Friday, 11 December 2009

All aboard the big dipper...

Is it really that time of year again? It can't be, I'm nowhere near ready! Business is busy and these last few weeks have seen more new firms signing up to TCF Centre taking us over the 100 registered firms mark. Brilliant stuff! I can't believe we've come so far, it seems like only 18 months ago since I was hopping up and down with excitement having secured our very first pilot site...oh hang on it was only 18 months ago and I still hop up and down when we win new clients now! Doesn't time fly when you are spending every hour of every day building a new business, forgetting what weekends used to be like, with elated highs over the successes and tears of frustration over the failures, no matter how small! This I am sure must sound familiar to any business owner out there...they say life is a roller coaster and in the case of business life I think it's reminiscent of a ride on Nemesis, or maybe Oblivion in some cases!

All in all we've had more roundabouts than swings, and I look toward 2010 with a sense of optimism and excitement. Despite 2009 being a really tough year for many firms out there, I think 2010 brings new opportunities as we move closer to a profession that is more qualified, respected and understood. There's much work to be done to educate consumers on the value of independent financial advice and to make financial advice accessible to a wider range of people but lots of initiatives in this respect are already making in roads. And for technology providers like us the future brings huge opportunities....

Technology is progressing faster than a runaway ghost train and technologies like MS Silverlight will take business application useability to a new level. I truly believe that interfaces can be intuitive and user friendly. The days of cumbersome pop up dialogs, tabs within tabs within tabs, and clunky navigation are numbered...and no, it isn't smoke and mirrors.

We are also seeing a shift in the way clients are serviced. A shift from managing the client, to collaborating with the client, letting the client drive how you interact with them. This is exactly where innovations in technology solutions can help and also why it's so important to understand what your clients really think about what you do, how you communicate and the services you deliver.

And so as the festive season gathers momentum I'll be spending the last couple of weeks of 2009 working with more progressive financial advisory firms to make client feedback technology a core part of their service, marketing and communications approach and looking at new technology that is coming in the new year to change the way we communicate with and service our clients..... so all aboard and scream if you want to go faster!

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Monday, 20 July 2009

If life hands you lemons, make lemonade

As a provider of an online client feedback solution I get asked a lot about the impact proactively asking for client feedback can have on PI Insurance. There’s a common misconception that asking for feedback is effectively ‘inviting complaints’. In truth the FSA does not necessarily consider negative feedback as a formal complaint but it is their definition of a complaint, and it’s literal interpretation, that seems to be causing some confusion amongst the IFA community and PI Insurers.

The FSA handbook defines a complaint as “any oral or written expression of dissatisfaction, whether justified or not, from, or on behalf of, a person about the provision of, or failure to provide, a financial service, which alleges that the complainant has suffered (or may suffer) financial loss, material distress or material inconvenience.”
It’s a fairly far reaching definition which, taken literally, may suggest that negative client feedback from solicited surveys and questionnaires could constitute a complaint. In fact the FSA have provided this wide definition for a specific reason. Having referred the issue to the FSA’s Policy department, they confirmed that “The Handbook definition of a "complaint" aims to ensure that firms are unable to justify a failure to deal with complaints on the grounds that the complainant did not present his grievance in a prescribed format (say, filling out a form), or did not explicitly say he was making a complaint; hence the definition is drafted quite widely. That is, if a customer contacts a firm to express his dissatisfaction, the firm should investigate the matter regardless of how it was communicated (email, letter, telephone etc) and regardless of whether the customer specifically refers to his concerns as a "complaint". However, this does not necessarily mean that any negative feedback should be regarded as, and dealt with, as a complaint."

It seems that the FSA are simply trying to prevent firms from wriggling out of their obligations to deal with a complaint by suggesting that the complaint did not reach them through a formal procedure, hence their rather broad definition. This ensures that firms must deal with complaints in whatever format they arrive in. As far as client questionnaires are concerned, what the FSA are in fact saying is that negative feedback should be taken as seriously as if it were a complaint and acted upon or investigated accordingly. What they are not saying is that every negative response to a client feedback questionnaire should be formally dealt with under a firm’s complaints procedure. It comes down to common sense as “Customer satisfaction questionnaires tend to ask the individual about his or her experience with the firm in generic terms, often with a focus on customer services. We need to consider whether the customer would reasonably expect an individualised response, or any response at all, to his or her feedback. In most cases, they probably would not - certainly not where the feedback is anonymous.”

