Develop a Deeply Engaging, Profoundly Human Client Experience with Julie Littlechild

We are honored to have Julie Littlechild as our 50th guest on Power Your Advice. Julie is the CEO of Absolute Engagement, a company that helps advisors and advisory firms use direct input from their clients to evolve and enhance the client experience, identify unmet needs and increase referrals. She is also the author of The Pursuit of Absolute Engagement, and host of her own podcast, Becoming Referable.

In today’s episode, Doug & Julie talk about Absolute Engagement’s latest research on the advisor client experience. They also discuss:

  • Are advisor conversations with their clients better virtually or in person
  • What Julie thinks effective client engagement will look like going forward
  • Ways in which advisors can educate themselves to evolve with the changing landscape
  • What “co-creating the client experience” means and why it is important
  • Internal barriers that get in the way of developing a deeply engaging and profoundly human client experience
  • Conversations advisors need to be prepared to have with clients

Thank you to all our podcast guest and listeners. We have learned so much from our first 50 podcasts & can’t wait to see what the next 50 will bring!

Resources: Absolute Engagement | 2021 Investor Report |Becoming Referable Podcast

Related: Are You Speaking the Same Language as Your Clients?



clients, advisors, engagement, conversations, co creation, investors, question, feeling, input, deeper, thinking, important, data, people, experience, year, advisory firms, work, research, answers


Julie Littlechild, Douglas Heikkinen

Douglas Heikkinen  00:03

Hello, and welcome to the podcast. Today we have Julie Llittlechild with us to celebrate our 50th episode. . .

Julie is the founder and CEO of absolute engagement. They help financial advisors and advisory firms drive growth. She's also the author of a very popular book, the pursuit of absolute engagement. And she's the co host of the becoming repairable podcast. Thanks so much for being with us today. Julie,

Julie Littlechild  00:28

Thrilled to be here. Thank you.

Douglas Heikkinen  00:30

It must have been a super interesting last year for your firm. Everything's been in flux, which I'm sure gave you the opportunity to look at advisors through new lenses. And you're at the end of a new research project. What's it telling us about the advisor client experience, and whether it needs change?

Julie Littlechild  00:48

Actually, I think flux is a is a very good word. You know, there's, despite it all, I think you're right that when things are in flux, it gives us a different perspective on on client experience. But what what certainly is clear, as we've been speaking to investors through our research is that yes, there is flux in terms of how advisors need to deliver the client experience. And I think there's flux in terms of cloud clients are feeling and, and both of those things really come together to say, when we look forward, it's it's not only that we have to think about, you know, his resume working, although that's been, you know, the question for the last year, but, but now that we've, at least to a large extent, figured out some of those details, and we have a choice as to the kind of experience we want to deliver. In the context of all of this change. I think that's the big question for advisors and for advisory firms right now is what do they want this experience to look like?

Douglas Heikkinen  01:59

Yeah, as we are well aware, speaking of zoom, a huge percentage of conversations advisors have with their clients have moved to virtual platforms. Can these virtual conversations be as good or as effective as face to face?

Julie Littlechild  02:15

So I think so it was what I thought was interesting about the researches. I had heard anecdotally, as I'm sure you have a lot of advisors saying, you know, we're dealing with it, but it's not face to face. It's not what, you know, what we hope and it's harder to connect and all of those things. And I was always laughing to myself, because I thought, I think this is awesome. I'm having deeper conversations, I don't really fully understand it. But we did ask these questions, so that we just finished this research. And the last time we were in field was in March of 2020. Just and before we even knew what was about to happen, we were in field. So we had this interesting kind of bookend to the process. And we went very deep with investors on on, you know, how they felt about virtual, if you will, and there was a number of things we learned. But to that point, when we asked them about virtual, you know, three quarters of investors said that they believed it was still possible to have meaningful conversations with the advisor virtually, which is, you know, a huge number. And then when we asked them to rate the quality of the review, when it was virtual, again, almost three quarters 73% said it was either the same or better and, and fully 19% said it was actually a better process for them virtually. So, you know, I think it's possible. And now it just depends on what do clients really want? And how are we going to deliver that

