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Tech Tools for Client Service and Prospecting

These tools can help your efforts amid a tough environment.

Joel P. Bruckenstein, 02/12/2009

I've spent most of the last month traveling around the country. I've had the opportunity to experience near-zero temperatures in New York, Boston, and Chicago, and sub-zero temperatures in Minneapolis. Thankfully, I've also experienced some milder weather in Las Vegas, San Diego, and Fort Lauderdale. Throughout my travels, I've had the opportunities to listen to advisors describe the practice-management and technology challenges that they are facing in the current environment.

During just about every conversation I've had with advisors, two common themes emerge: client service/retention and prospecting. This is not all that surprising. With the market turmoil of the last year, most client portfolios are down. For advisors who charge clients based upon the assets-under-management model this means that even if you haven't lost a single client, your revenues are probably down between 15%-30%.

It seems to me that there has never been a better time to focus your technology dollars on client service and prospecting. The objective in providing excellent client service is threefold. First, you want to retain your existing clients, because we all know, or should know, that it is cheaper to retain existing clients than it is to attract new ones. Second, providing outstanding service is likely to uncover additional assets or other cross selling opportunities. Third, happy clients who receive outstanding service are those most likely to refer new business to you. The object of prospecting is to bring in some additional revenue to help close the revenue gap by adding additional revenue sources. This column is devoted to helping you uncover technology tools and tweaks, many of them inexpensive, that can help you get the most out of your technology budget.

My first suggestion is to re-evaluate you Web site to see if it reflects your current business goals. For example, if your number on goal is to provide excellent client service, is your Web site doing all it can to help you further that mission? My guess it that the answer to that question is "No." There are numerous ways that your Web site can further client service.

One very simple thing you can do is post client-service forms on the Web. This sounds pretty obvious, but in my experience the majority of advisor sites I've visited still do not do this. By making forms available to clients, you give them 24/7 access to the tools they need. In addition, you lower the labor burden within your office. That's a good deal all around.

Another thing you can do is make the site user friendly. In recent years, there has been a trend within the industry to put a graphical splash page in front of advisor Web sites. This may be great for your ego, but it is extremely annoying to clients who have to wait through the video to access the information they need. Make your home page accessible and make sure it has lots of hotlinks and navigation tools so clients can get to the area of your site they need quickly.

How can you make your Web site work for you when prospecting? Here's one easy tip: Use your Web site to prescreen prospects. Not every prospect is going to be a good fit for your firm. If you are trying to attract a certain kind of client, or if you have a specialty, let prospects know. It might encourage them to call you first. Information supporting your competency as a specialist, such as credentials, published articles, interviews in the media, etc., can support your stature as an expert, so they should he prominently displayed.

Using your Web site as a prequalifying tool offers an additional benefit: it can discourage those who are not suited to your practice. Why would you want to discourage some prospects? If they are not a good fit, odds are they will never become profitable clients anyway, so why expend more time and energy than necessary on unprofitable pursuits? You could be spending that time on more rewarding endeavors.

Last month I suggested that you might want to try a Web browser other than Microsoft's Internet Explorer for your own Web surfing. Let's not forget that one third of your clients and prospects are probably using a browser other than Microsoft's. What is their experience when they visit your Web site? Do you even know? If not, I'd suggest that you find out immediately! At a minimum, you should surf your site extensively with Firefox and Safari, two popular alternatives to IE. You should probably check to make sure that Opera and Google's Chrome browser work with your site as well. If your site is optimized exclusively for IE, I can almost guarantee you that you are turning off clients and potential prospects. Get it fixed!

Once inexpensive and highly effective communications tool is the conference call. Conference calls let you leverage your time by reaching multiple clients or prospects at one time. The good news is that you can set up basic conference calls for free. Basic conference calls are calls where you send an invitation, and your guests call in to a regular telephone number somewhere in the United States. These are toll calls, so your participants will incur a charge for calling unless they have unlimited calling plans or they make use of included minutes on a calling plan, such as a cell phone plan.

Many vendors of free calls offer two types of free plans, scheduled (usually over the Web) and ad hoc, which you can set up on the fly. When both types are offered, the scheduled calls usually offer enhancements over the unscheduled calls. These can included the ability to hold longer calls, or a higher maximum number of participants on a call. In addition, the scheduled calls often offer "premium services" options at an additional cost. Free Conference (www.freeconference.com), a service I've used with satisfactory results in the past, is fairly typical. Their unscheduled calls are limited to a maximum of three hours, while scheduled calls max out at four hours. For as little as $6.50 per call or $9 per month, you can have calls recorded on the reserved calls. No such option exists for the ad hoc calls. Of course, if you are willing to pay a bit more, you can get a dedicated toll-free line that includes premium services like desktop sharing and conference recording. Other providers such as Free Conference Call (www.freeconferencecall.com) and Instant Conference (www.instantconference.com) offer similar, but not identical, services. PAGEBREAK

If you find conference calls effective, and you want to take them to the next level, online collaboration sites and/or videoconferences may appeal to you. When the markets are in turmoil, video and collaborative sites may actually have the edge over conference calls in effectiveness, particularly if you are an experienced presenter. With video, you can use body language and your image or "presence" to calm clients' frayed nerves. I often find that the popular financial media focus on the instant, and that tends to distort the message for nonprofessionals. In environments like the one we are now in, it is often helpful to present longer-term charts and statistic to illustrate your point. For example, you might illustrate historical five- and 10-year returns after a bear-market bottom. You might illustrate longer-term trends using indicators of your choosing. Whatever it is that sends the message you want your clients to see, collaborative sites are a great medium for doing so.

Many readers are no doubt aware of services like GoToMeeting and WebEx that can be used for this purpose. One other that I've found useful is Adobe Acrobat Connect. This product offers whiteboarding, desktop viewing/sharing, video conferencing, and much more. Prices start at $39 per month. One nice thing about the Adobe product is that there is usually no additional software required on the part of participants. Another nice thing is that Adobe supports Apple machines as well as Windows.

One new collaborative product that I have not tested yet, but which I hope to try soon, is FUZE (www.fuzemeeting.com), from Callwave. Like Adobe Acrobat Connect, FUZE requires only Flash, something that over 98% of computer users in the United States already have installed on their PCs. This means that FUZE should support all popular Web browsers, and it should work fine with Apple's operating system as well. Another nice FUZE feature is support for HD audio and video.

The real FUZE differentiator, however, is mobility support. FUZE currently supports Blackberry devices and Apple's iPhone (with a download from the App Store). Windows Mobile support is coming soon. Once a user's smart phone is configured, they can participate in video conferences right from their mobile devices. With the iPhone app, you even get a conference call control panel and a visual interface. Also included: Fetch. This feature allows you to dial attendees directly into your meeting without special numbers or codes.
One final idea for this month: self playing presentations. If you have a story to tell, you can tell it using presentation software, perhaps with voiceovers. If you want to record a series of screens on your own computer and convert them to a presentation, a number of techie friends tell me that Camtasia, from TechSmith; it's the product to buy.

I've tried to offer up a number of relatively easy, inexpensive technology ideas that can help you do a better job of communicating with clients and prospects. All of these ideas can be implemented almost immediately. Of course, there are many other ways that tech can help. Don't limit yourself to the ones presented here. Use your imagination to communicate better. It is a proven method of retaining existing clients and attracting news ones.

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