A New Word in the Language of Success

What does it mean to be client-wise?

By Ray Sclafani

Like many industries, financial services has a vernacular all its own. For example, the Sarbanes-Oxley Act has been shortened to SOX; basis points are known as bips; and foreign exchange is FOREX. Other phrases are prized for their humor, such as a bear market that does a “dead-cat bounce” or a small-cap stock that’s also called an ankle-biter.

A new word that has crept into the financial lexicon is “client-wise,” which, as the definition above illustrates, refers to industry professionals who have a deep connection with their clients and respond to changes by putting their clients’ need first.
But, you may ask, isn’t that what industry professionals used to consider simply doing their jobs? Why do we really need another word? It’s because the financial world is in the midst of a radical transformation, in which the advisors, wholesalers and branch managers who find fresh and innovative ways to serve clients are the ones who will thrive. A big part of their success will hinge on how well they embody this notion of being client-wise and incorporate the changing needs of clients into their strategy. Conversely, those who cannot bring themselves to embrace this ideal will find themselves struggling to compete. There will always be new ways to serve clients, of course, but the constant is the need to remain client-wise and to be continually focused on how to incorporate change.

The word client-wise carries weight beyond the arena of financial services. Doctors, attorneys, accountants and any other type of professional who is sought out for knowledge and advice can benefit from running a client-wise practice. But, being client-wise has extra-special meaning to financial industry professionals, because of the warp speed of the market growth, intensified by the fact that millions of baby boomers are retiring every year and changing the financial landscape as they ride off into the sunset en masse. In addition, fees, commissions and profit margins thin while more players jockey for clients’ accounts and mindshare.

Here are several advisors who have embraced the principles of being client-wise to talk about the need for this new approach.

The Client-Wise Advisor

For more than a decade, Jim, a rep in Los Angeles, has been honing his client-wise method. “To me, it means having a very deep level of knowledge and empathy for my clients’ personal situations and what they need from me as an advisor,” Jim explains. A direct result of his game plan is that he devotes more time to customer meetings and less on administrative work. “I really try to be in front of my clients about 70% of the time—either meeting with them in person or talking to them on the phone,” he says.

To accomplish that, Jim has begun delegating more back-off ice tasks to others. “Compliance is a monster,” he says. “Preparing for client-review meetings can take hours, unless someone is helping you do it.” Other jobs he is doling out to his staff are opening new accounts, researching funds, finding the best sources of information about ETFs and other investment strategies and running his daily portfolio-management responsibilities. “I’m still very much involved in investment decisions for my clients,” he adds, “but I have learned to let my team help me out.” He continues to work on being more efficient and building closer relationships with customers.

The Client-Wise Wholesaler

Patrick, a national sales manager in Chicago who oversees more than 40 wholesalers, is fine tuning his client-wise approach too. “Being client-wise means not just trying to sell products,” says Patrick. “It’s about making a genuine connection with your clients.” When Patrick’s wholesalers meet with financial advisors, they focus on conducting a well-defined interview process that begins by determining each advisor’s needs. Patrick notes that he encourages his wholesalers to focus on the quality, rather than the quantity.

To understand the requirements of advisors, Patrick has each wholesaler in his team organize an advisory council in their region. That council allows them to stay on their toes, determining the needs of the advisors. It also lets them test novel ideas on a small group before rolling out new value-added programs. “The result of the advisory council and our client-centric approach is that we’re able to build relationships with advisors that aren’t just based on the quarterly or annual performance of our funds,” notes Patrick. “Our clients see us as a partner who can help them grow their businesses.”

The Client-Wise Manager

Managing an of f ice of 20 f inancial advisors, including ensuring effective customer service, are major tasks of Sharon, a branch manager on Long Island, New York. “Being client-wise means helping the financial advisors I work with develop and articulate their unique value proposition to our clients,” says Sharon. She notes that her brokers stand out because of what they individually bring to the table. For example, one advisor specializes in small businesses, while another serves a large number of doctors who own their practices. Adds Sharon: “I want to help them maximize their relationships with clients.”

Updating Your Dictionary

To learn a new word, experts say you need to see it in print or hear it used at least three times. Words have power. If clientwise isn’t a word that’s in your vocabulary, consider ways to incorporate it into your daily usage. For instance, write it on your calendar, make a note on your next client- review file, discuss what it means to be client-wise at your next team meeting and talk over your approach with customers. Using the right language is often the first step in creating an ideal future. By taking a client-wise approach, you can be confident of continued success in a rapidly changing industry.

How Much Do You Help Your Clients—and Your Business?

Take this quiz to find out.

  • Yes / No:More than 50% of my new business stems from referrals from clients and other advisors.
  • Yes / No:I spend at least 50% of my time connecting with existing clients.
  • Yes / No:I delegate at least 75% of my administrative work to support my team.
  • Yes / No:When polled, more than 90% of my clients report being “extremely satisfied” with my services.
  • Yes / No:My team and I have a clear succession plan to ensure continuity of service to my clients when I retire or can no longer manage my practice.
  • Yes / No:I have in-depth relationships with each of my clients’ advisors.
  • Yes / No:My team uses more than one service model to meet different client needs.
  • Yes / No:My clients articulate what my firm and I do for them.
  • Yes / No: I understand the full scope of each of my clients’ wealth and how relevant I am in managing their finances.

 

To help clients clarify goals, I ask open-ended questions, such as “What is the one thing you value most about _________?” (Fill in the blank based on what’s most important to a client.)

Scoring: If you answered yes to 7 or more questions, you’re running a client-wise practice. Between 6 and 3 yesses? It’s time to fine tune your operation. At 3 or fewer, you’re due for an overhaul.

Ray Sclafani is President of ClientWise LLC, an organization founded to support the financial advisory practice of the future. Delivering unique practice management strategies focused on client acquisition and retention, ClientWise provides coaching and training for leading financial advisors. For more information, e-mail ray@clientwise.com or call 1-800-732-0876.

Originally published in OnWallStreet, December 2007.

Copyright Ray Sclafani 2007.