When assessing the suitability of a service provider, from a plumber to an attorney to a financial advisor, prospective clients consider several aspects of the service they anticipate receiving: reliability (will they do what they promised to do?), assurance (can I trust them?), empathy (will I receive individual care and attention?), responsiveness (will they be prompt, or accurately communicate timelines?), and tangibles (the physical experience of the service, from the offices and attire of the professional to the deliverables they provide?). Of these areas, tangible components are often overlooked by most advisory firms – given the otherwise intangible nature of financial planning as a service – yet actually present an interesting opportunity for financial advisors to improve their clients’ experience with the firm and the financial planning process.
Some examples of tangibles that can influence a prospective (or existing) client’s perception about the service they will receive from their financial advisor include the condition and décor of the office space, appearance and attire of employees, and the materials associated with the financial planning service itself (e.g., marketing materials, client statements, the physical financial plan, deliverables at the client review meeting, etc.).
In practice, advisory firms often struggle to create tangible deliverables for clients on an ongoing basis because of their time-consuming nature. But systematizing a firm’s financial planning processes also makes it easier to systematize the deliverables along with them. For example, a meeting surge system can be implemented to help advisors streamline their processes, which can give the team the time they need to prepare appealing, tangible deliverables that are systematically produced for all clients and prospects at specific times throughout the year. Alternatively, a client service calendar can be developed to organize and showcase upcoming deliverables that clients can expect to receive on a monthly basis.
Turnkey resources are also widely available to financial advisors, and can be used to help an advisory firm systematize processes that include tangible elements for existing and prospective clients, from stand-alone planning modules (e.g., Right Capital’s menu of planning report options), to modules that provide more of a comprehensive interactive experience for clients (e.g., MoneyGuidePro’s ‘My Blocks’ modules), and planning tools that provide specific analyses (e.g., Holistiplan’s tax analysis report, Riskalyze’s risk assessment tools, Hidden Levers’ portfolio stress test report, and i65 Medicare planning tools). Further, customizable template tools, such as fpPathfinder’s financial planning checklists, flowcharts, and market commentary messaging services from firms like Clearnomics, Broadridge Forefield Adviser, and Marketing Pro, can be used to send clients informative, tangible deliverables that remind them of the value their advisor provides to them. Advisors can even create investment performance reports and beneficiary summary reports on a regular basis as another simple way to provide their clients with tangible, impactful deliverables that remind them that their advisor keeps them top of mind.
In designing a more tangible client experience, advisors can consider introducing tangible elements throughout the five key stages identified as a client’s most memorable milestones in their relationship with an advisor: 1) Introduction – when first impressions are made and scheduling meetings take place, 2) Interaction – the first opportunity for clients to assess the meeting environment and data collection process, 3) Guidance – where advisors use technology tools to create analyses and recommendations to share through reports, illustrations, and other deliverables, 4) Implementation – the process created by the advisor to make plan implementation easier for clients, and 5) Relationship – the ongoing services and engagement opportunities created by the advisor that can deepen the rapport with clients.
Ultimately, the key point is that there are many resources for advisors to elevate the client experience by incorporating tangible deliverables into the menu of services they provide. And by considering the most memorable stages of the client journey, advisors can strategically implement impactful deliverables that remind clients how valuable they really are!
Financial Planning Clients Use Tangible Experiences (Among Other Criteria) To Judge The Quality Of Service Provided By Their Advisors
When a prospective client contacts you for the first time, they are trying to evaluate your expertise. The problem is that they have no easy way to answer this question without actually becoming a client and working with you to appreciate your expertise for themselves.
Even if the prospective client could realize your expertise, Harry Beckwith, author of “Selling the Invisible”, argues that a prospective client (or even an existing client) probably does not have the skills to properly evaluate your talent. This is a problem in any service-based business, where what is sold cannot be seen, touched, or experienced before buying, which means clients must instead find different ways to measure the quality of the service that will be provided.
Imagine a couple interviewing several different advisors to guide them through their upcoming retirement. If each advisor talks about how they are an expert in helping guide people through retirement, how will the couple evaluate the advisors? They all claim to have specific expertise in exactly what this couple needs.
