Client surveys – a key KPI or not worth the effort?
We talk to a firm that has been conducting client surveys since 1991 and list the questions asked of its clients
Client surveys can be viewed as time consuming and expensive to conduct, with limited value as they tell a firm nothing it doesn’t know already through it’s annual client reviews. So are they worth conducting?
Lowes Financial Management has been carrying out a client survey among its clients every other year since 1991. It currently has 3,932 advised clients and around £600m under management. Whether the results are good or bad, they are posted on the website so that clients can see them and the results are published with commentary in an issue of the Lowes quarterly client magazine.
Managing director Ian Lowes says the survey is now a fundamental Key Performance Indicator (KPI) for the business. “The survey forms part of the continuous development of our culture, which puts clients’ interests first and aims not just to try to meet client expectations but, where possible, to exceed them. To do that it is important that we obtain clients views on where they think we can improve.”
In the early days of the survey, Lowes admits, there were clear areas where “improvements needed to be made”. However, over the past decade the firm has seen its scores rise upwards, to the point where, in the 2015 survey to which there was a 36% response rate, close to 98% of clients said they would recommend the firm to friends, family or colleagues.
As an affirmation of how the business is being managed, the level and quality of service, and in terms of staff motivation, therefore, the survey has proven its worth.
“We have had some excellent headline figures of late, culminating in our 2015 survey. That is tremendous feedback for us and we’re immensely proud of it,” Lowes says.
So what goes into running a client survey?
Commitment and resource
There is a significant amount of work that goes into a properly run survey, one that has meaning for the firm, Lowes says. Lowes Financial Management conducts its surveys every other year, as it sees this as the optimal time gap, in terms of an ask on its clients, the resource needed, and useful benchmarking.
To conduct a survey efficiently, a firm will need few enough clients that the advisers can do it themselves, or they’ll need in-house marketing personnel or to employ an external firm to do the survey and the number crunching for them. Lowes Financial Management uses its own full-time marketing department.
Core is creating the right questionnaire, which asks questions clients can easily understand and answer and that will give the adviser firm useful feedback. Once that is right it can be used year after year, to measure any fluctuations in service to clients and ensure they are addressed.
Inevitably, conducting a client survey will make work for an adviser firm, Lowes points out. “There will be areas that need attention, or clients that need a detailed follow up and response.
“And you have to be prepared for the fact that you may not like the answers,” Lowes adds. “Also one survey is not going to be enough. You’ll have to commit to carrying out surveys long term if you are to derive proper benefit from the process.” It’s easy to see how firms might conduct a survey, not like the results or feel the effort was too draining on resources, and decide not to do it again, he says. In which case, a firm could be better off not doing a survey at all, as it is unlikely to get any meaningful results from a one-off exercise.
Dealing with the issues arising
In the past two surveys carried out by Lowes, the firm added a section where clients were asked, as a direct question, where they felt the firm could improve its service to them. Says Lowes: “We had 245 suggested areas of improvement, ranging from the tongue in cheek to the serious, and probably 3,000 words in comment. That’s invaluable.”
Once all the results are in, then it’s management’s job to pick out the areas of concern and suggestions and to deal with them as appropriate, Lowes adds. “Obviously we can’t take on board every suggestion, such as one person who suggested we have a bar in reception, but we do try to adopt those that are reasonable and where we can see a benefit for our clients in general.
“As managing director, first and foremost I’m looking at the few people who have marked us down and what they have said. Sometimes something may have gone wrong for them, but also you have to take into account that some people are just hard to please, and you are giving them the opportunity to criticise you.”
In addition, while traditionally Lowes surveys have always been anonymous, recently respondents have been given the option to include their names. “It’s surprising how many people are willing to go on the record with their comments. This means, if we want to, we can go back to them and ask further questions about the service they received,” Lowes says.
When assessing the responses year on year, you have to keep in mind that client perceptions are invariably influenced by the state of the investment markets, Lowes says. “If you look back at the historical figures, it’s clear that people lost faith when the dotcom bubble burst and markets crashed. But it’s our job to help people pick themselves up and, with good independent financial advice, see them through those hard times. It’s a testament to how well we do it that in 2008 / 2009 overall client satisfaction did not waver to any great extent. People realised we were doing our best for them in a difficult time.”
The longer a survey is conducted, and assuming there is no noticeable deterioration in service to clients, the results should start getting better, since, by default, people who are dissatisfied with the service or who maybe did not fit with the adviser’s business model, will likely no longer be clients.
However, new clients will replace them, and they will need to be satisfied customers if the survey results are to be maintained, Lowes points out.
With the kind of satisfaction results the firm has been seeing, does Lowes see any value in continuing to do the survey?
“There are always ways in which we can improve the business. One of the interesting aspects of doing the survey is that every time, no matter how good the overall results are, you can become focused on the negative results, and where there may be areas you could further improve on,” he says. “My job is to be the fault picker. Sometimes you need to step back and see the bigger picture and just how well the company has done.”
Post or online?
Lowes says the firm gets the best results from a survey sent in the post with a prepaid return envelope included. “Our experience is that paper responses significantly outnumber the electronic ones. Online simply hasn’t worked for us to date. You can speculate as to why. It may be because of the make-up of our client bank, which mainly consists of people in retirement. It might also be that a paper survey sits on your desk or table until you physically answer it or throw it away, while an online survey is more easily forgotten about and disposed of at the click of a button. Also, with an online survey you have no idea how big it is until you start doing it, whereas with a survey on a sheet of A4 paper, you can see immediately how much effort is involved.”
Lowes client survey questions
Lowes asks its clients a series of questions – which fills a double-sided A4 sheet.
The majority of the questions ask clients to mark the firm under one of four categories: very good, good, average or poor. These questions are as follows:
1. Do you believe the level and quality of contact you receive from us as a company to be…
2. Do you believe the level and quality of contact you receive from your consultant to be…
3. How would you describe us to a friend?
4. How would you rate us on client service?
5. How would you rate us on approachability?
6. How would you rate us on professionalism?
7. How would you rate our depth of knowledge?
8. How would you rate our staff friendliness?
9. How would you rate our staff on helpfulness?
10. How would you rate us on investment advice?
11. How would you rate us for ethics?
12, Does our statement ‘Where personal finances are cared for personally’ reflect the service we provide?
13. Would you recommend us to friends, family or colleagues?