 10 or more different service automation processes to support each segment. This requires more time investment to build out and manage multiple models, but it enables firms to deliver much deeper value to each client segment in far less time.
Adding The Personal To Client Service Tiers
Last but not least is what has the client’s attention right now – the third and final tier of the service cake. The ‘personal layer’ reflects the needs and issues on your or the client’s agenda at present.
With this service model strategy, when you conduct client meetings, your agenda will reflect any standard services and any specialized services being covered, all of which have been prepared in advance. We then recommend you send a brief agenda to clients in advance of their meetings, also automated by your CRM, sharing what’s on your agenda for the meeting and asking them what’s on theirs. I can’t count the number of times doing so have given advisors a helpful heads up on what’s important and pressing for the client right now, so they can do any prep work and tailor the meeting accordingly.
My favorite example here is of the advisor whose client replied and said that her mother had a stroke a few weeks prior, and the doctor's advice was that the client’s mom would need ongoing care. The client was stressed because she had no idea if or how much she could afford to help.
Given that the client meeting was well prepared for and was more than a week in advance, the advisor had the time to ask his team to research the average costs for retirement homes at low, mid, and high price points for both the client's and her mother's zip code.
They then ran various scenarios showing the client paying for no care, some care, or all of the care, for all three price points in all three zip codes, together with a list of the best-rated homes in both zip codes by price point. When the client came in for the meeting, the advisor began the meeting with her agenda item, shared the prep work they had done, and walked the client through her financial options. In tears, she thanked him for being so incredibly thoughtful, relieving her of a huge burden that had been keeping her up at night.
The total advisor time invested was under thirty minutes, the staff time a few hours of research, and the value to the client… priceless. His client referred several people over the next year because it seemed that every time she visited her mom in the home where she was staying and talked to a friend there, she’d end up making a referral. All stemming from the advisor’s simple act of asking the client what she wanted to add to the agenda a week in advance of the meeting (because he had a system that gave him the time to deliver a hyper-personalized experience).
Another client uses his CRM to send his clients a personalized One-Page Plan every month with open action items automatically updated by the CRM system, efficiently delivering a radically consistent and personal experience with the touch of a button and no advisor time.
The personal tier ensures that the primary focus of your client meetings and conversations cover what’s personal to your clients that cannot be standardized and scheduled, such as your about-to-retire clients asking to review their retirement cash flow to decide if they really want to buy that expensive RV to travel the road.
Implementing your new client service model strategy requires that you intake and store all relevant information in your CRM and that the firm creates an annual service calendar that defines when and in what format services are delivered.
In this way, you’ve designed a system to ensure that the many ‘moles’ have been successfully whacked by your systems and/or staff so that you can better apply your time and talent on clients’ behalf.
Your New Client Service Model In 5 Steps
In my coaching sessions, we follow a defined process for building out client service models, which can be summarized in five simple steps:
- Step 1. Conduct an analysis to identify client profitability by segment. This step identifies any issues in client base profitability and how much time you can spend with each client segment while maintaining healthy margins and leaving time to run and grow the firm.
- Step 2. Define your client segments and create a detailed list of services each will receive by tier (i.e., standard, special, and personal), how frequently, and in what format.
- Step 3. Develop an annual client service model calendar that defines your standard modules and schedules delivery over the course of the year. We recommend you start by implementing service modules (aka value-drips) in your client meetings as a first step. Next, you might systematize one or two value drips to pilot the concept with your team and clients. Then, once you have a steady service system in place, you can pull more modules out of the meetings and into the calendar year as it fits your clients and preferences.
- Step 4. Standardize each service module into a documented process and integrate them into automated workflows in your tech stack – specifically, your CRM and its integrations with your planning and portfolio reporting software.
- Step 5. Design client deliverables that define your client service model in clear and compelling ways to demonstrate the value you deliver to prospects, clients, and referral sources.
These five steps will move you out of the analog age and into a digital age that empowers you to deliver more and deeper value than you thought possible in a fraction of the time.
Somewhere over the years, standardization and systemization have become four-letter words when we talk about providing customized solutions and personalized advice. The idea of "mass" anything tends to make good advisors feel like they’re delivering mediocre service and diluting their value.
But my experience suggests the contrary – that systematizing your client service model is, in fact, the best thing you can do to raise your client service standards.
If you want to learn more about building a modern client service model, join Stephanie for a live Office Hours on Tuesday, November 8 (replay shared).
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