Monday, September 26, 2011

An easy way to keep clients: surveys

The following post is based on an article that Melissa Neill and I wrote for InvestmentNews.

Take a moment to think about a store you visit regularly, a family physician from which you never stray or a dentist you always recommend. What keeps you going back? Is it the way they treat you or is it what happens between the times you see them?

Financial services organizations thrive by acquiring clients and retaining current ones. Financial advisers are no exception.

All too often, efforts are directed at generating inquiries that lead to new clients. Financial advisers, however, need to focus on current clients as well. Understanding their needs is just as important, since they can be advocates for your business and provide a steady stream of referrals and revenue.

Many advisers would say that they understand clients and intuitively know how to communicate with them. But what they think they know doesn't always align with reality.

So where is the best place for an adviser to start? A survey of current and lapsed clients is a great way to see why some stay and why others move to another firm. What follows is a simple step-by-step guide for assessing and addressing client retention for your business.

Getting ready
The preparatory work starts with an internal brainstorming meeting with employees who work with clients. Keeping this group small will help with making decisions. Appoint a facilitator or consider asking an outsider to lead this session to bring in an objective perspective.

This session is a conversation about client retention efforts, types of client communication, goals for retaining clients and desired outcomes of a survey. Following this discussion, review present and past efforts to retain clients; look at client communications, including newsletters and appointment reminder voice mails or e-mails; and review industry and competitor retention practices to help with question development (e.g., does a particular communication piece serve its purpose?).

Creating the survey
To start, look at your current and lapsed list of clients. Look at the size of your practice and isolate what you believe is a sufficient number of clients to survey. Keep in mind that not everyone is willing to participate, so starting with a list larger than the target number of respondents is important. Ultimately, you will need enough consistent feedback from your survey to change the way you run your practice.

Next, develop the questions. The goal of each question should be to gather information germane to the initial survey objective. The best surveys include questions that can be answered on a scale of 1 to 5, followed up with a few open-ended questions.

Conducting the survey
How a survey is conducted depends on available client data: Do you have e-mail addresses or just phone numbers?

While the primary advantage of conducting surveys online is the relatively low cost for the quantity of consumers reached, it is also less intrusive, and respondents can complete the survey at their convenience. Don't give them too long, however. A safe time limit is two weeks, and a friendly reminder after the first week will encourage additional responses.

While telephone surveys typically are more expensive — they can cost up to $25,000 to capture 100 client interviews — they produce more-in-depth information. Don't underestimate the time required for such surveys: Securing willing participants can take weeks, even months.

Look for trends in information to determine the effectiveness of retention efforts. Then think about how the data can be used to enhance the client's experience.

Most important to note, though, is that a survey is not to be done once — used for a period of time to determine necessary improvements — and then forgotten. To be effective, insights need to be measured on a regular basis to determine changes in attitudes and behavior.

Depending on budget, resources and usage, surveys should be conducted every one to five years. Just be sure not to change the questions significantly. Keeping the survey consistent will allow you to see the changes in attitudes over time.

Surveys are more than just a gauge of satisfaction -- a client can be satisfied and still leave. The insights you glean will help you determine why clients stay or lapse, and put an action plan in place to retain more clients.

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