Advisors Use Client Advisory Boards To Get Feedback On Their Firm

Like many professional service providers, advisors rarely get honest input on their performance. They may not know how their clients perceive them, how they can improve and whether they’re delivering superior service.


Faulty assumptions can lead them astray. They think they’re running a tight ship, but communication mishaps or administrative slip-ups may lead them to question if they’re doing everything they can to create a positive client experience.

Some advisors implement a relatively simple solution: They form a client advisory board (CAB). Its members offer ongoing feedback on everything from client review meetings to marketing campaigns to new service offerings.

Assembling a CAB is a low-cost, straightforward process. Effective planning boils down to three key issues: whom to invite to join the board, what you expect from them and how to extract the most valuable insights from the group.

“Start by choosing the profile of the kind of client you want to walk in the door,” said Stephen Wershing, president of the Client Driven Practice, a consulting and client feedback firm in Rochester, N.Y. Then recruit about 12 board members who embody your target clientele.

Some advisors try to fill their board with a broad cross-section of clients who represent a range of different perspectives and profiles. But that approach can backfire.

“If you do that, your feedback can be muddled and confused,” said Wershing, author of “Stop Asking For Referrals.” “This way, the feedback will be more specific in helping you attract more of the kind of client you most want.”

Smart Questions, Revealing Answers

When soliciting board members, explain the goal — to provide honest input to help you improve your business — and communicate in person or by phone. Avoid email invitations, which are easier to decline.

Ask for a one-time commitment: Host a dinner where you pepper them with questions and gather their insights and perspective.

“At the end of that first meeting, suggest setting up a second meeting,” Wershing said. “Once they’ve done it and they see what it’s like, they’re more likely to be totally on board” and agree to participate in more feedback sessions in the future.

Pose open-ended questions that elicit revealing responses. Examples include, “What were your first impressions of our firm?” and “As you reflect on our service, what should we do more of and what should we do less of?”

Consider enlisting a neutral third party to facilitate the discussion. Participants may be more apt to speak freely to a dispassionate outsider who has no stake in the outcome.

“Advisors may ask leading questions that subconsciously steer the conversation in the direction they want to go,” Wershing warned. Using phrases such as “Don’t you think…?” or “Wouldn’t you say that…?” can limit the quality of feedback you gather.

If you’re planning to launch initiatives, give a succinct overview and let the group guide you. Don’t try to sell the CAB on why you’ve come up with a great idea; instead, summarize your strategic objective and welcome no-holds-barred input.

“Don’t spend time on why you’re so great and your ideas are so great,” Wershing said. “Don’t use the client advisory board to make a presentation” to burnish your ego.

Listen To Input, But Don’t Rush To Respond

To encourage more substantive feedback, respond to the board’s input with enthusiasm and gratitude. Even if you hear something that you’re already thinking of doing, don’t rush to say that.

“It’s better to say, ‘That’s a great idea,'” Wershing said. “And when you roll it out, give the client advisory board the credit.”

Treat criticism with open arms. The board will see your receptivity and lack of defensiveness as a sign to provide even more constructive input.

“You want to have them uncover uncomfortable things and learn from them,” Wershing said. “You don’t want to be looking for them to validate what you’re already doing.”

Whether you hire a facilitator or do it yourself, pause and reflect on what you hear before you respond. Impulsive reactions can lead you to say something that you regret later.

“It’s best to just let it wash over you,” Wershing said. In the moment, say something neutral such as, “Let us digest that” or “Thank you for that interesting comment.”

Follow up with a list of steps you’re taking as a result of the board’s feedback. Give regular status updates on what you’re doing and how you’re implementing what you learned from the participants.

Some advisors fear that the CAB might propose an idea that’s unworkable, unaffordable or otherwise too hard to implement. If that occurs, level with the group.

“If that happens, I say fine,” Wershing said. “You’re not committed to do whatever they suggest. You’re just committed to listen.”


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