Proactively asking for client feedback can bring huge rewards to a firm. Of course you should not simply ignore negative feedback, after all it helps you to continually improve what you do and everyone knows that if you can turn around a client who has expressed dissatisfaction with your service by dealing with their comments quickly and fairly then you will gain one of your most loyal clients. Any feedback provided by your clients should be monitored, understood and most importantly acted upon where necessary; whether it’s from a formal questionnaire process or indeed more informal ad hoc comments that are received.

It’s good business practice to find out what your clients think about what you do. Implementing a client feedback process where feedback is requests after each interaction with a client can help mitigate risks, ensuring that firms can quickly act upon any negative feedback before it escalates to a complaint and this is something that PI Insurers should look favourably upon.

According to the FSA, “
Only in unusual circumstances would feedback on customer satisfaction questionnaires constitute a potential complaint - say, if the questionnaire specifically asks if the client would like the firm to look into a particular point of dissatisfaction and provide a response, or provides any other indication that it is a vehicle for airing specific grievances on which the firm is expected to act.”

So don’t be afraid to ask for feedback, it makes good business sense. Always notify your PI Insurer but challenge them if they suggest that you could be inviting complaints. This is not the case and in fact from a PI perspective client feedback can help mitigate risk, especially if you can be alerted to negative feedback as it is received so that you can deal with it immediately. This means that for a client feedback process to really work you need to ensure that you can manage it and monitor feedback effectively, and most importantly you can take action where it is needed. This way you can deal with any negative comments or concerns as they arise; you can be responsive to your clients; you can make use of positive feedback for testimonials and referrals; you can confirm your client proposition.

Client feedback is a fantastic business development tool, manage it properly and you will satisfy the requirements of your business, the requirements of your PI Insurer and the requirements of the regulator.

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Monday, 29 June 2009

Twitter as a client feedback tool

When you think about it, Twitter is another form of web-based client feedback tool. If you provide a great service...or indeed a not so great one, people will tweet about it. And why? Because people like to give feedback and twitter makes it so easy.

The growth of the internet has made it easy for us to share information and social networking sites like Twitter make it even easier, a tweet from one of your clients about you is instant feedback in just 140 characters. And the big benefit of Twitter is that it gives you the right to reply, not just to the person who provided the feedback but to all your followers too. You demonstrate that you are responsive; you listen to client views; you care enough to monitor and respond to feedback.

Twitter is also a great tool to promote your business by posting links to your client testimonials on your website. Just try a search on twitter for 'client feedback' and you'll see how business owners are posting their positive feedback. It's a great way to drive traffic to your website and promote your services at the same time.

So to make the most of social networking and include it in your marketing and contact strategy. To quote Oscar Wilde "“The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about” ....and if you are talked about make sure you know about it.

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Friday, 5 June 2009

Confirming your client proposition and generating opportunities

In today’s climate, clients demand the best service more than ever before. When times are tough, clients are more choosy about where they spend their money and for businesses to gain a competitive advantage, clients must be satisfied, loyal and most importantly engaged with your business.

Clients who are engaged with your business are enthusiastic about what you do, they recommend you to others, they provide you with testimonials, they become part of your marketing collateral and ultimately they increase your profits.

A strong service proposition increases a clients engagement in your firm. As client engagement increases, this builds trust, increases loyalty and client retention, leads to more referrals, increased revenue and profitability. Your most loyal and engaged customers become brand enthusiasts. Some commentators call this ‘Customer Advocacy’, taking the view that clients are less likely these days to simply accept whatever services you provide, indeed according to a white paper published by The OMC group about Customer Advocacy in Financial Services, today’s customer is now “value-extracting” meaning that clients will look for the value in a proposition and how it meets their personal requirements. This is the very reason why firms need to develop a strategy to align their service, marketing and branding efforts with the needs of their clients.

To develop client engagement or customer advocacy with your business you need to understand what drives it for your clients. Is it that you provide a well delivered, excellent service? Is it the frequency of contact you have with your clients? Is it that you care enough to ask for client opinions? Is it that you take an open and responsive approach? Is it that the client has confidence and trust in the service and advice you offer? Is it the perception of the quality of your communications with your clients?

Finding out what inspires your client’s loyalty and engagement with your firm is the first step to creating a successful service proposition. The only way to really understand what your clients want is to ask them for their views. Doing this enables you to benchmark your service proposition and set a solid foundation on which to build your client proposition and marketing strategy.

So don’t just assume you know what your clients opinions and perceptions are, ask them. Reach out to your clients and inspire them to talk about you. You may or may not be surprised by their responses, but you will certainly benefit from them.

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Friday, 15 May 2009

Have you switched to fees yet?

