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What If Being Customer-Centric Was Actually About…the Customer?

If I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard the terms “customer-centric,” “client-centric” or “customer-first,” just over the last few months, I’d probably have about eight bucks. Don’t get me wrong, I think these terms are important for every financial planner (and indeed, anyone who works in or owns any type of business) to understand and value. My beef is with how they are being used: “buy this product,” “purchase this data,” “take this course,” and you, too, can suddenly become more “client- or customer-centric.”

It seems to me that too many of these messages are about more—more data, more tools, more strategies, more insights. Personally, I think most of us (whether we are business owners, employed by a business or individual practitioners) need just the opposite. We have plenty of data; the issue is in finding ways to use it effectively on a consistent basis. We have tools at our disposal; if we’re not using them to the best of our ability now, are we likely to suddenly change our ways when we get new ones?

Understanding the Customer is About Learning How to Use Your Data (Not More Data)

I don’t think customer-centricity is something we can purchase, and more data for more data’s sake is only likely to further muddy the waters. To truly understand our customers, we must learn how to use the data we already have, simplify how we will use it moving forward and stick with our plans long enough to measure whether they are successful.

This is, of course, easier said than done, but I have an idea that I think is worth trying to help you get started, and it starts with one of my least favorite marketing terms: personas. Used effectively, personas can be an extremely valuable tool in enhancing customer understanding, but I’ve personally never been in an environment where they made a positive difference. It’s one thing I’ve seen fail more often than succeed in my time as a marketer.

When customer experience is the topic of conversation, the discussion inevitably turns to spending money on personas, and because the creation of personas is so enigmatic, mysterious and cool (i.e., so few people understand it), everyone gets excited about the initiative…until they receive them. Then, internal teams start changing them to fit their own biases, some are removed entirely while new ones are added and the hotly debated question of whether or not “Randy, age 55” actually does like to go to the movies ends up killing productivity for weeks. After that, they’re forgotten or relegated to the company shared drive, and everyone agrees that the agency really didn’t understand “us” well enough to get us what we needed.

HINT: If you think persona creation is about you, and not expressly about your ideal clients or customers, then your customer-centricity project was doomed to fail from the start.

Improving the Customer Experience by Starting Small

The idea is this: if there is truly an ideal customer, member and client out there for all of us, what would happen if we tried to create an exceptional customer experience using just one avatar (just so we don’t have to use “persona” again)? If we focused on crafting just a single avatar using the data we already have available, and committed to using it to test every interaction, we would find it simpler to make the improvements required to actually move the needle on customer/client experience. Further, the focus of this avatar is not on its creation, but on bringing it to life as part of our daily work.

I’m not saying that your avatar’s profile, interests, needs, wants, wishes and dreams should be arbitrary—far from it. I just want you to avoid getting bogged down in creating the “perfect” avatar, so that by the time you’ve achieved perfection, everyone involved resents what you’ve built. Creating the avatar should be fun, but it can be done relatively quickly as a group exercise. In addition to the standard profile items (age, gender, name, AUM, etc.), make sure to draw a picture or find one online, and to focus on the emotional and human side of your avatar, as these things will make him or her more real and tangible. Put a deadline on this part of the project, and when the group is done, you’re done (no adjusting—your avatar has been officially brought to life, warts and all).

Integrating Your Avatar: Meet the Newest Member of Your Team

Now comes the most important phase: deciding how you and your colleagues or team (if applicable) will use your avatar. This is so critical that you might even consider creating a social contract and having everyone sign to represent their commitment to seeing the process all the way through. I like to think of this part as inviting your avatar (let’s call her Perry for now) to join your team and to take part in every meeting, every discussion about programs and initiatives, and every company event…oh, and Perry is also copied on every email and participating on every inbound and outbound phone call.

