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Maximize the Impact of Client Surveys

Surveys are important, so take your time and do them the right way.

Helen Modly, 10/14/2010

As we all hunkered down during the financial crisis, maybe we were a bit reluctant to ask too many questions of our clients. Now is an excellent time to use a thoughtfully designed survey to get your clients thinking about the value that you provide.

Many believe that a client survey is all about finding out what your clients think, and that is a primary reason to conduct a survey. But how you survey and what questions you ask can tell your clients a lot about what you think is important and reinforce your values as an advisor. At the very least, a survey is a great way to let clients know you care, and it's an efficient way to reach out to your entire client base at once. If your survey asks intelligent questions and offers clients the opportunity for free expression versus choosing from one to 10, it demonstrates that you are really interested in their experiences with and opinions about your firm.

You will learn what your strengths and weaknesses are from the client's point of view, and it lets you know what your clients value most in your relationship. It will also let you know where you need to improve or what services you should consider offering or dropping.

While we all hope to be perceived as brilliant financial managers, it may be your accessibility and genuine concern for your client's welfare that sets you apart in your client's mind. You may discover that your office music makes it hard for older clients to hear you, careless office chatter causes them to question your commitment to confidentiality, or that your voice mail system makes some of your clients want to punch the wall.

The client survey can be done online or by mail and it doesn't need to be long or elaborate. In fact, the longer the survey the less likely the client will fill it out.

Written Surveys
Written surveys work well for high-touch firms, small firms, family offices, or for those serving an older client base. These questions can be open ended. Our firm uses a cover letter explaining that we would like help in improving our service, a short questionnaire (typically six or seven questions), a stamped return envelope, and the enticement of a drawing for dinner at a nice restaurant. Here are some of the questions we have used:

1. Do you feel that we are accessible and responsive to your needs and concerns? If not, please elaborate.
2. What problems have you experienced with us or your custodian? Do you feel that we are proactive in getting problems solved when they occur?
3. Do you feel that your money is invested appropriately based upon your goals and objectives? Do you feel that your portfolio's performance has been reasonable considering the amount of risk you have assumed?
4. Do you feel the information provided on your quarterly performance report is accurate and relevant? Is the format understandable? Is there any additional information you would like to see included in this report?
5. Would you prefer to receive this report annually and "on demand" when you want it, rather than automatically every quarter?
6. What do you value most about your relationship with our firm?
7. Please share with us any other comments on your experience as our client.

Since we are mailing the surveys to our clients, anonymity is not really possible. We want our clients to be direct and open with us so that we can personalize our response and make adjustments that are specific to each relationship.

Online Surveys
If you and your clients tend to be technology-oriented, then check out online resources such as SurveyMonkey.com and Zoomerang.com. These are low- or no-cost options that are very easy to use. This is a particularly good option for advisors with a large client base, because the answers will be automatically summarized.

If you go the electronic route and have a large client base, you may want to develop some closed-end questions that allow for specific choices. Use questions that can be answered yes/no, multiple choice, or can be answered by a rating scale such as "highly satisfied to strongly dissatisfied." Such responses are easier to analyze than open-ended questions, but you may not elicit the real feelings behind the responses.

When designing rating-scale questions, the range needs to stay consistent. Use the same number of points on the scale for each question and be sure that the relation of high satisfaction to low satisfaction stays the same for each question.

You will improve the response rate for the electronic survey if you send out a personal invitation in advance. This can be done by regular mail or e-mail, depending on your client's preference. This also serves as another client touch. Let your clients know that they will be receiving an e-mail asking them to participate and tell them how answering the survey will benefit them by improving your service.  Provide information about the incentive to participate if you are offering one.

With the electronic invitation, be sure that the subject line is short and includes your firm name. Avoid spam filter triggers such as "important message," exclamation points, or all caps.

Survey Tips
Test your survey on a few volunteers before sending it out; this step allows you to let your clients know how long the survey will take to complete. That will also give you time to adjust the length. Shorter surveys get better responses and avoid the abandonment issues that can happen with online surveys.
Set a cutoff date for responses. Allow a couple of weeks plus mail time, if applicable. Halfway through the response collection period it may help to send a reminder e-mail. You can extend the deadline if responses are slow. After all, it's your survey. 

Don't send out surveys too close together. Wait at least one year. Two years might even be better. Time has a way of going by very quickly, and if you ask too often you will be inadvertently training your clients to ignore you. At that point your communications will become just more noise to them. You will also need time to review the survey results, implement any changes, and allow time for your clients to notice what you are doing differently.

Be sure to thank your clients, let them know the results of the survey, and let them know that the prize was awarded. Tell them what changes you are implementing and how they will be affected. More touches!

Not a One-Way Street
Remember that your clients will learn as much about what matters to you as you will learn about them. The questions you ask will clue them into the areas of your practice that you are proud of or worried about. The manner in which you request their participation, the ease of responding, your follow up afterward, will tell them whether this is something that is really important to you or just another "activity." Be genuine and thoughtful with your questions, share your conclusions and any changes you intend to implement. Why ask for their feedback if you are just going to ignore it?

This article was cowritten by Tommie Monez, CFP, MBA, a wealth advisor with Focus Wealth Management.

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