Practice Management

Client onboarding presents a critical first impression

The trick is finding the balance of smooth automation combined with the human touch

Mar 25, 2019 @ 4:30 pm

By Jeff Benjamin

In the financial planning industry there are lots of ways to recruit new clients, but what comes next can make or break a satisfying and lasting relationship.

Whether the client is leaving another adviser or working with an adviser for the first time, the so-called onboarding process is the ultimate first impression.

"You've spent all that time reeling the prospect in and if you're not able to deliver on the things you've talked through, it can be a big problem of building trust and loyalty," said Vanessa Oligino, director of business performance solutions at TD Ameritrade Institutional.

Depending on the complexity of the client's financial situation, financial advisers and industry professionals estimate it can take anywhere from two weeks to three months to get all the accounts in line, documents signed, and financial plans operating.

That process, which can be tedious, deliberate and even frustrating at times, should be treated by advisers as the opportunity to make a lasting first impression.

(More:Say goodbye to technologies that don't spark joy)

Ms. Oligino recommended starting by "mapping out the process."

"When you're bringing a new client on board you might have a brochure or onboarding checklist, and you should walk them through that, so they know what to expect," she said. "Let them know who they will be working with and what is expected of them."

Even though much of the onboarding process will be automated through client relationship management systems, there are still signatures to gather and documents to collect, which is where bottlenecks can begin.

Ken Van Leeuwen, managing director at Van Leeuwen and Co., said the hand-holding for new clients is almost immediate because he places so much emphasis on setting a positive tone.

"Right after they say yes, we schedule the next meeting," he said. "It's really important that we touch the client as much as possible in those early days. We want to show them what our service offering is."

Mr. Van Leeuwen, who estimates that it takes his firm about three weeks to complete an onboarding process, said new clients receive an email within the first few days requesting items like tax returns, insurance policies, estate plans, and investment account statements.

"Then, we go visit them and help them collect all the documentation," he said. "People can be very busy, and [collecting documents] is an area where they can procrastinate."

(More:6 mistakes advisers make when onboarding new clients)

Mr. Van Leeuwen said the immediate and intimate follow-up communications are not just to ensure the documentation is gathered.

"The minute they agree to become a client, they need to be made to feel welcome," he said. "We say please and thank you, we show up on time, and when we say we're going to do something we do it."

Anand Sekhar, vice president of practice management and consulting at Fidelity Clearing & Custody Solutions, also said that new clients should be provided with an overview of what to expect throughout the onboarding process.

While advisers might see onboarding as a part of their jobs, most clients only go through it once or twice and every part of the process can seem new and confusing.

"Firms should develop a timeline and walk clients through the process in a meeting or over the phone," Mr. Sekhar said.

Other tips he suggested included creating a checklist for everything new clients need to provide, using digital signatures when possible, and starting every onboarding process by finding out if clients prefer to be contacted via phone, email, text, or some combination of these channels.

"Advisers should record that information in their CRM system to ensure that they're reaching out as often and in the manner discussed," Mr. Sekhar said.

Daryl Deke, chief executive of New Market Wealth Management, described the onboarding process as a "differentiator."

"It's extremely important to manage client expectations through this process," he said. "Surprises are not good when it comes to onboarding."

(More: Communicating with clients in tough times)

One thing that helps prevent surprises is making the onboarding process as repeatable and automated as possible through a CRM system, according to John Mackowiak, chief business development officer at Advyzon.

"Most CRM systems offer workflow capability that can minimize the number of moving parts," he said.

The key, however, is to automate as much as possible without becoming impersonal, according to Ms. Oligino of TD Ameritrade Institutional.

She recommends trying to customize the onboarding process for each client, even if that means just adding a personal note along with the welcome package.

"It's tricky because you need to be able to onboard people in a consistent and efficient way, but you always want to be personal, which means you need to get to know them," she said. "For example, around the holidays venders give me chocolate all the time, and I don't eat chocolate. That tells me they don't know me very well."

She suggests surveying clients during or immediately following the onboarding process to gauge how things are going.

"Many firms don't ask for feedback early on in the process," Ms. Oligino said. "You want them to get to know you and your firm and you want to get to know them better. It's a big mistake to put the relationship on autopilot once the accounts are funded."

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