Technological advances and evolving regulations are changing the financial advisory landscape, making it more important than ever for advisors to distinguish themselves.

While investors increasingly seek low-cost investments—88% of advisors recommended exchange-traded funds (ETFs) to their clients in 2017—they still value high-quality financial advice. According to a 2017 BlackRock survey, one of the top drivers of client satisfaction was how well advisor advice aligned with individual investor risk tolerance.

Key Takeaways

  • Clients seem to care as much about their relationships and perceptions of their financial advisor as much as financial performance.
  • Above all, trust appears to be the most crucial aspect of the advisor-client relationship.
  • Earning trust and then maintaining it is a key skill that financial advisors need to acquire in addition to market savvy and good advice.

The Importance of Client Relationship

A new report by Vanguard highlights the importance of relationship management in attracting and retaining clients in a shifting advisory space.

“The pressure is on for advisors to show their value outside of traditional portfolio management,” says Billy Lanter, fiduciary investment advisor at Unified Trust Company in Lexington, Kentucky. “The superior experience clients are willing to pay for is a personal relationship with an advisor who not only understands their goals but is managing their portfolio in accordance with those goals.”

At the core of this approach is a simple factor: trust.

As every advisor knows, referrals are critical for growing a client base. More than half of the clients surveyed by Vanguard found their current advisor through a referral. The same report found that 94% of investors were likely to make a referral when they "highly trusted" their advisor. Clients with high levels of trust were also more than twice as likely to offer a referral, compared to those who said they only had a moderate amount of trust in their advisors.

Why Trust Matters

Client trust is multifaceted. Vanguard found that clients were more likely to trust their advisors when they believed that their functional, emotional and ethical needs were being met. Specifically, clients were more likely to trust an advisor who did what they said they were going to, acted in the client’s best interests and made decisions that allowed the client to sleep well at night.

Lanter says clients develop opinions early in their advisory relationship: “A phone call or email that goes unreturned can do significant damage.”

According to Lanter, advisors illustrate how they act in their clients’ best interest in a tangible way. “Ethical trust is like a sixth sense—clients usually know when something doesn’t feel right.” He advocates embracing a fiduciary relationship and not shying away from difficult conversations when necessary.

Emotional trust is the most impactful of the three but also the most difficult to capture, says Lanter. He says building a rapport and being proactive during times of market volatility are tremendously impactful. “Client fears are eased when they know you understand their goals, you’re managing their portfolio according to those goals and you can show them that everything is on track.”

Nick Holeman, certified financial planner and financial planning expert at Betterment, says transparency is critical for supporting these pillars of trust. “Lack of clarity and lack of transparency prevents clients from ever fully trusting that an advisor has their best interest in mind,” he says. Online financial advisors are often able to convey information clearly through digital interfaces, while advisors need to be more careful to be clear when working with clients in person.

Cultivating Client Trust

In order for advisors to nurture and deepen their client relationships, it's essential that they understand the foundation on which trust is built. According to Vanguard, advisors should focus on educating clients, managing their own time efficiently, framing their advice with clients’ goals in mind and communicating effectively.

“Good communication requires that advisors do more listening than talking,” says Mike Costa, vice president, Fiduciary Trust Company in Boston, Massachusetts. “Advisors who are effective listeners can better identify their clients’ goals and concerns and develop planning and investment solutions tailored to each client’s unique situation.”

That means dialing down the white noise and focusing on the client, not necessarily what the market is doing at any given time, says Lou Cannataro, partner, Cannataro Park Avenue Financial in New York City. He says clients only begin to care what you know when they realize that you’re tuned in to what they need and want. “This is when true communication begins.”

Time management is just as critical. Vanguard found that reducing the amount of time spent on research, due diligence and administrative tasks could provide more value-added client opportunities for advisors.

“Advisors should focus on the tasks that are most important to achieving clients’ goals, delivering client value and strengthening the client relationship,” Costa says. Translating an understanding of the client’s personal situation, goals and objectives into an agreed-upon comprehensive plan means “advisors can better align with clients’ interests and focus their time and activities on the key tasks to achieve those plans.”

Holeman advocates tracking how you spend your time, then using that data to uncover inefficiencies in your routine. If your time is best spent on relationship management or prospecting versus back-end office tasks, for example, he suggests outsourcing as much of that work as possible.

Creating a service calendar can also be helpful, says Lanter. This means discussing how often clients would like to meet and what topics they’d like to cover each time you connect. “An intentional approach to client meetings can keep both you and the client focused on the things that are most important to them.”

The Bottom Line

Fostering trust requires an initial investment of time. But advisors can reap substantial returns on that investment if it leads to higher client retention and referral rates. Consistency is vital, Cannataro says. “You have to continually earn the honor and privilege to work with your client by never faltering in delivering what you’ve promised and have been providing.”