Four Techniques To Build Stronger Client Relationships

Written By: Katelyn Murray, CFP®, FBS®, CFT-I™

Let’s level with ourselves. 2022 hasn’t been the funnest year to work in finance, has it? No one likes a bear market, especially not one as volatile as we’ve seen this year. And that includes advisors. 

I will always insist, however, that markets like this are where we ultimately prove our value. As news media outlets peddle all manner of horror stories to clients far and wide in the name of selling subscriptions, we are in the difficult but oh so impactful and rewarding position of being the voice of reason for our clients. 

How many of your clients have called or emailed you, anxious about what’s going on in the markets? How many seem to be sitting up straighter, more attentive than ever before when it comes time to talk about investment performance in your annual review meetings? Are you getting more questions about fees as clients search for justification that they should continue paying you even though their portfolio is down? Worse– and this is the one that’s truly haunting– how many of your clients who are worried and concerned are not reaching out to you to ask questions and have conversations, and are instead silently wrestling with feelings of stress brought on by the first significant market correction in over a decade?

The relationships you have built with your clients are your anchor in this storm. The first step to guiding a client through the kind of choppy waters that 2022 has brought us is to create an environment where they feel comfortable reaching out in the first place. An environment where they feel seen, heard, and understood.

As we draw nearer to the end of 2022 and set our sights on the coming year, here are some actionable techniques to consider implementing in 2023 to strengthen your client relationships. 

Maximize client touches throughout the year.  

How many times do your clients hear from you throughout the year? If your answer to that question is “I don’t know” or “periodically,” you need a better answer.

Take a few moments to sit down and make a list of all the different types of contact you have with your clients. Your list will probably look something like this: 

  • Weekly or monthly newsletter 
  • Annual review meeting
  • Birthday email or card
  • End-of-year retirement account contributions communication
  • Annual RMD communication (depending on the age of your client base)

It’s a fine list, but in actuality, this is the bare minimum for maintaining a client, and it definitely doesn’t offer an opportunity to build the kind of thriving and engaged client relationship. Let’s start with your periodic newsletter– is it filled with original content or is it a template newsletter pulled from a service like Broadridge? Don’t get me wrong. I am by no means knocking auto-generated newsletters or market commentary, but I am saying that those newsletters don’t offer the “warm hands” approach that personalized communication with your clients does. Most of the time, clients are aware you’ve not written the material, and most of them will disregard it. Don’t believe me? Check the open rates and click-through rates on your newsletter mailings. 

Does this mean we should all stop sending newsletters out to clients? Absolutely not. While many of them will disregard the content, some of them may enjoy reading through this kind of content. If nothing else, it puts your name at the top of their email inbox, a much-needed reminder in a very busy world that you exist. But we should consider this, at best, a secondary client touch. Much like a birthday card or email, or annual communications about their end-of-year retirement contributions deadline or RMDs, clients will come to expect these types of passive outreach from you. Which makes it all the more important to be sure to incorporate more active client outreach to truly engage with your clients. 

When was the last time you called a client just to chat or check in on how they’re doing? Did you stop all your client events during the pandemic and never get the engine ramped back up? (More on that later.) How about forwarding a client an article you found on an upcoming event that might interest them or about a topic you know they’re curious about? These are all examples of primary client touches– they’re personalized, not automated, and not routine. They come out of the blue and put a smile on clients’ faces specifically because they are unexpected.

“But Katelyn, I don’t have time to go around trawling the Internet looking for articles that might interest my clients! I’m busy managing their portfolios!” Yes, you do. Leverage your CRM– and your team, if you have one– to help you with this task. Build out a Client Engagement Standard, perhaps a multi-tiered one if you’ve done some client segmentation and have different tiers of clients. Decide in advance how many types of each type of client touch– primary and secondary– your clients will get per year. My rule of thumb is at least four secondary client touches per quarter and two primary client touches every 6 months. Once you have the standard built out, start setting tasks for yourself and/or your team to make sure these initiatives don’t get forgotten in the day to day operation of your business. 

If you do have a team, this is a great opportunity to get your Operations folks involved in the process– encourage creativity with this! The possibilities are endless– handwritten notes sent by snail mail to clients; small “just because” gifts; gifts to mark special occasions beyond just birthdays and anniversaries (be mindful of gifting limitations here); or go old-school and phone a client up to meet you for lunch. They’ll appreciate the gesture, and you’ll be sending the message that they’re top of mind for you. 

Utilize exquisite listening during your client meetings. 

Have you ever asked your clients to rate your meetings with them? Most of them will be polite and give you a 10 out of 10 regardless, but if you get an honest one, it could be a pretty humbling experience. If you had to estimate, about what percentage of time would you say you spend talking vs. how much time does your client get to talk? Do you have a prepared agenda going into meetings, or does the conversation sort of meander along until you’ve hit all the most important topics? 

Review meetings are really important. There’s often a lot of things to cover and, depending on the client, a lot of follow up items. Proper preparation in advance of your meeting can help, but the most important part of your review meetings with clients should be exquisite listening. 

Exquisite listening is a term coined by Brad & Ted Klontz that refers to listening that goes above and beyond just hearing the words a client is speaking. With exquisite listening, you are seeking to be fully present in the moment with your client, to understand the true meaning and intention behind their words and body language, and to communicate through your own words and body language that you are present and seeking to fully understand them. It’s one of those things that sounds simple, but can be very challenging to actually implement properly. 

