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Dec. 10, 2020, 1:08 p.m. EST

When financial advisers survey clients in these ways, they often get back more than they asked for

Honest customer feedback helps advisers be more responsive

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By Morey Stettner


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Like most service providers, financial advisers want to know what their customers think. But there’s a right and wrong way to ask.

Soliciting feedback is inherently personal. So it’s ironic that so many advisers rely on impersonal forms of communication to do so. For instance, prompting clients to take an online survey has limited benefit. They may ignore the request, especially if they get an auto-generated email or text. If they do respond, resentment can set in if they never hear back about their comments.

Moreover, in their eagerness to gather input, advisers tend to fall into traps. For starters, they conduct surveys once a year rather than seek comments more frequently. They may also spend so much time crafting specific questions and satisfaction scales (1-to-5 ranking? 1-to-10 score?) that they stoke impatience among respondents who simply want to provide unfiltered input about what’s top of mind for them. Worst of all, advisers may treat the survey as a thinly disguised effort to get referrals (“Would you recommend us to friends?”), which can backfire if clients suspect that’s its real purpose.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with urging satisfied clients to spread the word. But there are more creative ways to go about it. Don Todd, a certified financial planner in Tampa, Fla., sought to build visibility for his firm. So he asked clients to critique his practice using Google Reviews. “The way we marketed before Covid, when we’d network in the community and meet with centers of influence, is not available to us now,” Todd said. “We needed to build our online presence.”

He estimates that more than 30% of the clients that he’s asked have followed through. Of the 21 reviews currently posted, all have given his firm five stars. “There’s some risk you’ll get negative feedback,” he said.

Because online reviews are generally not considered testimonials, they should not pose compliance headaches. As long as advisers do not taint the process (by, say, drafting suggested phrases for the client to post), they’re safe. But it’s still smart to get clearance from a compliance officer before proceeding.

As he intended, Todd has found that the feedback has doubled as a form of marketing. Recently, a friend referred a prospect to his firm. “The first thing [the prospect] did was read all the reviews,” Todd said.

In exploring the best way to collect honest customer feedback, a debate rages. Some insist that assuring a respondent’s anonymity encourages the most hard-hitting, revealing criticism. Others think that a more human appeal, by phone or in person, works better.

Jeff Bush, an adviser in Norristown, Pa., chose the latter approach. He began a series of conversations with about 50 of his clients, asking questions such as, “What’s it like working with us?” and “What do you value from an adviser?”

“The interviews, mostly by phone, lasted 15 to 20 minutes,” Bush said. “These were separate, dedicated information-gathering calls. I picked a cross-section of newer and longtime clients, some with a good relationship with us and others where we knew we could improve upon it.”

Bush has applied what he learned. For instance, he codified his service model into what he now calls “the seven pillars.” It’s a handy framework for educating others about the firm. “It’s a summary of all we do for clients,” he said. “We broke it down into seven categories such as wealth management, estate planning and philanthropy.”

In seeking feedback during one-on-one conversations, brace for impact. If the criticism stings, resist snap judgments; instead, ask for examples. And always express gratitude, even when the feedback stings.

More: Financial advisers know how to respond to people’s money worries, but what about health fears?

Plus: How to know when your financial adviser is really listening to your words

Morey Stettner is a personal-finance columnist for MarketWatch. He is the author of "The New Manager’s Handbook."

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