You can take it as far as you want to, including leaving Perry a seat in the conference room for larger meetings, or having a specific place she sits and takes notes during client meetings. As you may not wish to weird out your clients, you can decide whether you want to let them know that Perry will be joining you in spirit, but you and she know that she’ll be there (and maybe just a little bit late, because that’s so Perry). You and your team will begin to see every touchpoint a client has through Perry’s lens, and begin to make decisions based on how she would perceive an idea or adjustment to the status quo. You can start with questions like:

  • “What would Perry think of this idea for a client event? Would she want to come and how would we make her feel comfortable enough to stay?”
  • “Would Perry approve of this prospecting email? How would it make her feel? How can we improve it so that it would make her happy and interested?”
  • “How would Perry have changed the environment or direction of the discussion in the last client meeting? How would she have felt afterward? What could we have done differently, and what should/could we do after the fact that would make her feel more comfortable and less fearful?”
  • “What would Perry think of the inflatable plastic pineapple in our conference room? Would she think it was odd, or should we add more things like that to make the environment more Perry-friendly?”

Common sense though it may be, customer- or client-centricity is about putting the customer or client first. That means making decisions with the customer or client at the forefront of your mind, and doing what they would want you to do, not what you want to do.

If you like the idea, how you go about it is entirely up to you, and you can make myriad changes based on personal preference. The most important pieces are that you and your team/group agree on who your avatar is and feel a connection to it, and that you’ve committed to integrating the avatar as much as possible.

Remember, the Primary Goal is Getting to Truly Know Your Ideal Client

This concept won’t be for everyone, and that’s OK. For example, you may have more than one type of client you are attempting to attract, and this may not (and potentially should not) change your focus. It does, however, force you to choose a very specific ideal construct, based not exclusively on asset size or life stage, but on who you actually want to work with.

I do believe that simplification can often provide us with insights we may not have been able to see through all the noise we are forced to sift through every day. If you choose to go down a path like this, you can measure many different outcomes, but if, at the end of the experiment, you and your team feel closer to your current and prospective clients, and have a better understanding of your ideal customer, you have set yourself up to be of great value to a host of future Perrys.

Dan_Martin_Headshot

Dan Martin is the Director of Marketing for the Financial Planning Association, the principal professional membership organization for CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNERTM professionals, educators, financial services professionals and students who seek advancement in a growing, dynamic profession. You can follow Dan on Twitter at @DanW_Martin and on LinkedIn at www.linkedin.com/in/danmartinmarketing.

Disclaimer: The Financial Planning Association is independent of the Certified Financial Planner Board of Standards, Inc. (“CFP Board”), a 501(c)(3) organization that grants the CFP® certification to CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER™ professionals in the United States. CFP Board owns the trademarks CFP® and CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER™.”


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5 Things to Know About Financial Empathy for Client Relationships with Michael G. Thomas, Jr.

Michael ThomasToo often, financial professionals find themselves in a position where they’re judging how their clients want to spend. The truth is that not every client is alike, and not every client has the same money mindset. It may take several meetings to dig down to the core of why they feel the way they do about money—and the stories that are driving their decisions. When planners and financial counselors are able to take a step back and listen, they’re better able to understand the culture and background of the client they’re working with.

Michael G. Thomas Jr., an Accredited Financial Counselor (AFC®) and Ph.D. candidate in financial planning at the University of Georgia, recently joined me on my podcast 2050 TrailBlazers to discuss how financial empathy can improve financial services.  

Thomas is passionate about understanding the story behind money decisions, and how financial counselors and planners can better balance their response to people’s financial goals and decisions.

1.) You’re a lecturer at the University of Georgia and a Ph.D. candidate. You work with students in a way that is called active learning. Tell us about that. How is that different and how are they learning about working with clients in an empathetic way? 

There may be instances where, as a financial counselor and doing financial coaching, we make recommendations, but we’re not always mindful of the barriers. And then we aren’t helping individuals think through the barriers and how to overcome those as they’re working towards their financial goals. So, I’m very barriers focused because it’s easier to create a linear path between do this and get here and it doesn’t always work out that way.

So in my active learning class it never does work out that way. We have learning scenarios in class. For instance, we tell people all the time, you know, just set up a Vanguard account or just set up a Charles Schwab account. And I was like, you know what? I could tell you that yes, that is an optimal strategy to have a diversified portfolio. But one of the things that I’m leaving out is that I know that as soon as you go to that website, you’re going to be absolutely lost. You’re not going to understand the language. And even if you find the different portfolios in which you can invest in, you’re going to be like, what’s a VTFX?