Advisors are used to thinking of themselves as experts, but the reality is that, in a client meeting, you are only one of the experts present– you may be an expert when it comes to planning, but the client is the expert on the topic of their own history, behaviors, values, and goals. After all, they’ve known themselves their whole life! Through active listening, advisors can learn to hold space for clients, helping them feel truly heard, which is sadly a very rare occurrence in our culture. 

For more information on exquisite listening and how you can implement this practice in your work with clients (and honestly all your conversations with human beings), check out this upcoming workshop led by Dr. Ted Klontz of Klontz Consulting

Tighten up your follow-up game.

Never underestimate the power of good follow-up processes. The most technically perfect financial plan in the world is worth nothing if a client doesn’t implement the recommendations therein. 

Your clients are counting on you to help them implement the planning recommendations. Like so many people with so many areas of life (finance, health and fitness, etc.), they generally know what they need to do (“spend less, save more”), but what they don’t know is how to do it. This is where advisors come in. We bring order to chaos and help clients organize their action items into a comprehensive financial plan, based on their goals. But we must remind them to take action on those “action items.” 

Set general follow up procedures and schedule tasks in your CRM to remind yourself when to email client reminders. If you have a team, delegate follow up to avoid overcrowding your to-do list to the point that tasks to email or call clients to follow up on action items from their meetings get overlooked. Leverage software like TextExpander to increase productivity and create keyboard shortcuts for frequent follow-up communications that can be standardized across your client base. 

Find new and exciting ways of engaging with your clients outside the office or the Zoomiverse. 

I warned you we were coming back around to those client events…

So, way back in 2019 BC (Before-COVID), maybe you had a client events schedule all worked out. It may have consisted of a few educational seminars, wine dinners, and the like. And then, the pandemic hit. The financial planning industry at-large discovered the beauty of Zoom, and all of that “client event” stuff went by the wayside for the most part. Look, I’m as big of a Zoom adherent as anyone else, and I absolutely love the freedom and work-life balance that remote work provides. And yet, despite all that, there’s still a big case to be made for client events when it comes to strengthening your relationships. 

I have a lot of strong opinions when it comes to client events. First, I believe that client events should almost always be social. The educational seminar model has been very effective in the past, but in our fast-paced world, the simple truth is that most of your clients have hired you to manage their financial matters, not to explain to them how you are managing their financial matters. What I mean here is that today’s clients don’t have the same willingness to sit through hours-long presentations on high-level Social Security strategies, even if they do come with a free meal. A distillery tour or a hands-on cooking demonstration or craft beer tasting at a locally-owned microbrewery will get you a far larger ROI when it comes to client satisfaction, engagement, and appreciation. It’s also considerably easier for a client to bring friends and colleagues to a social event rather than a stuffy, business-casual seminar, which results in more prospects for you to connect with. (By the way, there is a small contingent of clients who still appreciate the educational content, so seminars have their place– and that place is Zoom. No one wants to commute to your seminar. Save the in-person time for fun stuff that allows you to make lasting memories with your clients that serve as anchors in your relationship.) 

Client events are impactful because they provide an opportunity for you to get to know your clients outside of their Zoom square or outside of the four walls of your office if you’re meeting with folks in person. Clients can drop the “I’m in a business meeting” persona and relax a bit and open up. Events are also particularly excellent opportunities to showcase other team members who may not be client-facing. If you have a team, please leverage them! Clients might love having you as their advisor, but they’ll love knowing that there’s a whole team of people helping to manage their financial lives even more. 

Lastly– and this is probably the biggest reason you should think about building (or re-building) your client events schedule– events present an opportunity for clients to not only network with you and your team, they also provide the ability for folks to network client to client. Think about your top 10 client-advocates. You know who they are– the folks who are sending you referrals, who are always raving about your services to their friends and family. Those people should always be at the very top of your invitee list, regardless of assets. Why? Because at the client event, they’re going to sing your praises. Clients who are new or nervous will have the opportunity to get reinforcement, not from you, but from other people who are paying you for your services. I once overheard a client of 20+ years reassuring a client of 2 years as to the incredible value my team provided to such a degree that I questioned whether we should add her to the payroll (I’m kidding, regulators!). In all seriousness, though, I didn’t tell her to do that. She just did it. Because she loves our firm and she “gets” the value that we provide. And her unsolicited encouragement helped this newer client feel more comfortable. 

At the end of the day, I think most advisors would agree that we’re in a people business. Our ability to build and maintain steadfast and engaged relationships with our clients has a real impact on our bottom line. It also has an impact on our clients’ level of comfort with following our advice in markets good and bad. If you want your clients to both heed and value your advice, you should focus on building a strong relationship that fosters mutual trust.

Related: 5 Ways a Great Financial Advisor Can Add Value

Katelyn Murray is a CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER™, a Certified Financial Behavior Specialist®, and a Certified Financial Therapist™ (CFT-1™) with over a decade of experience helping clients not only cross financial goal posts, but also find true peace and comfort in their personal relationship with money along the way. She uses her extensive background in financial psychology and behavioral finance to help clients build financial plans that are aligned with their true purposes, to actually implement financial planning recommendations, and to "stay the course" when times get tough. Katelyn is currently affiliated with Serving Those Who Serve, a financial planning firm based out of the DC Metropolitan area whose goal is to reach, teach, and serve federal government employees