We spend time and interest in the early part of our estate-planning practices thinking about “marketing ideas” and business-development projects that would generate more leads and ultimately more revenue for the firm and its business. Little did we know that, after the first few clients, most of what we needed was and is already there, in the intake forms and files, in the people’s lives we touch.
How can that be?
Estate planning is not the practice of word processing, asset allocation models and life insurance; it is the practice of relationships. Sadly, many practitioners with dozens of years of experience, some very technically solid, do not understand this. They struggle for financial value to their ideas and techniques; they worry about estate tax repeal; they dislike legislative liberalization of administrative procedures; and they try to mine the vast middle class through ever more elaborate retail marketing and ever faster document assembly programs. Simple mathematical analyses of the economics of living trusts and "efficient frontier" modeling don’t work to bring in consistently good clients. It seems that good, long-term clients do not choos advisors out of a textbook.
Relationships have their own life and reality, and under a relationship-centric perspective, the parties to the relationship are the reactors at the ends of the reality. The value is all in the relationship itself, and the relationship extends beyond the clients and their families to the clients’ other advisors, the heirs and administrators who hold, manage and receive the wealth of the society. An experienced wealth advisor will recognize that relationships continue after the death of any party to the relationship. The client can choose to express that relationship as they wish: their legacy can be lasting and thoughtful (or reckless and irresponsible). So, too, can the estate planner control their legacy.
The harder advisors try to assert their client-centricity, the worse it seems to get for the client. If the advisor cannot be reached during business hours, then the client bears all the stress! We as a profession often pay lip service to putting the client first. Some practitioners actively seek to insulate themselves from any actual client contact. Clients are often trapped in a gauntlet of technology the moment they try to contact the adivisor, with voice and email response systems often impeding, not facilitating, human connections. (“Press ‘1’ for a firm directory by last name; press 1-0-1 for Aaron Aarkin; press 1-0-2 for Alexander Able . . .”).
Firms that deploy consciously low pricing models often encourage their employees’ (and their own) indifference to the client by inadvertently or subconsciously rewarding faster, not better, service. Customer experience consultant Jeanne Bliss puts it in her book, Chief Customer Officer, “The organizations we’ve built, the ways we’ve compensated and motivated people, and the accountability we’ve demanded have created a neat and ordered world for us to run our businesses. But for the most part, we’ve let down our customers.”
More new relationships are not necessarily the holy grail of the successful estate planner’s practice. I personally find it unrewarding to seek a high volume of clients with shallow attention paid to each client. Relationships are like so many wonderful experiences in life: they continue to improve with time and attention. Good clients will give you ‘points’ just for being around long enough to demonstrate that you did not go to law school to “get rich quick” and retire. In other words, they choose you because you think similarly. They like you and your firm – and you like them. They have a family and they understand you do, too. You are willing to spend a little time with them and they understand the magnitude of the "wealth preservation compact," and that in return the value of their legacy is something for which you demonstrate a high degree of respect.
Sometimes just taking care of your good clients is all that you need to do to create tremendous value for yourself and your practice. And, what is wonderful about the steps necessary to care for good clients (listening, being available and open, proper drafting (for lawyers), investment performance (for financial advisors), maintaining their records and files, completing their funding (for both), keeping them informed on changes in the law, the markets, changes to your firm, and generally being available to answer questions they may have about anything pertaining to preserving their wealth) is that those same steps accomplish your own business development.
Specifically, there are two marketing principles that dovetail well into ethical compliance of succession of the advisor's practice. Both marketing principles involve maintaining excellent processes for handling client information and updating: (1) “Top of Mind Awareness” (aka, “TOMA”); and (2) “Drip Marketing.” These genres of marketing are focused on keeping in touch with older and existing relationships, so that when the reader or recipient has a need for estate services (or seeks an update to their previously obtained services), you have provided quality material to them over a period of time, your contact information is handy, and you are at the ‘top’ of their mind when an estate question or problem comes up in their life or the life of a referral. Both forms of marketing are “agriculture”-type marketing: you have to plant seeds, water them over a period of years, and eventually be prepared to gather the harvest. They take time. As does good estate planning.
Rooms full of succession attorneys (attorneys who assist business owners in their succession plans) mostly do not have their own succession plans. Don’t be embarrassed if you don’t – you have lots of company, even among succession attorneys. In addition to writing about it (CEB, Business Succession Planning), I teach succession planning regularly - perhaps 6 times a year. The largest group thus far to raise hands was 20% (At the Southern California Institute’s annual program known as The Gathering, San Diego, February 2006). But you have to consider your sincerity and credibility at issue if you are beating the drum of the importance of succession and estate plans and you have neglected to consider your own. Clients get this: you have to be sincere.