Accordingly, marketing researchers Parasuraman, Zeithaml, and Berry proposed the SERVQUAL framework in a 1988 paper published in the Journal of Retailing as a way to help service-based businesses understand how prospective customers and clients viewed the quality of their service when they were trying to evaluate it but had not yet actually experienced it.
In a sense, Parasuraman and his colleagues found that prospective clients have a natural tendency to ask themselves questions to assess the quality of the service they are looking to purchase. The 22 questions in the SERVQUAL framework are categorized into the following five areas that prospective clients use (consciously or subconsciously) to ascertain the quality of the service they are considering paying for:
- Reliability: The ability of the firm to do what they promised to do in the timeframe they agreed to. This area also includes accuracy and dependability, such as the advisor being on time for the first meeting or doing something they said they would do. Being unprepared or not following through on commitments will be a sign to the prospective client of what it will be like to work with the advisor.
- Assurance: The ability to inspire trust and confidence, including making clients feel safe and having the knowledge to help answer client questions. Essentially, a prospect will ask themselves if, based on their limited experience in talking with the advisor, they trust the quality of the advice given to them by the advisor and the advisor’s team.
- Empathy: The ability to help care for clients and to provide them with individual attention. It also includes the ability to work around a client’s schedule and to truly understand the needs of the client (right down to when and how the client wants to meet). In this area, the prospect is trying to determine if they will receive individual attention or if they will just be a number in the system.
- Responsiveness: The promptness with which clients are helped or, at least, told when they will be helped if it will take some time to complete a task. For the prospect, the ease of scheduling an introductory meeting can play an important role in the decision-making process, as it’s a sign of how quickly they will be helped if they become a client.
- Tangibles: Refers to the specific tangible experiences that can be seen or touched. This includes office space, how the advisor and the team dress, and physical deliverables (such as reports).
The concept that a more tangible financial planning experience can have a significant impact on clients’ perceptions of the services their advisors offer is often overlooked by firms – which, to the extent that they do consider “Tangibles”, tend to focus on the tangible office space and appearances, not the financial planning deliverables themselves – and can provide an interesting opportunity to improve your client and prospect experiences!
Since the original 22 questions were developed some thirty years ago, the specific questions have been modified to better reflect today’s environment and now tend to be modified based on the industry. This framework has become commonly used by consultants in the banking industry. Generally, the modified questions used in the banking industry, which can easily be applied to the financial planning industry, that pertain to the Tangibles area are as follows:
- Is the equipment modern-looking? In this case, the prospective client may be looking for insight into the technology used to actually develop the financial plan. Unlike banks that can leverage their ATMs to convey a sense of modern-looking equipment, advisors must get more creative. For an advisor, this could include utilizing a tablet computer or displaying information on a TV during a meeting with a prospect – something to show the prospect that the financial advisor has modern equipment to develop the financial plan.
- Are the physical facilities visually appealing? This question deals with the design of the office itself. Is the office modern, organized, and inviting?
- Are the employees well-dressed/neat? This question deals with the physical appearance of the advisor and their team.
- Are the materials associated with the service (such as pamphlets or statements) visually appealing? This question deals with the physical items given to a client. Are the statements clear? Does the financial plan present the information in a compelling way? Is the information digestible, or is it overwhelming? In many cases, physical reports can serve as the basis for planning conversations.
It’s important to make a clear distinction that not all prospective clients will place the same amount of weight on the answers to these questions. In practice, consultants in the banking industry will frame these questions in two ways when they interview customers of the bank. For example, they may first ask, “How important is it that a bank has modern-looking equipment?” and then follow up to ask how it compares to a specific bank.
The point is that an advisor’s clients and target market may place a higher emphasis on certain areas and be uninterested in others. For example, one asset management firm produced performance reports on the cheapest looking paper they could find in order to further convey the perception that they work hard to keep costs down (even though premium paper may actually have been cheaper to purchase!).
