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Monday, June 5, 2023

For Humans Only: Five Tips for Outstanding Customer Service

Imagine the not-too-distant future: The investment management industry is teeming with robots and blockchain drives full transparency and full disclosure about absolutely everything on a global basis.

Investors who are choosing advisers will have all the facts at their fingertips to inform their search. There will be nowhere to hide. No smoke and mirrors.

Hiring decisions will be made based largely on data and price. To quote the 1993 New Yorker cartoon, “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.”

In an artificial intelligence (AI) and blockchain world, will anybody know (or care) that you are human?

The only way an investment adviser can stand out in such a world is through outstanding customer service.

That is what will give you an edge over your competitors — human or (especially) robot.

1. Communicate on their terms, not yours.

Many advisers I know tell me that they make all of their phone calls and send all of their emails on Friday afternoons because that’s when it best suits them. But many of my clients leave for cottages on Friday morning and don’t pick up emails or voicemails until the following Monday or even Tuesday. Listen to what your customers are saying about their communication preferences.

Some people don’t want phone calls at all.

I did some research for a large Nordic bank last year, and one busy executive made a comment that I think rings true (as it were) for so many professionals:

“Many service providers mean well and offer to call me. I don’t mean to be anti-social but I find it much more efficient when I can control how I use my own time. Like many people I have a lot on my schedule and I’d rather decide when I will review information and respond . . . I want to look at the details when I feel like looking at the details. I want almost all communication to be via email.”

Other people only want phone calls.

Believe it or not, one of my clients still doesn’t own a computer. No judgment. Her preference is for a monthly phone call. And because she lacks a computer, email is obviously out of the question. All written correspondence must be sent by snail mail because couriers seem to lose her packages.

Ask each and every client about their preferred method of communication. Then communicate in precisely that way.

Robots will have their little algorithms about the best times and methods to send their communications, but those may not be specific to an individual customer. Robos won’t be able to pick up nuances in communication, and they sure won’t be able to banter with a client on the phone.

2. Show up in person. A lot.

Trust is cultivated through a powerful combination of eye contact, body language, and a general “feeling” about a person. There is no method of communication as powerful as an in-person meeting.

What is the old expression? Eighty percent of success is just showing up.

One of my longest standing customer relationships has lasted over 16 years. During that time, they have always had two money managers. And over that time, they have changed the second manager five times.

One day I decided to ask them about it and they said their decisions had nothing to do with performance returns. It was all about consistency and that I bothered to drive — 45 minutes each way — to see them at their office every quarter without fail.

Customers will choose you if you show up a lot and your competitor doesn’t. Go the extra mile. Or 50. Robots can’t even show up.

3. Connect customers with the contacts they need.

Many clients ask if I can recommend a great accountant or estate lawyer. And that makes perfect sense since these professionals play an important role in a client’s overall wealth management framework: They are part of the financial services ecosystem. But you know when I feel especially trusted? When they call up and ask me to recommend a great travel agent, contractor, or veterinarian.

When this happens you know that you are a trusted adviser in the broader life sense.

Not all clients will be comfortable soliciting your help about connections. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that they wouldn’t appreciate an offer to facilitate an introduction or two.

Last year, I interviewed Kirsi Larkiala for “Social Selling: Building Relationships with the Clients of the Future.” She is a board member of Grannenfelt Finance in Helsinki, Finland, and she is ranked on the global Fintech 2016 Top 100 Influencers list. Her advice:

“Due to technology, people today are very international and the nature of work has changed. In my view, an adviser’s job is to facilitate networking. Think about the role that each customer plays in society and how you can make a difference in their life. What is she trying to accomplish in her career? Who does she need to meet? How can you help her?”

Use any mode of communication — including your social media network! — to connect customers with the contacts they need. Some think robots are good at this, but they aren’t. Have you seen the books and movies they try to recommend?

4. Treat all clients the same . . . especially smaller ones.

Throughout my career, I’ve had several different bosses try to help me succeed. But not all of their conventional wisdom was useful. My worst career advice? Don’t service your smaller clients. Or don’t offer the same level of service that you do for your larger clients.

Fortunately, I used my own judgment and completely ignored this. Why? First of all, smaller clients might not always stay that way. The world is changing so fast today — people have ample opportunity to improve their financial situations. Smaller clients often end up with a new, better job or a new, improved life situation.

Moreover, smaller clients talk to larger clients and can be your biggest fans. Word of mouth matters! A few years ago, my $250,000 client referred me to an $8-million client. I was obviously happy that I had trusted my own business acumen. The payoff for servicing smaller clients isn’t so hard to quantify when they refer you to their super wealthy friends.

Robots will almost be certainly programmed by the bosses, and the bosses will focus on whales and ignore the minnows.

5. Provide customized education.

Many people say that they want to learn more about investing or often that they “should” learn more about investing. It’s a thing people say but they don’t often do anything about it. Life tends to get in the way.

Make it easy for your clients. Ask them what exactly they would like to learn more about: The history of stock markets? How bonds work? What are all the ratios about? How to get started trading online? Maybe they would like a short “Investing 101” class for their kids?

You might think this will be an ultra-time-consuming exercise. Not so! In my experience, only 5%–10% take up the offer. And those that do tend to take only one or two lessons.

Offering to provide customized education goes a long way to building trust. You show that you care enough to ask about your customer’s interests and you care enough to help them move up the learning curve.

I think the human touch in this kind of education will beat the robot every time.

Bonus Tip: Offer “Value over Robot” (VoR)!

I first heard the phrase “Value over Google” (VoG) when I interviewed Eva Trouin for my 2016 white paper “Rich Thinking: How Smart Women Are Shaping the Future of the Financial Industry.” A bank executive in Stockholm, Sweden, Trouin described her approach to customer service:

“We call it VoG (“Value over Google”) — if you can Google something you will get the same result as everyone else and you are not adding value to your customer’s experience. If you call us, we know that every minute of your time is valuable so we want to make sure that we give you something extra!”

In 2018, not only do we need to offer VoG. We also need to offer VoR!

Every time you answer a client’s question, think about how your advice adds value. Give them something that is thoughtful and thorough — a deeper reply than if they had asked a robot. What are you offering as your “Value over Robot?”

Yes, AI will radically change the world for customers across all industries. But a few things won’t ever change. People want respect. People want to feel important. And people will remember the way you make them feel.

Each and every one of us will always appreciate outstanding customer service. We’re only human after all!

If you liked this post, don’t forget to subscribe to the Enterprising Investor.

All posts are the opinion of the author. As such, they should not be construed as investment advice, nor do the opinions expressed necessarily reflect the views of CFA Institute or the author’s employer.

Image credit: ©Getty Images/ uzenzen

Barbara Stewart, CFA

Barbara Stewart, CFA, is a researcher and author on the issue of women and finance. She released the 10th installment of her “Rich Thinking” series of monographs on International Women’s Day, 8 March 2020. Stewart uses her proprietary research skills to work as an Executive Interviewer on a project basis for global financial institutions seeking to gain a deeper understanding of their key stakeholders, both women and men. She is a frequent interview guest on TV, radio, and print, and she is a columnist for Golden Girl Finance. Stewart is on the Advisory Board for Kensington Capital Partners Limited in Toronto. All of Stewart’s research is available on Barbara Stewart.

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