4 steps for creating extraordinary client experiences

Keep clients happy with four ways that turn good service into a meaningful experience.

Key Points

  • Client satisfaction with their advisors remains high but it doesn't tell the whole story about retaining clients. 

  • RIAs can learn from top brands to help deliver on client expectations. 

  • Advisor consultant Julie Littlechild says firms should focus on defining a niche, personalizing services, and co-creating with clients to improve client experiences. 

It's safe to assume most advisors share a common goal: attracting ideal clients. 

Doing so starts with delivering outstanding service—something many firms try to accomplish by segmenting clients into tiered service levels, helping them target each group's needs and assets under management. 

This approach seems to deliver results. But the way advisors interact with clients and the types of experiences RIA firms provide have changed since the COVID-19 pandemic. And while 90% of clients are still somewhat or very satisfied with their advisors, according to a 2020 survey by Julie Littlechild's Absolute Engagement consulting firm,  this high metric masks a major shift taking place in the industry.

Focus on differentiation

The pandemic helped accelerate trends that already existed, including the proliferation of communication channels allowing clients to interact with their advisors. Yet managing these new engagement tools is only one piece of the puzzle when it comes to building client loyalty. It's also imperative for advisors to differentiate themselves from their competitors. With so many firms offering the same type of experience, it has become harder for potential clients to distinguish one firm from another.

How can advisors stand out in a sea of sameness? Look to some of the world's most successful brands. Corporations like Starbucks, Zappos, and Ritz-Carlton are driving a transformation in client experience outside of the financial services industry. By understanding the way these companies are reaching and serving their ideal customers, advisors can create meaningful and tailored experiences that set their firms apart. Littlechild identifies three customer-engagement trends occurring across industries:

  1. Defining a niche: Creating more focused services based on client type or area of expertise.
  2. Personalization: Designing services based on individuals' unique needs and perspectives to provide a meaningful experience.
  3. Co-creation: Inviting customers to take an active role in designing products, services, and encounters.

To capitalize on these trends, Littlechild offers a four-step plan for making the shift from delivering great service to designing meaningful, client-centric experiences. And she shares the questions that can help your firm uncover ways to truly differentiate over time.

Step 1: Define an authentic niche

Defining a niche enables advisors to focus their efforts on a particular market or specialization. For whom are you designing the client experience? In other words, says Littlechild, a niche can be your target market—small businesses, for example—or the work that you do, such as helping people with legacy or retirement planning.

While she acknowledges that establishing a niche may not be right for every advisor, particularly those with a diverse client base, Littlechild emphasizes that it’s far easier to personalize and co-create your client interactions when you build your experiences around a narrow set of client needs and perspectives.

Finding an authentic niche

Whatever your niche, says Littlechild, it must be authentic. "A good niche is one that is compelling to you and the client."

One way of determining authenticity is to write a description of the clients you work with in a way that is attractive to both you and your target audience. For example, Littlechild explains, stating that you "work with clients nearing retirement who have a minimum of $500,000 in investable assets" is unlikely to be compelling to your audience.

However, if you state that you "feel strongly about working with individuals near retirement because you want to make an impact and know that retiring is not just about money but also about health, family relationships, and leaving a legacy," you’ve created a more passionate and authentic description that will resonate with your target market.

Having a disciplined, client-oriented focus allows you to better understand the people for whom you are designing your client experience.

Ask yourself:

  • What are your areas of expertise or what can you strengthen?
  • Which characteristics define your ideal client?
  • What niches are most compelling to you? How could you define these in a way that resonates with both your firm and your ideal client?

Niche vs. ideal client

A niche is not the same as an ideal client, and Littlechild stresses that it's important to understand the difference:

  • A niche is an external definition, such as dentist or pilot, that clients use to identify themselves. It identifies the potential population of people you could work with, given your focus.
  • Ideal clients are a subset within a niche and represent advisors' internal views of the type of clientele best suited to the firm, such as high-net-worth investors

    Step 2: Actively involve your clients

    According to Littlechild, the essence of the co-creation trend is working with clients to create experiences that fit into their lives. So, what does an extraordinary interaction look like through clients’ eyes? Who better to ask than clients themselves?

