My neighbor Brian describes his bi-monthly meetings with his financial advisor, Ken, as "an oasis of conversation in a world of bite-sized thoughts." Sometimes they discuss financial planning and other times they talk about current events. Over the last decade, Brian has embraced the digital information revolution, replacing store visits with Amazon.com sessions and finding many of his services online. His real estate broker, accountant and attorney communicate more over email these days than face to face. While digital technology is convenient, it lacks the human touch, especially when he has questions or customer service issues.
"Ken's a throwback, that's for sure," he told me. "And I consider him an indispensible part of my life." While Ken may be conducting analog business in a digital world, he's also finding a way to stand out from a sea of financial planning services.
In 1995, MIT Media Lab founder Nicholas Negroponte declared, "That which can be digitized will be digitized." Needless to say, he was right and here we are. But is it all for the better?
Several years ago, I partnered with the HeartMath Institute to survey thousands of people about their Internet use, quality of life and state of mind. The results were unsettling. We found that a high percentage of our respondents suffered from too much information and too little human interaction in the real world. The result was a condition we coined New Economy Depression Syndrome (NEDS). Complications include loss of sleep, anxiety and stress. Since then, Internet usage has skyrocketed due to mobile devices and pervasive WiFi availability.
Not only do consumers gravitate toward all things digital, but service providers are also seeking the efficiency of machine learning, bot-based service and automation to disrupt financial services. These "FinTech" innovations purport to be ushering in a golden era of convenience and consumer empowerment. But really, they increase the divide between people like Brian and Ken.
Financial services professionals have fallen prey to the allure of digital tools like email to extend their capabilities and save time. In 2012, Deeper Media polled financial advisors to measure their mix of communications with their clients (breaking it out into meetings, phone, email and text). Not surprisingly, email represented over half of all communications. Face-to-face meetings with clients were down, in some cases by half, due to increased workloads that advisors faced.
The problem with email is that it fails to communicate our intentions and convey any level of nuance. UC Berkeley professor Albert Mehrabian and his research team found that nothing creates clarity like one's ability to see facial expressions and hear tone of voice. In other words, the move to digital services likely creates an atmosphere of confusion and misunderstanding. While email works for simple transactions like sending reports and updates, it's no replacement for real-time or face-to-face conversations.
All of this presents an opportunity for financial advisors who w ant to break the digital chain and differentiate through high-touch services. Here are four ways to keep human-to-human contact front and center with your best clients:
Warm up the channel whenever possible
Think of each of your communication channels like a cup of coffee. Email is cold, but efficient. Phone calls provide a warmer real-time interaction. Meetings present a piping hot opportunity to make deep connections. Track your interactions with clients, isolating those that need to move from email to phone or phone to in-person.
Sell meetings and phone calls as high value interactions
One reason clients aren't receptive to phone calls or meetings is their lack of a strong value proposition. Remember, the consumer seeks efficiency as much as — or more than — you do, so you need to convince them to take the time to talk or meet with you in order to warm up the channel. Don't schedule vague "check-ins"; instead, offer learning sessions or personal coaching opportunities. When the call or meeting happens, make sure you bring an information gift to every interaction, and deliver a high "return on attention."
Listen more than you talk
A great way to build your personal brand of being a great conversational partner is to provide a sounding board to your clients. In The 8th Habit, Dr. Stephen Covey argues that one of our greatest needs in life is to be heard. We don't want to be alone in our feelings and opinions, so those who listen well become our closest friends and partners. In my experience, I've found that if I talk 50 percent less in client meetings, my sales performance rises sharply because I discover more opportunities and, at the same time, produce more trust.
Be available at the most personal level
The biggest problem with online services is that they are purely transactional. Email or chat conversations are solely focused on resolving the client's issue as fast as possible. This is where the human touch can really differentiate. Your clients are real people with real problems, and when they reveal them to you in casual conversation, be willing to detour the conversation to the personal. In some cases, all you can do is provide encouragement, but in others, you may be able to offer a solution that goes beyond your product set or financial advice. You are a human being as well. It's more than likely that your clients share a lot of the same kind of life experiences, and yours could easily influence theirs in a positive way. And in the process, your client comes to like you — and trust you — more than ever. That's high touch.
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