The key question that many advisors do not fully consider is the physical materials associated with their service. To a prospective client, sample reports can provide the best insight into the quality of the service that will be provided, as it can act as a window into the financial planning process. When a client’s experience is somehow more tangible (such as having a physical copy of a well-organized report that delves into only those areas of financial planning they actually need help with, or a printout of the service calendar you’ve prepared just for them that proposes the comprehensive roadmap they’ll be following with you to create their financial plans), clients will be more likely to appreciate and enjoy the experience.
And for a prospective client, samples can help shed light on the process and what they will receive in a financial planning engagement. Not unlike a vacation souvenir, tangible elements will help prospects and clients easily remember the hard work and insight that you are capable of and that fuels all of the intangible processes involved in what you offer.
Tangible Elements Can Positively Influence Marketing & Client Retention Efforts For A Service-Based Business
The traditional view within the marketing field is that businesses sell either goods or services and that there are clear marketing strategies for selling each. It can often seem like a black and white distinction: either you’re selling something that can physically be touched, seen, heard, smelled, or tasted… or you’re not (because it’s a service, instead).
In reality, though, this is an outdated viewpoint. Theodore Levitt, a Professor of Marketing at Harvard Business School, argued that we should look at various aspects of a product that is sold as belonging somewhere on a tangibility spectrum, with intangibles on one end of the spectrum and tangibles on the other end. Most products will fall somewhere in the middle, with their inherent characteristics lending them to have both tangible and intangible features.
For example, Apple doesn’t just sell (tangible) phones and computers; they also sell (an intangible) way for people to see the world differently. When someone buys a new (tangible) home heating system, they are also buying the (intangible) installation service. Credit card companies provide an intangible service but develop innovative physical credit cards (such as metal cards, contactless payments, and even one by MasterCard that includes a small touchscreen to create one-time passwords in an effort to improve security). In the automotive industry, businesses that focus on instant oil changes (a mostly intangible service) have introduced tangible elements to help convey to the customer that they will do a good job by focusing on other areas (such as making the experience fast and showing that there is a system in place to ensure the job will be done correctly). In other words, not all goods are fully tangible, and not all services are fully intangible.
The chart below outlines where some traditional products and services fall on this spectrum. The left side of the spectrum lists mostly tangible products, and the right side shows services that are mostly intangible. The examples listed below help to show how many industries, products, and services fit somewhere along the spectrum. Airlines provide a mostly intangible transportation service, but the cabin and seats are tangible. Advertising agencies provide a creative service, but the final deliverable may be a physical brochure or ad. According to the chart, airlines produce a more intangible experience than advertising agencies.
Of course, individual businesses may strive to shift where their own products and services lie on the spectrum compared to their competitors. For example, a consultant may write a book outlining their process that they give to their prospects to make the consulting experience more tangible.
The trend of late has been for products and services that live on the ends of the spectrum to make efforts to move more toward the center – a tangible offering becomes more intangible, and an intangible offering becomes more tangible. This is where many businesses are innovating right now.
In one example, a car dealership has recently introduced a café, salon, spa, and a golf simulator to occupy the customer while they wait for their car to be serviced. Is that moving too far outside the core product of selling and servicing cars? Will it resonate with customers? Time will tell, as it’s all part of the experimentation that comes with innovation.
(Re-)Structuring Your Advisory Firm’s Intangible Processes To Help Create A More Tangible Client Experience
Advisors can look at the intangible processes in their operational workflow to find where they can add tangible elements offered to prospective clients that will help them to understand more completely what they will get if/when they retain the advisor’s services.
As a result, it becomes especially important to have a consistent approach not only to prepare and deliver excellent advisory services to clients but also to make it easier and more efficient to develop a tangible experience for the client.
There are several interesting angles to consider in systematizing the advice provided to clients that can also help advisors incorporate tangible components into their meeting process:
Meeting Surges Help Advisors Streamline Their Processes So That Their Teams Have The Capacity To Create More Memorable Tangible Experiences For Clients
With a "meeting surge" approach, advisors conduct lots of client meetings with a common theme during a limited timeframe (such as meeting with all clients in quick succession in a few weeks during the spring and fall of each year, leaving the rest of the year open and flexible).
