very successful advisor tailors recommendations and portfolios to the needs and situation of each client. But while the solutions presented are tailored, the broader communication usually is not. Despite giving higher-value clients more contact and attention, most advisors use a cookie-cutter “one size fits all” approach in communicating with clients and prospects.

My research over the past year identified four broad categories of key qualities that investors look for from their advisors. And the recent experience of one advisor shows that tailoring your approach to focus on the hot buttons for each individual client and prospect makes your overall communication much more efficient and effective.

Why your efforts go unnoticed

How to win multi-million dollar clients

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Dan Richards
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About a year ago, after delivering a talk at an industry conference, I was asked by an advisor named Susan if I had 10 minutes to talk over coffee. First, she gave me some quick background, describing how she had entered the industry about 20 years ago after working in a sales role in the tech industry. She outlined her success in building her client base and in surrounding herself with a strong team.

Then she got to the issue that was troubling her:

At a recent planning session with my team, we talked about the erratic response from all the effort we expend on behalf of our clients. I think we do all the right things: We create a written financial plan, hold annual reviews with clients to update those plans and are in regular touch with them on the phone in between. We send everyone a quarterly newsletter. We do an annual thank-you dinner for all of our clients, invite our top clients to special outings over the course of the year and send our very best clients a holiday gift.

Some clients are very appreciative, but a growing number take all of this for granted and we don’t get any real acknowledgement from them. Some clients don’t even respond to calls and emails to set up meetings or invitations for our annual dinner or special events.

All of this activity puts a lot of strain on my team. I know for a fact that we do a lot more than many other advisors who are just as successful. My team and I feel frustrated by all the things that clients don’t seem to notice or appreciate. I have been questioning whether I should pull back on some of this activity.

What one quality sets your advisor apart?

After Susan described her issue, we talked about the fact that clients often come to take appreciation for granted and that large-scale events can be a turnoff for top clients. My article, A Small Gift with a Lasting Impact, described how, for appreciative activity to work most effectively, it needs to tap into emotional hot buttons and be personal and unexpected.

But there was a broader and more fundamental issue at work for Susan and her team: for all her hard work, she had failed to tailor her overall communications strategy to the key drivers of each client.

That tied into an initiative that I’ve been working on for the past couple of years to better understand what drives satisfaction with advisors.

For some time, I have written a regular column on financial issues for the main newspaper in my home market of Toronto. As a result, people I meet at the university where I teach or in business or social settings will sometimes ask me questions about markets or the advice they’re getting. Starting in January of 2013, I began asking these people to tell me more about the experience with their financial advisors and asked if they would recommend their advisor if asked by a friend.

I also asked this same question in some one-on-one interviews with affluent investors, commissioned by a large financial institution. It gave me permission to incorporate the answers to that question into my project.

The vast majority of people say that they would indeed recommend their advisor to a friend. Then I ask them how they would answer if their friend next asked, “What one quality makes your advisor special and would make you recommend him or her?”

Each time I have this conversation, I made notes of the answers and later added the responses to a file on my computer in which I recorded what people have told me. Over the past two years I have made over 200 entries based on the answers to that question. I have seen four patterns emerge in terms of what people say are the key things that set their advisors apart.

Here are the things investors have said would make them recommend their advisors:

  1. Communication

    The consistency and frequency with which investors hear from their advisors, how well their advisor listens and whether communication is clear and initiated by the advisor.

  1. Inspiring confidence and creating peace of mind

    The extent to which clients trust their advisor, are confident that they’ll hit their goals and experience no stress or anxiety as a result.

  1. Investment performance

    Clients’ confidence in their advisors’ expertise and investment process, including the ability to manage risk and the extent to which advisors are proactive in seeking out new opportunities

  1. Relationship and exceeding expectations

    A deep bond with their advisors and the extent to which clients feel that their advisors go above and beyond in educating them and their family and being a resource on a variety of important financial issues

More details on typical responses under each category can be found at the end of this article. In a few cases, there is ambiguity and responses overlap between categories. I would caution that I have made no attempt to analyze how many clients fall into each category – first of all, because the sample is small and second because the people I talk to are typically in their 50s and 60s and tend to be more analytical and better educated than average, so are not representative of the universe of investors.

Susan and I finished by talking about how to identify the key drivers for each existing and prospective client. Last month, I received a follow-up call from Susan, in which she described how our conversation had set her and her team on a different course with some striking results.