Douglas Heikkinen  03:52

I was on my scheduler this morning, and have to make an appointment with a lawyer. And I'm thinking, boy, I hope this guy wants to zoom. Yeah, I think people got a new sense for time and its value and it appears to me, many of these conversations can stay virtual, or am I out of my mind, and they have to go back to being back in person. No,

Julie Littlechild  04:15

not at all. In fact, I think we've all accepted this idea that the hybrid is the future but we're seeing it in the data. So just about half just slightly over half of clients said I really prefer in person's person when they're available. You know, I want to get back to that I want to have those conversations, which means of course that almost half said either they prefer virtual or maybe they there's still a group who prefer phone or they're ambivalent, right, they just don't have a preference and, and so right out of the gate we're saying okay, that means we need a hybrid solution if this is what clients are saying, but where my mind goes is what will Extraordinary look like virtually right? We've spent a lot of time thinking about how to have deep conversations in person, the setup of the office, all of the details. And it's not good enough to just say I can meet virtually right? I mean, everybody can meet virtually now, I think we're going to have to ask how do we create more engagement virtually so that it is as good as that in person meeting for those who want that.

Douglas Heikkinen  05:29

So going into the pandemic, we didn't have a choice about how we engaged, we were reacting, coming out, we do have a choice. And that will allow some advisors to set themselves apart who have paid attention. So what will effective client engagement look like going forward?

Julie Littlechild  05:46

Well, I think that the and I think you're right, that this is the Crossroads that we're at right now, right, we've got this choice. And the drivers of engagement, in my mind, at least haven't changed substantially. You know, over the years, we have drawing on the research built a few different frameworks around engagement, you know, what is the path, we've always asked from being merely satisfied to being deeply engaged. And one of those very simple models is a pyramid structure that shows that, you know, at the base is just good service, we've got to deliver good service, be responsive fix problems, you know, be there when our clients need us all of those things. And that is what creates satisfaction. But as we move up that pyramid toward engagement, which is a smaller sub segment of clients, we've a got to get the offer, right. So that's where we're seeing things like specialist planning, and those sorts of things. And the very top of our pyramid is we just use the word leadership. And, and in my mind, that is very much about understanding the lives of clients, understanding their challenges and concerns and aspirations, and then building the experience around that. And I say that, even though that probably sounds like I'm not answering your question, but the, because I think that going forward, this choice that we have, of course, is about how we deliver service. So yeah, we have to have a virtual option, yes, we're going to need electronic signature capabilities. And we'll need to dust off our portal and make sure it's all you know, as good as it can be, all of those things are quite foundational. But this concept of leadership, to me is really interesting going forward, because what's important to clients has changed, and what they're worried about has changed. And so I think the most progressive advisors, those that are thinking the most deeply about engagement will be saying, How can I support my clients differently, you know, through content, or education or conversation around those issues that have changed in their lives, and that are so important to them right now?

Douglas Heikkinen  08:07

Do you think advisors are ignoring or misinterpreting the data available to them about the changing client experience and or demographics? Or do you think they're afraid to do things differently?