By focusing on common themes during each surge period, this approach not only allows for the advisor to efficiently pack meetings together but also allows for messages and talking points to be repeated in one consistent meeting after another.
And because the same core topics are being discussed over and over in every meeting, advisors will more easily remember the important considerations that need to be discussed with the client. This not only helps the advisor to standardize the delivery of meeting content but also makes it easier for the planning team to batch and streamline the process of preparing reports and agendas, getting into a solid rhythm of work with more efficiency and systematic focus.
This ultimately gives the team the capacity to create tangible deliverables that are thoughtful, insightful, highly relevant, and very memorable for the client, helping them to stay on track with their plans!
For example, an advisor could have a meeting surge in the spring to discuss taxes and cashflow/spending. The advisor (or the advisor’s team) would then be able to streamline the production of tax-related reports and cash flow analysis. There is an efficiency that occurs by running and presenting the reports in batches versus dripping them out over the year. The advisor’s team can find a rhythm to prepare the reports, and many of the talking points can be reused with each client. And since many of these meetings will be similar, the advisor can create a sample agenda that can easily be adapted for each client.
Service Calendars As Tangible Elements To Showcase Upcoming Deliverables To Clients
Another way that advisors can incorporate tangible elements into the client experience is by using a service calendar, such as the ones developed by Angie Herbers, Emily Purdon of XYPN, and Michael Kitces. These tools provide schedules that show the deliverables that the client can expect to receive, as well as the internal activities that happen behind the scenes each month.
Another way to look at service calendars is to itemize a series of “micro engagements” that consist of smaller planning engagements spread throughout the year. They could include all clients receiving the same email inviting them to participate in a planning exercise, such as analyzing a tax return.
As another example, perhaps in November or December, all clients could receive an email inviting them to participate in an end-of-year review to look at tax-loss harvesting opportunities and tax strategies to consider before the end of the year. As clients book time to meet with the advisor, the advisor’s team could gather the reports needed for the review.
Just like the meeting surge process, the advisor and the team can focus on running a very specific analysis for many clients instead of preparing several different analyses for one or two client reviews each week.
Reese Harper of Dentist Advisors has done a wonderful job of leveraging a service calendar approach in a system he devised called Elements®️. He delivers twelve unique deliverables each year to his clients through a series of smaller engagements, many of which are automated. Instead of one or two meetings to cover a client’s entire financial picture each year, the Elements process looks at a client’s financial plan through specific metrics.
For example, in January, clients receive the Liquid Term Performance Summary that shows how much they have in emergency funds and in any investment accounts, which is then compared to how much they spend each year. Based on these two figures, the entire report is framed around the number of years the client could live off of liquid assets outside of their retirement account. The rest of the report goes into more detail as well as showing the trends over the years.
Other deliverables focus on investments, spending, insurance, and business-owner related topics. This chart outlines the deliverables that clients receive every month and provides the framework for conversations that Reese Harper and his team have with their clients.
Using this system has come with success for Reese, as he is able to charge a premium for his services. Perhaps you can look at this example as a reach goal for what your own advisory firm in the future could look like.
Turnkey Financial Planning Resources Available To Help Advisors Produce Client Deliverables
Creating client deliverables does not necessarily require you to start from scratch. As while the financial advisor will need to decide what are the topics or themes around which consistent deliverables will be provided, there are many resources that can provide advisors with turnkey physical reports and materials to fill in the need for physical deliverables when covering those topics with clients (or to show samples to prospective clients trying to learn about your services).
Accordingly, as an advisory firm systematizes its client meetings and plans out a tangible client experience, it’s time to turn to turnkey resources that leverage the firm’s time to produce deliverables to share with your clients. Below are resources representing a shortlist of many types of physical deliverables that are currently available to advisors looking to tie something more tangible to their planning-themed client conversations.