    Littlechild suggests interviewing five to 10 clients about their greatest customer experiences outside of their relationship with you. This will help you uncover common themes and understand what they value.

    Ask your client:

    • What was your greatest single service experience and why?
    • What organization or professional has had the most profound impact on you and why?
    • How did you find them? How did they connect with you?
    • Can you walk me though your entire customer experience?

    As recurring themes begin to emerge from their responses, you’ll be able to use them to design interactions that address issues and values important to your clients.

    Co-creating like Starbucks

    Starbucks allows customers to have a hand in creating their experiences by directly asking for their opinions on products, ordering, atmosphere, the in-store experience, and even the company’s charitable work. This has enabled the company to design an experience that fits into the lives of its customers. At each touchpoint, the company seeks to reflect what's important to its clientele.

    Ask yourself:

    • Thinking back on your own experiences as a customer, what examples of extraordinary interactions come to mind? What made them extraordinary?
    • What negative customer service experiences have you encountered? What made those experiences poor or impersonal?
    • What type of questions could you develop to better understand your clients' needs and viewpoints?
    • What are opportunities you can identify today for co-creation (e.g., the way clients prefer to communicate, frequency of communication and, of course, designing a financial plan)?

    Step 3: Map out the client journey

    The client journey represents the lifecycle of your clients' evolving needs over time as they interact with your firm.

    The journey often starts before your potential clients have connected with you, sometimes even before they are aware they need an advisor. During this time, potential clients gather information by doing research and talking to people. This stage, while important to understand, is clearly not within your control.

    After they become your clients, other touchpoints define their journeys, such as how they'll interact with you and others in the firm, and how you'll collaborate with them to achieve their financial and life goals. The experience of each of these touchpoints is critical to the relationship.

    A client journey map provides a single view of the stages that a client (or potential client) goes through: awareness, initial contact, onboarding, plan creation, reviews, and ongoing communications. Littlechild suggests creating and filling out a client journey map like the one below. This exercise gives you an opportunity to dig deeper into what clients might be thinking during each touchpoint. Talk to your teams and your clients to fill out the map. Then use what you've learned to design a highly personalized client experience across the relationship life cycle.

    Client Journey Map
    Courtesy of Julie Littlechild

    At each stage of the customer journey, ask:

    • What questions and information needs might the client have?
    • How can our firm actively support clients and resolve their problems?
    • What touchpoints are involved?

    Whereas standardization has allowed businesses to create efficiency through repeatable processes, personalization can elevate the client experience by tailoring services to individuals' needs as they evolve from prospect to client—and as those needs change over the course of the relationship.

    "When you talk about the client journey, you're trying to step back to see how your offer fits into this bigger journey that they’re on and how you can support them in new, different, and maybe more innovative ways," Littlechild explains.

    Building a consistent experience across touchpoints

    It's vital to create a consistent experience across your client touchpoints. Consider the following example: An advisory firm has an office receptionist who is the initial point of contact for new clients who call. She knows what questions to ask and immediately sends the information the clients need to prepare for their first visit with the advisor. These clients value the receptionist's responsiveness. To maintain a consistent experience for the firm's website visitors, prospective clients fill out a simple form to request information. Within 24 to 48 hours, they receive a follow-up call from Mary.

    Ask yourself:

    • Are there organizational changes that can help ensure a consistent client journey?
    • How does your firm show up online and in your community?
    • What shifts have you noticed in your clients' expectations that may be influenced by their other experiences? How might you use this knowledge to personalize your clients' experiences?
    • What touchpoints in the client journey are intensely emotional for clients, and how might your firm anticipate and respond to their needs at these points?

    Step 4: Innovate

    In today's increasingly crowded market, if a service is not personal, it may not be meaningful. Once you've mapped out the details of the client journey, you can involve the whole firm to brainstorm innovative ways to work with clients at each stage to support their changing needs.