Julie Littlechild  08:19

You know, we're human, right? So I think all of that happens to all of us. I do think we have a tendency, not uncommon, but a tendency in our our industry to lead with assumption. So we, we want to get back to in person, right? We want things to be the way they were we want to share the same kinds of content as we were before and have the same kind of conversations because they felt like they were effective. And and we know how to do it. So I do think that we we can make an assumption that could be very wrong, that our clients want the same thing. And so I you know, that that I think is our risk right now is if we're if we're not, it's not always that we're ignoring the data, it may be that we don't have the data, right, that we haven't asked the right questions. And, and so we see that with the pandemic, I would say we've definitely seen in our research how investors are saying, you know, even investors who say I haven't been financially impacted rate, it's actually not that higher percentage, because we do high net worth research. But they're saying, my mindset has shifted, or what's important to me has shifted. So we've got that shift happening. But the other thing is non pandemic related and it's really a demographic shift as well that I think we need to listen to right because, you know, are what the folks we used to say those millennials right there. Now, some have our best clients. And and age is such a driver of expectation when it comes to experience. So it's getting more complex, right? But it all leads us back to this idea of we just got to understand what our clients need want and expect, what they're concerned about what their aspirations are, and we need to be a little smarter. And how we look at that kind of input to say, is that different? Say, for my older clients, compared to my younger clients.

Douglas Heikkinen  10:30

You live in this space? So how do you recommend an advisor educate and open themselves up to new possibilities and become willing to evolve with the changing landscape?

Julie Littlechild  10:41

Well, I think we've just got to be curious, right? And curiosity can be very informal, right? It can be just asking questions, asking different questions of our clients, giving our clients the space to communicate during our reviews, instead of, you know, I've got my list of things we've got to cover, and we've got an hour, so let's get right to it, you know, really maybe shaking things up a little in the review to to allow our clients to articulate and label how they're feeling, even if we don't have all the answers for them. I think that is just part of, of curiosity. There are more formal ways to do this, I mean, doing more structured client interviews, perhaps to understand how their needs and expectations have shifted. Of course, in our world, it's all about gathering the right input at the right time. So whether that's pools or surveys, or advisory boards, or what have you, you know, we've certainly lean toward the formal but there's a lot of ways to make sure we aren't leading with assumption.

Douglas Heikkinen  11:51

Speaking of talking to your clients, what does it mean to co create the client experience? And why is that important?

Julie Littlechild  11:58

Well, I've always been fascinated with this idea of CO creation of value, you know, it's got a, an academic base, I, most of the writing I've seen on it goes back to the 70s. And it was often in the retail space. But the concept of it, I think is so critical, it really means that you are not necessarily thinking about value in terms of what you can deliver to clients, but what you can create with clients. And when you can create an experience with your client, I think you build a moat around those individuals, right? You create deep levels of partnership, and loyalty and engagement. And they're they're kind of two paths to it. I think one's a little more complex. Just asking for input, you could argue is a form of CO creation, right? I mean, I, I asked what you needed, or I asked what you're concerned about. And now our experience reflects that the deeper form of CO creation, I think is when the delivery is actually dependent. So you know, an interactive portal could be a form of CO creation, because I'm getting that I'm using it, I'm getting value, I'm doing scenario analysis, that sort of thing. I'm asking clients, how they're feeling as they go into a review meeting and using that input to co create the review agenda. Right? The experience is different because of the input. I think that's kind of the key question. And and as we think, you know, you mentioned engagement right at the beginning, I think this is a way to think about engagement and a way to truly differentiate ourselves in the end with our clients.

Douglas Heikkinen  13:57

People are so different. Can this be personalized with a philosophy of doing it? Well, of getting deeper in there for each client?

Julie Littlechild  14:05

I think it can I mean, that's the end game and technology is supporting our ability to do that, right. So, you know, if you think about it on a spectrum, let's pick a simple example, like sharing content that is relevant for your clients. Let's assume that's our goal. You know, well, at one end of the spectrum, you could say, well, I know my clients, they're generally, you know, have this wealth level and they're generally pre retirees, so therefore, they must be interested in this particular topic. I think that's older school, but it's where we were in the middle, we might ask our clients, hey, what are some of the topics that you're interested in and then say, Oh, that's, you know, look, 60% of our clients said that they were interested in this topic, therefore, I'm going to share some some content on that, but personalization to your point, you know, where we're going, is the ability to say, hey, Doug, you told me you were interested in this topic, therefore, I thought you'd find this content of interest. So we're literally connecting your input to the experience. And we've just come light years in terms of, you know, a solid CRM and a marketing platform allows you to do that kind of personalization.