So I want students to see it, to struggle with it. I want you to go through this process. And then I want us to come back and have a conversation about it. Was it as easy as I made it seem? And the vast majority of my students will say, no, it wasn’t. 

2.) You mentioned when we focus on the numbers we miss out on the story that’s driving it. In your TEDxUGA talk, you share the example of a woman who was getting her taxes done by a volunteer, tax prep person and mentioned that she was going to buy a big flat screen TV with her refund. What was the story driving that decision and what can planners learn from that? 

She lived in an urban neighborhood where the crime rates were fairly high, and her children were getting older. Generally, as kids get older they want to leave the nest and do more. For her [the television] was a way to help protect her children. By having the flat screen television, she thought rather than her kids wanting to go out and over to other people’s houses, they could just come over to her house—watch movies and play games. She was trying to protect her children and even her children’s friends from the environment in which they were living. We never place these things in this type of context, but she was purchasing insurance. That [television] was an insurance policy to protect her children. 

When you frame it in that way, any person, I don’t care what background you come from, can say, “Oh, I completely get that.”

3.) What were some personal experiences that sparked your interest in the topic of financial empathy and what can planners learn from them? 

I struggled significantly in school growing up, to the point where my parents were constantly called in by the principal or my teacher. And I would be standing there and the teacher would look dead at me and say, “If he doesn’t get this information, he’s not moving on.” It had gotten so bad to where I would go to class and just put my head down and the teacher would not care.  

I’m the type of person where it takes me a little time to process things. I’ve always been that way. And it’s something that I accept now. It’s not a deficiency, it’s just a part of who I am. 

Now, I always think about myself when I’m working with clients. What if someone got a chance to really know that maybe the way that I’m teaching something doesn’t work with this particular child’s learning style? Let me think of a more creative way to educate this person. To have that type of mindset means that you believe that the person can grow. And what happens a lot of times—especially as professionals—we know so much to where we don’t really hear our clients and we’re just trying to work toward what our objective is.

I always think of the best learning experiences and those who really got me over the hump—the type of people who were always searching for more and to find what could help me get there as opposed to just being incredibly rigid and thinking that there’s only one way to get there. And I’ve benefited from that. I’m here now pursuing a Ph.D. But I also treat my clients with that type of empathy. And even sometimes I’ll feel as if maybe I’m not the right person for a client, but I never feel as if that client can’t grow. 

If you’re a financial planner, you should find what I call the need behind the need because there’s always a reason why someone is doing something. Why is it important that we find out the story behind client behavior? 

If clients don’t do what we’re encouraging them to do, it’s not that they don’t want to grow, they don’t want to do better, to have financial well-being, to retire—but that’s the narrative that we play. In doing that, it takes the responsibility off of us and it puts it on the client. But the client came to see us so that we could help them navigate this process. And in creating and implementing a plan that’s taken these things into consideration and when a client sees it, they’ll say, you know what? I feel heard. 

4.) Empathy does not equal complacency. Listening to clients’ stories doesn’t mean that we’re accepting excuses. Not every client has the same upbringing when it comes to money. Why does that matter? 

What we’re talking about is financial socialization. Financial socialization happens in so many ways. The systems in which you exist impact socialization. I have two boys and we talk about money all the time. We try to have fun with it. Obviously, this is what I do and we have these conversations, but I don’t need to. And until I have established and demonstrated trust with them, how could they ever trust a 401(k) growing into this substantial amount of money into the future? 

If you grew up in a household where promises are consistently broken, where someone says, “I’m going to do this,” and they never do it, or “I’m going to give you this,” and you never get it, or “We’re going to go there,” and we never go. Those become deeply seated and ingrained in such a way where it becomes difficult to trust the financial process. That’s something that takes a lot of time to work through with clients, to get them to stick with something long enough to experience the benefits. But if we don’t establish trust or there’s no trust in a household, I completely understand why somebody won’t be banked or why someone doesn’t trust investing in a market. 

In discovery meetings, really discover not just what a person thinks, but the context around their thinking. 