Fortunately, years ago I was grilled into humiliation by an outside Board of Directors to develop my own practice succession plan. Consulting with regard to winding down other professionals’ practices and assisting them in developing procedures for the smooth succession of their clients has helped. I am a kid watching his friend ride his bicycle over the “Evil Knevil” ramp – 'I’m sure glad I didn’t go first (and I won’t be riding that fast).'
As the baby boomers age and retire, there will be a tremendous amount of wealth preservation, estate planning and administration to do. The business is there, regardless of the simplicity of probate procedures or the looming changes in the national transfer tax. People become incapacitated and die, and, by and large, do not plan adequately for either event. Congress cannot repeal death. Lathering a bunch of strangers into a frenzy because of their fear (rational or otherwise) of “getting their documents all wrong” is not good advising or counseling. Maybe it makes more money in the short run; there are lots of advisors who attest that ‘it works.’ But the best clients are the ones with whom you develop and nurture a relationship before they become your clients; they implicitly trust you in everything you recommend; and their interests – not yours – are truly first in your mind. No silver bullet is going to magically transform a lackluster or careless practice into a booming business. Mundane things like answering the phone, listening, drafting properly, correctly maintaining records and holding client data are critical to developing a lasting, growing practice of satisfied, continuing clients.
Along with all those clients and prospects, there will also be a number of estate planners among the generation of boomers who will be looking for successors to carry on their practice after they’re gone. Turning your good intentions into actions requires strategies.
1. Ask the client what they think. If you want to know what the client wants, you have to ask. How is it that nothing is more terrifying to many advisors than to ask, “Are you satisfied with what we are doing?”
Whatever the reason for this hesitation, get over it. I have a concept I call "Knock and Talk." Make an appointment - or just drop in, where appropriate - with your best referral sources and clients. Put a client questionnaire together, and deliver it personally. Do a formal survey with a company like survey monkey. Ask the kind of questions you’d like to be asked if you were the client.
2. Put your client in charge. Patricia Seybold, author of “Customers.com,” “Customer Revolution” and “Outside Innovation,” has taken relationship centricity to a new level by proposing that clients should run the show and actually drive innovation within your firm.
The ‘outside in’ approach is to flip the innovation process and (1) assumes clients have outcomes they want to achieve, (2) they have deep knowledge about their own circumstances and contexts, and (3) they are not happy with the way they have to do things (or the way they are treated) today. They will innovate — with or without your help.
As an example, ask your trusted clients and referral sources to co-design your own succession plan. They can weigh in on everything from the fears they want addressed to the services they need on a regular basis to the look and feel of your website (including navigation to information content). Many are happy to be asked, and the end product will be a product of your relationship with your clients, not your own ego.
3. Share client communications with your whole team. It’s not enough that advisors learn about the unique needs of the client. They need to diffuse the knowledge gained from each interaction throughout the enterprise. It can be as simple as sharing a client perspective or comment at a weekly staff meeting, or in a “To All Staff” e-mail.
Partners often have the most meaningful client conversations, and they shouldn’t hoard this gold in a vault. Incorporate client conversations into internal team meetings. Write about them (conceptually, of course, not uniquely, so that you are not revealing any privileged information) in your newsletters and blogs.
4. Record, measure and track. In surveys, ask clients to suggest your service goals and refine the survey to track your progress against the client's metrics. Allow them to evaluate you in areas that they define as important to them, and track your progress in improving these scores from year to year.
5. Have fun and work with passion.
All relationships are human and, by definition, they are never perfect. Like any living organism, relationships grow and change and morph. The key is to take the time to measure and assess your relationships as they evolve.
 This “blue-light special” phenomenon, for some demographic reason, appears to have much more traction in the Southern California suburbs than in the Bay Area.
 It was suggested in one of my early presentations that this idea is too “eastern” (as in Buddhist) for us to grasp, which is why we struggle with the idea. I then looked up a passage I had remembered from a homily some time ago – and it is in Matthew (18:20) that it is said, “For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” There is nothing particularly unique about this idea – what is unique is finding people who live their lives consistent with this truth.
 “Relationship-centric” is a term used most frequently when discussing a type of marketing focused on services that cannot be commoditized.
 The reality itself, not merely the value, is the relationship. See also, David Bohm’s book Wholeness and the Implicate Order and Gary Zukav’s mid-70’s classic, The Dancing Wu Li Masters for further exposition of these ideas.