- Stand-Alone Planning Software Modules. More and more financial planning software programs are building stand-alone planning modules that allow advisors to send specific reports on certain topics. For example, Right Capital offers several report options, including a Stress Test module, which shows how a client’s plan would perform under a variety of different scenarios (such as the client living longer than expected or the impact of a Social Security cut). If an advisory firm had a meeting surge during volatile markets in the midst of the pandemic, a systematized Stress Test report for every client could have been systematically prepared and provided as a tangible deliverable in each client review meeting.
- MoneyGuidePro’s My Blocks Modules. The My Blocks tool, developed by MoneyGuidePro, is a feature that offers modules for clients to go through to help them better understand their finances and goals as well as provide context for further analysis. Building on the lessons learned in the “Goals-Based Financial Planning: How Simple Lists Can Overcome Cognitive Blind Spots” by Ray Sin, Ph.D.; Ryan O. Murphy, Ph.D.; and Samantha Lamas, advisors could send a list of possible goals to their client and encourage clients to go through a goal planning module to help uncover new goals or changes in goals.
- Holistiplan Tax Analysis Reports. Holistiplan provides a simple summary of a client’s tax return with very little work done by the advisor. In fact, the advisor just has to upload the tax return, and Holistiplan does the rest. Around tax time, the advisor could send an email to all clients saying that they will be reviewing tax returns. After a client sends over their tax return, the advisor could easily prepare the report to send to the client. That could likely lead to a conversation about possible observations that come to light in the report that may have otherwise been hidden in the tax return.
- Riskalyze Risk Assessment Tools. For risk assessment, Riskalyze’s Check-Ins can be set up so that clients receive an email on a predetermined basis asking how they are feeling about the market and their risk tolerance. If the clients’ answers indicate a change to their risk tolerance, the advisor will be notified and can reach out to the client for further discussion. This creates an opportunity for the advisor to prepare some of the risk reports within Riskalyze (such as the Risk/Reward Heatmap report or a Portfolio Stress Test report) and use that as the basis for any discussions.
- Hidden Levers Portfolio Stress Test Report. Similar to what was described with Riskalyze and Right Capital, Hidden Levers offers reports that can compare how a client’s existing portfolio would have fared under several different historical market events. The Hidden Lever reports can help advisors to model the impact of more specific market events than Right Capital and Riskalyze. For example, an advisor could write a blog post about how they are concerned that tech stock valuations are too high and that a correction may be forthcoming. Shortly afterward, the advisor could send out a custom report for each client, illustrating the impact on the client’s portfolio if tech stocks declined.
- i65 Medicare Planning. To address Medicare open enrollment planning opportunities, i65 provides several services that could be incorporated into the planning process. Notably, they offer a Part D Open Enrollment Review Report that can be prepared for each client to review changes in Medicare pricing and plans. Each October, clients could receive an email from their advisor reminding them to review their Medicare options and that the advisor can prepare a report to help the client better understand their options. From there, the advisor could have a conversation with their client using the report as the framework for the discussion.
- fpPathfinder Financial Planning Checklists and Flowcharts. fpPathfinder offers checklists and flowcharts of financial planning issues that can be white-labeled to position the advisor as the expert. There are twelve checklists designed to be used on a recurring basis for clients that can be incorporated as micro-planning engagements (such as a checklist covering end-of-year planning opportunities and a checklist that looks for planning issues related to health and life insurance policies).
- Clearnomics, Broadridge Forefield Advisor, and Marketing Pro Market Commentary Messaging Services. For many advisors, writing a newsletter or market commentary on a regular basis can be an inefficient use of time. Several services can be utilized to provide prepared content to clients. Clearnomics provides chart packs (an advisor-branded version of chart packs similar to P. Morgan’s Guide To The Markets). Broadridge’s Forefield Advisor and Marketing Pro also offer a fast way to share market commentary messages with clients. Although advisors may want to give some consideration to the decision of using a service to prepare market commentary, as there is a lot of debate on the topic.
- Performance reports. These reports found in portfolio management systems (such as Albridge, Orion, Envestnet, and Black Diamond), which most advisors may likely already have access to, can be sent to clients on a regular basis. An advisor could send performance reports each quarter along with their market commentary to help explain why the markets performed the way that they did over that time period. Alternatively, some advisors run performance reports that cover very long timeframes (such as five years or more) to help remind the client that investing is not about short-term performance.