    To leverage the personalization trend, Littlechild says that clients' needs should be reflected in every aspect of the firm's business, including process, team, expertise, communications, and partnerships. While personalization can pose a challenge for some advisors with a diverse client base, Littlechild notes the effectiveness of even simple changes, such as developing unique communications for specific groups of clients or making minor changes to business practices that occur during a certain stage of the client journey.

    Innovating like Apple

    Apple has found an inventive way to personalize its customer support. When customers visit Apple online, they can choose whether to engage with support via live chat, phone, or email. They can also book their own time slot for in-store repair or have an Apple representative book it for them. Littlechild notes that customers who receive phone support can even choose the type of music they listen to while on hold.

    Ask yourself:

    • How might you personalize communications with your various client niches in ways that are most valuable to those clients?
    • What partnerships can you create with other professionals to help address the needs of your clients?
    • What types of business processes might you need to add or change to support the client journey?

    Clients vs. prospects: Mapping two different journeys

    The tactical approaches you take will be different when working with prospective clients. For prospects, communications should aim to create awareness and generate interest, whereas efforts with clients should focus on how to nurture those relationships. Littlechild offers two hypothetical vignettes to highlight approaches that add value for clients:

    Journey #1: Creating a tailored experience for clients

    • Niche: Legacy planning
    • Challenge: How to strengthen relationships with clients by increasing interactions beyond standard review meetings
    • Action: To gain insight into clients' chief concerns about their families, the advisor spends more time talking with them between regularly scheduled review meetings. (Frequent check-ins became even more important during the pandemic when outside factors significantly impacted clients' lives.) These discussions reveal that a client is concerned about raising children who have a larger worldview and are focused on charitable giving.
    • Outcome: Armed with this knowledge, the advisor regularly sends the client articles on charitable giving and then offers an in-depth workshop. Clients are encouraged to invite friends and colleagues. A larger communications plan is built around the subject of charitable giving. The advisor also partners with other professionals who can provide support in related areas.

    Journey #2: Building a relationship with prospects

    • Niche: Small-business owners
    • Challenge: How to connect with prospects before meeting them in person
    • Action: The advisor conducts online research and learns that many small-business owners seek help with succession planning and cash management. The advisor offers a report, Top 10 Resources for Business Owners, to demonstrate her expertise on this topic. Prospects submit their email address to download the report, at which point a question pops up asking which of the following areas is the greatest challenge to the business owner at that moment: cash flow management, succession planning, or building long-term value.
    • Outcome: Responses from prospects enable the advisor to create customized communications that can help them build relationships with prospects.

    Rising above the competition

    With major influences affecting the financial services industry—such as the pandemic, expectations for virtual engagement, new regulations, technological advancements, and changing demographics—the model for customer interactions is shifting. Littlechild says that once advisors set their sights on the client's journey, rather than on what the firm delivers, the focus shifts from good service to a meaningful experience. 

    Having a differentiated experience, Littlechild says, will enable advisors to attract the right clients. Firms that can devote time and consideration to developing a niche, personalizing activities, and co-creating experiences with their clients will be better positioned to deliver a higher standard of service that will not only strengthen client loyalty but also promote continued growth.

    About Julie Littlechild

    Julie Littlechild is a recognized expert on driving deeper engagement and growth. A speaker, blogger, author, and researcher, she has worked with and studied successful financial advisors, their clients, and their teams for 20 years. She is the co-host of the Becoming Referable podcast and the founder and CEO of AbsoluteEngagement.com, which conducts ongoing research into the drivers of personal, client, and team engagement. Her company translates and shares these findings through presentations and thought-leadership programs.

    What you can do next


    Based on Julie Littlechild’s IMPACT® presentation, “How Client Engagement Is Being Disrupted,” November 2017. 

    Charles Schwab & Co. is not affiliated with Starbucks, Zappos, Ritz-Carlton, or Apple and does not endorse any of their products or services. The above references are for illustrative purposes only.