Monday, October 10. 2011
The inspiration for today's blog post is a combination of the recent articles and tributes I've been reading since the passing of Steve Jobs, and an ongoing discussion I've been having with several financial planners about how I fear that we are making financial planning an often unpleasant client experience.
For instance, look at the data gathering process for clients. We often claim that a virtue of the financial planning process is that your financial life will be more organized and in better order. Yet the reality is that we only achieve this result by giving clients extensive "homework" to get/gather all of their financial information in the first place; a challenge that is so intimidating that some clients probably back out of the process entirely, rather than admit that they - as a normal human being - might not have done a good job keeping track of everything, knowing where all their statements are, and being able to put forth their paperwork on request. Rather than making the data gathering process a positive, collaborative experience, it turns out instead to be a negative challenge that leads to client procrastination. Forcing clients to gather all their data up front may make it easier for us, but it's certainly not simple and intuitive for clients.
Or looks at the process for completing financial planning projections for clients. After going through an arduous data gathering process, we tell clients that we require several weeks to analyze their information, and schedule an appointment to present the results. If during the results meeting, the client wishes to look at a different version of the projection, we take the plan back, analyze for another several days/weeks, and schedule yet another meeting to re-present. The message to the client: these revisions and changes to the plan are complex and difficult (and you're inconveniencing me asking for them)... just accept what I'm giving you and let's move forward. So instead of giving clients the positive interactive experience of taking their plan for a test drive and making the process simple and intuitive for them, we give them a negative experience with a slow, back-and-forth iterative process.
Perhaps the issue is best embodied in the YouTube clip below - one of many "Mac vs PC" commercials that ran over the past decade.
As the punchline of the commercial notes, sometimes it's not even about competing on good old-fashioned features and benefits. Sometimes people just want a product "that's simple and intuitive, that works the way they do" that gives them a good experience. Keep the amazing complexity under the hood; people want to trust and know it's there, but they don't need to see the sausage being made. They just want a simple and intuitive experience and a process that works the way they do.
What could we change about financial planning, to make it more simple and intuitive - for the client! - and work the way they do, rather than fitting clients into working the way WE do? What do you think?
We all know that financial planning is very individual in nature. People have different goals, income levels, risk tolerances, etc. and require different methodologies to achieve their objectives. Couple that with differing opinions on just what methodologies are best used even within the planning community itself, and very little of the planning process can be systematic.
In the form of the iPhone analogy, I believe that if we had a widely accepted baseline of financial planning (the iPhone), we could develop the different "apps" to better customize the experience for the user.
I really enjoyed your post and look forward to other comments that are posted.
You can check it out
Jeff Waddington made a good point, "We all know that financial planning is very individual in nature." I think part of the answer is to begin serving not everyone, but a specific individual. In my case, it's young doctors. In fact, that niche within a niche is pretty much the only way that something as simple as the One-Page Plan becomes possible.
There are SOOO many people who need help. Why on earth must every advisor serve every kind of client?
Before you can develop an "app" you need a well-defined audience. It's not time to re-engineer planning, it's time to re-think the population each of us serves. It makes everything simpler, and maybe even elegant.
W. Ben Utley CFP®
Physician Family Financial Advisors Inc.
It looks like the text ran together.
Here's Ben's link: http://www.benutley.com/2011/10/in-memory-of-steve-jobs.html
But we do have to get some client interaction. Client "homework" is a big problem for us. We could be waiting months to get an expenditure questionnaire back. In some cases, I have just made it up for them as they won't complete it.
We use software to present our findings, so luckily, if a client wants to change something, we can do it there and then (particularly handy for those who didn't do their homework). It may change the outcomes that you have already prepared for them, but that's no biggie. There are plenty of financial planning software packages out there, so there is no reason that the second problem can't be got around very easily.
What are others doing to make their client experience better? Can we borrow from other industries to bring best practices to financial planning? How can we make a client experience so enjoyable that they want to meet with us? I'm curious as to what others are doing and thinking about.
It is an interesting topic, but I would tend to disagree with the application of the idea to financial planning. Steve Jobs and Apple, NeXt and Pixar were all about creating products. There is a huge tendency in this business to see our services as a product.
Most planners produce a long printout from a software program and staple it, or put it in a binder, in an effort to give the client a product. "Here's your plan, now you give me your $1,500."
As a business owner, it makes a lot of sense to mass produce products and create business efficiencies. It all has a bottom line impact.
I am not believing that this approach serves our clients the best. What if an advisor at all their documents and just said one simple statement like "No, I don't think you should ...." Maybe this would help the client more than a hundred pages of charts and graphs. But would they feel a single recommendation is worth $1,500?
I try not to think of my job as one to create a packaged product. I like the image of myself as a wise man standing next to the throne, bending over to whisper into the ear of the king.
I would disagree strongly that even Apple, NeXt and Pixar were in the product business. They weren't. They were in the experience business. We buy Apple products, we watch Pixar movies, because of the experience we have with them/using them.
From that perspective, I see little difference in planning. Our service IS a product; that's a business reality (but no, I agree our product is NOT "the giant stack of paper we hand the client"). Either way, though, our VALUE is the results we deliver and the experience of it. Just witness the number of products over the years that have been "technically" superior but experientially inferior that haven't survived as a result.
We can mock the cookie-cutter style of the products that Apple "mass produced", but the reality is that they reached more people in a decade than most companies dream of in a lifetime. The marketplace spoke pretty clearly; PCs can create a more customized solution, and some people want that, but there are a huge number of people (the majority?) that just want something simple and intuitive that works the way they want it to.
It's titled "Did the Beatles Get It Right?"
The bottom line was that Steve put LOVE into everything he did and that love came through in the products and services he created. Food for thought.