- Beneficiary summary reports. While not truly turnkey reports, it’s worth noting that with some direction given by the advisor to the advisor’s team, there are some reports that can be developed with little to no involvement by the advisor. Someone on the team can review and share the current beneficiary designations with the client on a regular basis. That report could then open up a conversation between the client and the advisor about some estate planning matters.
Additional Tools Needed To Help Incorporate Tangible Deliverables Into The Client Experience
Firms that choose to re-design their client service experience may need some auxiliary tools to help support their new processes designed to create tangible deliverables.
If you are utilizing a service calendar approach or developing micro-planning engagements, where you are sending regular emails to your clients inviting them to participate in a specific planning exercise, an email service like Mailchimp or Constant Contact can be useful in managing email communications. The email that is sent to clients can include an overview of what you will be providing and why it’s important.
fpPathfinder has produced some sample emails that can be used to send to your clients for this very purpose. For example, there is a sample letter/email that could be used to notify clients that the advisor can review a tax return to make sure no planning opportunities are missed and, at the same time, drive the point home by referencing a checklist covering 20-30 planning issues that can be identified in a tax return.
If you are asking clients to provide information or files to complete financial planning analyses, you may want to consider a secure way for them to upload information to you. Services such as PreciseFP, Citrix, or even vaults used within client portals (such as eMoney’s vault) may be instrumental in gathering the information needed to run the report.
Special consideration must be given to how unique reports will be sent to clients. If it’s a manageable number of clients, you or someone on your team can manually email each report to a client (being mindful to follow your firm cybersecurity policies). Alternatively, you can upload reports into a client portal vault and send a mass email stating that reports are available, along with instructions on how to access them.
Meeting scheduling software can simplify the process for clients to find a time to meet or talk with their advisor. While it may be manageable at first to schedule meetings one at a time, implementing a systematic process to schedule meetings may be worth considering down the road (especially if meeting surges and service calendars result in increased activity). In this case, the advisor could simply include a link to their calendar within their meeting invitation email, which gives the opportunity for the client to select a time that works for them. And since the advisor can block off times and sync the meeting scheduling software with their existing calendar, the advisor doesn’t have to go through the time-consuming process of setting a meeting with each client individually because the software can do it.
To get started in designing a more tangible client experience, reference Asset-Map’s recently released findings of the ten most important client milestones in the client journey, which are categorized into five key stages. These represent the most memorable stages of a client’s experience with an advisor and can provide a good framework for identifying where to add physical deliverables to each stage of the client journey:
- Introduction Stage: In this stage, the advisor could focus on physical deliverables to give to the client when they first connect and also during the scheduling process. Perhaps it’s a pamphlet to help the prospect prepare for the first meeting and a book or some marketing material given to the prospect at the end of the meeting.
- Interaction Stage: In this stage, clients will see how data is collected and what the meeting environment is like. In this preliminary stage of the relationship, the advisor could focus on preparing a well-thought-out and memorable proposal.
- Guidance Stage: This is the stage where the analysis is done, and recommendations are developed. This is where many of the turnkey reports outlined earlier can apply.
- Implementation Stage: During the process of opening accounts, the advisor can create an experience to help make this easier for the client. Even with the rise of digital signatures and online account openings, there are opportunities to supplement the process with a physical deliverable that walks the client through the process of opening accounts.
- Relationship Stage: Finally, the advisor can look for opportunities to add tangible elements to the relationship stage. This could involve holiday cards or gifts sent to clients. Perhaps the gifts tie back to financial planning or reaching goals in some way.
It’s important to remember that this is a process, one that can be continually improved upon. Start small by incorporating just one new deliverable every six months to ensure that you don’t overwhelm your team or your clients. It’s also important to educate your existing clients with frequent reminders about why you are adding these deliverables into your planning process.
The turnkey deliverables described above represent just a small sampling of all the possibilities that are offered. Please add a comment below with the turnkey deliverables you know of or use with your clients.
Michael Kitces is the co-founder of fpPathfinder, which was mentioned in this article.