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Crafting an Annual Client Service Calendar to Illustrate a Financial Planner’s Value to Prospective Clients

Published: April 26, 2016 by Michael Kitces, Pinnacle Advisory Group

In a relationship-based service business like financial planning, a lot of work goes on behind the scenes to provide value to clients. On the one hand, this is the whole point of hiring a financial advisor – to delegate at least some of that work to a professional – yet at the same time, when much of the service work becomes invisible “shadow work”, clients may not fully appreciate how much is really done on their behalf.

For existing clients, bringing the shadow work out of the shadows can be as simple as tracking and documenting all the service work done throughout the year, and providing a year-end summary that clearly illustrates just how much the firm has done for them. Yet for prospective new clients, this doesn’t work – it’s not possible to show clients what’s been done when nothing actually has been done yet!

A potential solution to this dilemma is for advisory firms to create what practice management consultant Angie Herbers calls an “annual client service calendar” – a physical document that illustrates all the different financial planning and investment work being done on their behalf, as well as the reports that will be delivered, and the various events the firm makes available to its clients. While the exact details of an annual service calendar will vary by the advisory firm and the services it provides – and may be highly unique for firms with a focused niche clientele – ultimately the goal is simply to turn the “intangible” service work of financial planning into something tangible the client can feel and touch and see, to really understand the value they’ll be getting for the advisor’s cost!

The Shadow Work of Financial Planning

One of the great business challenges of delivering financial planning to clients is all of what financial planner Gary Klaben calls the “shadow work” – that huge volume of back office work your clients don’t see and may not even be aware of, even though it may produce significant value to them in the end. The problem is that while a lot of the shadow work really does benefit the clients, the time it takes has a significant impact on what firms must charge for their services… and if clients don’t realise that shadow work is happening, they may not appreciate the value they are receiving for the price they are paying.

Similarly, the fact that clients only see a small subset of the work done on their behalf can cause clients to misperceive the balance of services that are being provided. For instance, if the bulk of financial planning work and analysis leads to “just” a single major plan update each year, but portfolio performance reports are sent quarterly, the firm’s portfolio services may seem more top-of-mind and “tangible” to the client, even if the reality is that it’s a minor part of the firm’s actual service offering and value proposition.

For existing clients, some firms attempt to combat this challenge by actually providing clients a list of all the service work done on their behalf each year – if the firm’s activities are thoroughly documented in its CRM, this can be as “easy” as printing a total report of all actions/tasks done on behalf of the client. Other firms may use tools like mind mapping to document everything related to a client’s full financial picture – and what the firm is doing on their behalf – again seeking to turn the shadow work from an “invisible” intangible into something tangible.

For a prospective new client, however, it’s not feasible to show them a summary of all work that has been done, since nothing has been done yet. Some firms will separately charge an upfront financial planning fee, specifically to “show” the clients its cost (and implied value), but risks turning clients off from financial planning altogether if they become fixated on the cost but still don’t understand all the work that will actually be done on their behalf to justify the fee. So how do you illustrate for a potential client how much shadow work will be done for clients on an ongoing basis, and what can be expected from the firm over time, to justify the value of your financial planning services?

Crafting an Annual Client Service Calendar for Prospective Clients

In a recent blog post for ThinkAdvisor, practice management consultant Angie Herbers made the case for creating an annual “client service calendar” to show all of the work that is done for (existing and prospective new) clients throughout the year. While the goal is not to make a list of absolutely every possible task that may be done, the purpose is to illustrate at least the key work and deliverables being prepared for the client throughout the year.

For instance, the annual client service calendar might include investment-related items (from a portfolio review and rebalancing analysis and investment committee meetings), financial planning tasks (like updated retirement projections, insurance and estate reviews, end-of-year tax planning), reports and educational materials that may be delivered (quarterly performance reports, quarterly newsletters, annual reviews, and capital gains tax reporting), and all client events (annual client appreciation event, and financial planning educational events). Produced in the form of a full-year calendar, the final version might look like the Sample Annual Client Service Calendar below.

Notably, the depth of the annual client service calendar also becomes a way for an advisory firm to illustrate the breadth of its solutions. For instance, a firm that provides comprehensive financial planning services bundled into their AUM fee can use the service calendar to illustrate that the firm really does provide more than “just” its investment management services. For the prospective client that asks “what will you do for me, to justify the fees that you charge” the answer will simply be to show them the annual client service calendar (printed, laminated, and a permanent fixture of the firm’s marketing materials) so the potential client can really see how much (shadow) work will be done on their behalf!

Adapting an Annual Client Service Calendar for Your Financial Planning Clientele

Obviously, the annual client service calendar would be adapted to the actual service offering and deliverables of the advisory firm, and the above example won’t necessarily be precisely relevant for all firms. Different firms may have a different series of tasks on the list, may tilt more or less towards the investment or financial planning services, and may have a subset of tasks specifically relevant to their target (e.g., niche) clientele.

For instance, the second Sample Annual Client Service Calendar shown below might be used for a firm that specialises in working with younger Gen X and Gen Y clientele, where the services are less investment/portfolio-centric, and more focused on ongoing financial planning issues that are relevant for those clients (e.g., annual salary benchmarking, employee benefits reviews, etc.). This kind of client service calendar may be especially helpful for firms that work with younger clients on a monthly retainer basis, where it’s helpful to show clients “what they’ll get for their money each month” throughout the year.

For some firms, the easiest way to create an annual client service calendar might be to start with what’s already being done regularly for existing clients, and simply formalise and document the services being provided. In doing so, the firm can also begin to produce reports of the annual service work that existing clients receive (if not being done already!), but the real goal is to create a document that can visually illustrate all of the different kinds of (financial planning, investment, and other) work that will be done for a potential new client over time, turning the intangible service of financial planning into something the client can actually see and understand!

Michael Kitces is the Director of Research for Pinnacle Advisory Group, and publisher of the financial planning industry blog Nerds Eye View. You can follow him on Twitter at @MichaelKitces, or connect with him on Google+.