Rianka Dorsainvil

Rianka R. Dorsainvil, CFP® professional is the founder and president of Your Greatest Contribution (YGC), a virtual, fee-only comprehensive financial planning firm dedicated to serving entrepreneurs, first-generation wealth builders and thriving professionals in their late 20s, 30s and 40s. She also hosts 2050 TrailBlazers, a podcast aimed to address the lack of diversity in the financial planning profession by engaging industry experts and leaders in conversation.


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9 Things Advisers Can Do to Connect with Younger Clients

There’s a lot of information out here about the characteristics of millennials and Gen Z (millennials were born between 1980 and 1994, and Gen Z from the mid-1990s to the early 2000s). But, there’s not much out there on how these characteristics impact financial advisers and what advisers should do to make sure they’re well positioned for these future clients.

So, here are some characteristics of younger clients along with some (relatively easy) ideas to help financial advisers to be more relatable to younger generations.

They’ve never used a desktop computer. Imagine them walking into your office and thinking, “What are those big boxes under everyone’s desk?”

Easy fix: Have laptops and iPads. Don’t have desktop computers in your office; at least not in client meeting rooms.

They take notes on their smart phone. But, they know that older people, particularly people in positions of authority, think they’re texting.

Easy fix: During a meeting, say “…and hey… if you want to take notes on your phone, please go ahead.”

They’ve never watched cable. They didn’t “cut the cord”—they never had a cord to begin with.

Easy fix: If you’re looking to find common ground over a TV series, pick something you know is on Netflix; or just stick to “Game of Thrones”—everyone watches that.

Being an influencer or a gamer is a current or future job opportunity. And, it can be quite lucrative. There are even a few advisers already specializing in this niche. To that point, Merrill Lynch had a booth at this year’s Twitchcon.

Semi-easy fix: Know the top social platforms, gaming platforms, and games – at least by name. Here’s a link to the top streamed games on Twitch in 2019.

They have a “fight the power” mentality. I mean, look at the political environment they’re growing up in.

Easy fix: When talking about financial decisions, always have an alternative. In fact, use your preferred approach as the alternative. For example, “People your age usually go with a 60/40 portfolio, but if you really want to push the envelope, you could go with a 70/30.”

They respond to edgy campaigns.

Easy fix: Slow down on the uber-professionalism. Not so much that you’ll be perceived as fake, but maybe try something edgy like having an Instagram account. Or…have some funny memes on the wall (if you don’t know what a meme is, well, you might be too far gone).

They prefer videos.

Easy fix and not-so-easy fix: Offer to meet over FaceTime. Then, use interactive video reports in lieu of quarterly paper reports. (I suspect we’ll see a bunch more vendors popping up who specialize here very soon.)

They’re global and more diverse than ever.

Easy fix: Make sure your office looks the same. And if it doesn’t yet, at least avoid the company pictures on the website where the whole team is together on a golf course with sunblock and polos. You know what I’m talking about.

They love giving their opinion! They grew up in a world where Instagram accounts become viral influencers by having nothing other than polls. This means, younger generations are following accounts for the sole purpose of giving their opinion.

Easy fix: Ask their opinion. About everything. Often. There are affordable—or free—survey tools that you can use, like Google surveys. And, they can be sent via text.

It also wouldn’t hurt to learn some of the lingo, or else your younger clients may be sus.

Stay cool.

Dani Fava

In her role as the director of innovation at TD Ameritrade Institutional, Dani Fava oversees the development of advanced investment management and technology tools designed to help independent registered investment advisers compete and thrive in a world of accelerating change. Having managed the launch of TD Ameritrade’s award-winning iRebal on Veo portfolio rebalancing technology, Fava rolled out the award-winning Model Market Center, TD Ameritrade Institutional’s innovative approach to bringing outsourced investment management capabilities to RIAs. Fava is also responsible for implementing voice-first capabilities at TD Ameritrade, which will employ conversational AI that can communicate with advisers. Fava joined TD Ameritrade in 2012 where she puts more than 15 years of wealth management knowledge to work. She was recently named one of the top 16 Women in Wealthtech, and one of the top influencers in Fintech and AI. She loves to talk about big data, finserv start-ups, artificial intelligence, CrossFit and basketball. Follow Dani on Twitter @DaniFava_TDA, for the latest in wealth tech.