Douglas Heikkinen  15:26

Now, what are some of the internal barriers that get in the way of delivering a deeply engaging and profoundly human client experience? Because when you're doing this, there's all kinds of people involved? Yeah.

Julie Littlechild  15:40

Yeah. Gosh, I'm, I'm always so aware of our internal barriers, maybe because I have so many myself, but you know, I think, I think what gets in the way, the first thing that comes to mind, and I'll borrow from Carl Richards on this, because he talks a lot about, you know, being the guide instead of the expert, and I think, or maybe in addition to, but this idea that we have to have all the answers, I think, can be one of the biggest barriers to that more profoundly human client experience, because all of a sudden, we lose the ability to simply be curious and to support our clients, we may not have the answers to everything. And and I think we need to let go of that. I think this idea that what got us here will get us there probably gets in the way as well, right, we need to think about new ways of whether it's inviting input, or whether it's using technology to personalize the experience, you know, it's it's all different. And, and it has changed, we've just got to, to accept that. And, and maybe this is related, but but what also comes to mind for me is, you know, we love a good bit of process in our industry, right? And we create workflows, and we define meeting agendas, and this is all good, good stuff, important goals to have. But if we're overly reliant on that process, I think we can miss that opportunity for the humanity of a conversation of recognizing that something's going on in a client's life. And maybe setting aside that workflow or that agenda for a moment to dig in. Life is messy, and it's become infinitely Messier in the last year. And so, you know, I think we have to find a way for process and, and this more human connection to co exist, I think we will.

Douglas Heikkinen  17:45

We were always taught that I don't know, but I'll find out is just as good as answer sometimes.

Julie Littlechild  17:50

Absolutely. It this does come up a lot, I have to say when we're talking because we're big believers in sharing content and support and whatnot, that is also non financial in nature. And the reason for that is when we ask clients, what they're concerned about, the things that topped the list are things like the health of my family, helping my kids make better decisions, you know, job security for my kids caring for aging parents, right? This is, this is what we talked about at the dinner table. And I think we need to lean in, it doesn't mean you need to be an expert in those things. But I think what's important is these things create context for the technical work that is being done, right, my concerns about my family, my my worry about what I want for my parents or for my kid should play a role in my plan. And we've got to, we've got to pull that out. I we have one of our coaches who does extraordinary work and in supporting advisors on having deeper conversations campaign, talks a lot about asking questions, and she said, you know, the problem with questions is that there's answers. I think that's what we fear is like, okay, so you just answered and I don't know what to do with that. But that's part of the skill development that I think is going to be so important going forward is, is to be able to roll with that a little and like you said, I don't have to have all the answers.

Douglas Heikkinen  19:21

You mentioned, life's messy, and it's messy for everybody. Are there certain types of conversations that you're finding advisors need to be prepared to have what's at the top of the list?