Axa Winterthur have published an interesting survey this week on how IFA's are adapting their service models to help them cope with the current economic downturn. Despite the apparent desire and push to move to a fee based model for many IFA firms over recent years, the survey reveals that 6 out of 10 IFA's are currently running a commission based business but they expect to increase the fee-based portion over the next 12 months.

So yet again we see a drive towards and a desire for fee-based business models but it seems that progress is slow. So why the delay? Experience tells me that many firms want to get there but practically they just don't know how. Help and guidance is needed if firms are to get their businesses ready for a post RDR world. So how do you get there?

The important focus must be on being able to demonstrate the value of your proposition to your clients. There is a huge misconception by consumers that advice is free and if this is to change then IFA's need to really show their clients what they are paying for. This means that firms need to take steps to firstly understand the demographics of their client base, conducting an unbiased segmentation of their clients, and secondly to ask their clients what they think about the existing services they offer. Only then can a firm understand how to change their business model and proposition to justify a shift to fee-based advice.

In my opinion there will still be a place for transactional businesses post RDR, but there is much uncertainty and speculation over the business and distribution model for such firms. Those businesses who decide to move to a fee based, truly independent proposition have huge opportunities in front of them, but only if they can get their service proposition right for each segment of their client base.

A strong service proposition, together with effective marketing based on an understanding of the needs and financial behaviour of a particular client segment means that firms can truly maximise those opportunities and build a strong business fit to weather any economic storm.

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Monday, 11 May 2009

From Cyberspace to CRM: Technology Delivers Results

Effective client management and service has always been a key driver for business success but in today’s climate it really is absolutely vital. Customers expect far more than just a competitive price, when times are tough they demand excellent service and it is this that will set you apart from your competitors. Technology eases the way, providing slick solutions to help you deliver customer service more quickly and effectively. The continuing expansion of the internet, social networking and email communication makes getting your message to your clients even easier. So which technologies should you consider to maximise the opportunities within your client bank?

A website gives your business presence
If a client is looking for a particular service today they will more than likely ‘Google’ it. The World Wide Web is the largest shop window in the world and the internet savvy consumer has millions of company profiles and brochures at their fingertips so make sure your website stands out. An interesting website is a great way to clearly state what you do and why customers should choose you.

Feedback technology ensures you can really make client opinions work for you
The only way to really understand what your customers want is to ask them for their views. Doing this enables you to benchmark your service proposition and set a solid foundation on which to build your client proposition and marketing strategy. Good client Feedback technology makes the process of gathering feedback simple so that you can focus on the results; and it’s a much more cost effective way to understand what your clients think than manual, paper-based methods. A timely email received by your client with a simple click through to your personalised, branded client questionnaire ensures rapid, relevant feedback. Feedback that you can measure, analyse and act upon.

Social Networking drives referrals
Social networking sites like Twitter provide a free, easy way to get your message across. If you have a really great meeting with a client, ask them to tweet about it. Soon their friends and family will hear about you, along with their work colleagues, and their followers too. This is viral marketing at its most powerful, passing on your message and building awareness of your brand.

Email communication delivers your message efficiency
Email is fast, it’s cheap and it’s an effective way to communicate with clients. If you profile your customers you can send targeted promotional messages to different groups quickly and easily. If you don’t hold many email addresses as yet, start gathering your client’s email addresses as part of your factfind or client review process. It may take a few months but before too long you’ll have an email marketing list that you can use to communicate with clients quickly and easily, perhaps to update them on events you are running or to send out a regular client newsletter.

A CRM or Back Office solution keeps you on top of your client relationships
A solid back office system keeps your client records in one place, manages leads, sales and business activity, and gives you an audit trail of all communication. There are lots of solutions out there to suit all types of organisation so shop around; and when doing so make sure you focus on your business requirements not the functions offered by a particular solution. A good back office solution will integrate with other tools or provide the ability to export your client data so you can use it elsewhere. So make sure your data is accessible so that you can also exploit the power of other essential business tools such as Microsoft Office, Google Docs, Business Intelligence or Customer Insight solutions.
So if you are not making best use of the internet and technology to enhance your service proposition and build an effective marketing and communication strategy, ask yourself a few questions….
Do potential customers know who you are?
Do you know who your customers are?
Do you know what your customers really want?
How well are you servicing your customers right now?

Technology is there to help you build and maintain strong relationships, generate repeat business and grow your business. Thanks to technology business can now be conducted more efficiently, online; it connects us with our clients and allows us to communicate in a more immediate way than ever before. So take a small step into cyberspace and watch your business take a giant leap into a better way to do business.

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