Julie Littlechild  19:32

Well, you know, to some extent, I guess I'll I'll lean on the data a little here. What we're seeing is investors who are saying, what has what's important to me has changed, right over the last year. I feel more worried about certain things. And some of it's actually quite positive, if you will, like they're actually thinking About what they want to do in retirement or how they'll spend their time or how they can have more time for their families, and so on and so forth. So I think that we've got to, again, stop assuming that because people are financially stable, that everything still hasn't changed, and that that might not impact their plan. We've done a lot of work in this area of client self confidence. And it was really born of the research again, we, we ended up asking clients to provide input on the series of four statements. And it had to do with their sense of feeling financially secure their clarity around the future, their confidence in reaching their goals, how in control they felt, in reaching their goals. And, and not surprisingly, we saw some softness in those numbers over over the last year. And it was, how confident people felt in themselves was actually quite closely tied to things like satisfaction. So the less confident I felt, the more likely I was to have some dissatisfaction with the advisory relationship. But I say this as context, because I think that digging in on some of these statements, has become really important. So we've been working with a number of firms who are building conversations around this idea of client self confidence, and teasing it apart a little and not not letting people say, I'm fine. Right, but digging in to say, you know, I see that you're feeling a little out of control. Can we talk about that? Or Isn't that interesting? You're, you know, we've got ultra high net worth clients who say, I don't feel financially secure. So let's talk about that. So I put all of that in the category of just how our clients really feeling right now? And are we giving them the space to communicate that and think about it? are we helping couples have those conversations where that's relevant, so that they come to, to review meetings on the same page? Or? Or maybe the advisor can facilitate those kinds of conversations? But how are they feeling? What are they worried about? And and how have their view of the future changed as a result of what we've all experienced? I think these are different, deeper conversations that we need to just step right on into

Douglas Heikkinen  22:36

Are advisors interested in the data? Or is it just the advisors who want to be elite?

Julie Littlechild  22:45

And here you're thinking of the data, like the research, and you're that kind of thing? Yeah, that's an interesting question. I think that, you know, the way that I think about people who want to be elite is that they are very open. And, you know, I mentioned curiosity, earlier, they're open to questioning how things are done, they're open to looking at the data, they're open to thinking about whether their clients are similar or different. So I think we need to question data is well, right, it is, by its nature, an average and so that, you know, means we need to, to look at it carefully. And, and so I do think those advisors you might think of as elite are, are definitely looking at that. And one of the things that holds us back, so those who may not fall into that category, depends how you define it, of course, or just the, you know, this is how we've done it, I want to do it a certain way, therefore, I assume my clients will so I'm going to ignore the data, we have a remarkable capacity to ignore data that we don't want to see. Like, it's a wonderful human condition. And we see it all the time. Yeah, right now and and we can see it you know, it's we, our business is, is integrating voice of the client strategies for for successful firms. So we are often having conversations where we're saying, let's look at this, what's this telling us? And in sometimes you can see the Okay, well, I don't I don't, I don't want this to be true. So therefore, let's maybe move on. And so it's not easy right now, but, but it's important.

Douglas Heikkinen  24:33

So data and research, you have a very big report coming out. Tell us about it. Who did you do it with? And when does it come out?

Julie Littlechild  24:41

So the initial report is out now so we can provide access to that. Every year we go out and talk to investors across North America. We do and then we separate the results in the US and Canada and from time to time. We will do the UK and hope to do Australia soon as well. But we've partnered with the investments and wealth Institute on this study for a number of years, they've been an incredible partner. So this particular study was just completed. It is, as I said, 750 us high net worth investors, all of whom work with a financial advisor contribute to the financial decision making within the household. And and then we set you know, we set asset investable asset ranges so that we are dealing with a high net worth sample. This year, the report was also supported by Hightower and tabes. So that made a lot of this possible. But you know, we tried to do it about every year and there was probably never a year where we were more anxious to see the results then this year.

Douglas Heikkinen  25:56

So we'll put the report link in the notes. But how do people get in touch with you if they want to engage with you further and work with you?

Julie Littlechild  26:06

Yeah, absolutely. You know, the website, it has everything that you know, we do around voice of the client. Our blog is where we tend to share any new data or at least our deeper analysis of that so that's always a good place to go at absolute engagement comm slash blog, and yeah, and the report, you can you can include that in the notes. It's absolute engagement comm slash report.

Douglas Heikkinen  26:34

Great. Julie, thank you so much for joining us on number 50 today,

Julie Littlechild  26:38

And number 50. Congratulations.

Douglas Heikkinen  26:40

Thank you. Please follow us for all the latest updates on Twitter, LinkedIn, and Facebook all at Advisorpedia. For everybody at Advisorpedia our producer Jakie Beard and the power advice podcast team. This is Doug Heikkinen