As part of your 2015 marketing calendar, consider including a client-advisory board.

Before we get started, let me clarify the difference between an advisory board and a focus group. A focus group is a one-time gathering of information from a segment of an advisor's client base, prospect base or strategic alliances. An advisory board is a focus group that continues over time.

An advisory board is a low-cost, high-impact activity that has significant benefits.

Here are answers to common questions regarding client advisory boards.

Who should I invite?

Depending on the purpose of your board, you may want to invite clients with expertise in finance, marketing, human resources, customer service or information technology.

Consider including a surgeon. They are in a position to be sued and are aware of asset-protection issues.

The board does not have to include only clients. You might also invite primary centers-of-influence (COIs) as well as prospects and wholesalers.

Here are some factors to consider when determining who to invite:

  • An ideal size of 6-12 people
  • Revenue generation of the client
  • Assets under management of the client
  • Centers of influence associated with clients
  • Ease of relationship
  • A combination of planning and non-planning clients
  • A combination of older and newer clients
  • A combination of men and women (singles and couples)
  • A combination of retired, self-employed and employed clients
  • Someone who has strong opinions who will speak up
  • Clients’ work and travel schedules if there will be ongoing meetings

If you plan to meet multiple times per year, consider rotating clients in and out so there is not a significant burden on the original participants. Half of the group could participate for one year, and replacements could rotate in for a two-year engagement. The second half of the original group could remain for two years and be replaced by a new group with a two-year commitment.

How should I invite them?

A personal call is the best way to invite your participants. A team member who is well known among clients could make the calls as well. However, these invitations are of great importance to your business and should really be done by you. You can answer questions that come up during the call much better than your team member.

What questions should I ask at the meeting?

One of the benefits of conducting a client advisory meeting is the opportunity to hear answers to questions you have about your business.

Depending on your desired outcome, some of the following questions may be appropriate:

  • What am I doing well?
  • How can I improve my service to you?
  • Are there other value added services I should add to my business model?
  • Have I done a good job conveying my full array of services to you? Please review the menu of services (provided to participants) so you can better answer this question.
  • Are you unaware of any services noted on the menu?
  • What do I need to do to earn a 10 (perfect score) on my client survey?
  • How do I set myself apart? How can I set myself apart to become more referable?
  • What is the biggest surprise you have experienced while working with me?
  • If you were me, what would you do to get in front of new clients like yourself? Can you help me with that?
  • What type of events would you be most interested in attending? Educational, fun or a combination?
  • Would you be willing to bring friends, family members, or colleagues to these events? Or to what type of events would you feel comfortable bringing friends, family members, or colleagues?
  • Please refer to the list of events (list provided to participants) and circle the items in which you are most interested. This will help me plan my upcoming marketing and event calendar. Please put your name at the top of the page so I can include you on the invite list and contact you with questions.
  • Were you aware that I have a resource list available (your favorite local business owner referral list) in case you or anyone you know needs a service provider? Have any of you taken advantage of this resource list? Who should I add to the list?
  • Are you aware that I qualified as a “Five-Star Wealth Advisor” this year (or earned a designation)? Let me tell you what that means and how it benefits you.
  • Are you interested in learning how I develop and manage my clients’ portfolios?
  • How do you prefer to conduct meetings: face-to-face, telephone, webinar, or a combination?
  • How many meetings per year do you prefer? Do I need to attend each meeting or are you comfortable conducting business with my colleague?
  • What type of relationship would you like me to have with your CPA and estate attorney?

How should I thank my participants?

A thank you is not necessary but is appreciated. For the price of dinner, the participants have provided you with a wealth of knowledge. For their time and advice, consider making a donation to each board member’s favorite charity or offering them a nice bottle of wine to take home.

How often should I schedule a meeting?

The beauty of these types of meetings is that you can schedule them in a way that is appropriate for your business. One advisor I know meets with his board three times per year on Saturday mornings for brunch. It is a challenge to get busy and successful people to agree on a date and time, but the effort is worth it to him.

Another advisor conducts a focus group once every two years. He gets so much great information from his meetings that it takes time for him to implement all of the good ideas he has gathered.

What does a typical meeting schedule look like?

Here is a possible time line for an evening event:

  • 5:30 to 6:00: Appetizers, guests arrive
  • 6:00 to 6:05: Take orders, including dessert selection, deliver salads
  • 6:05 to 6:20: Advisor speaks
  • 6:20 to 6:30: Wholesaler speaks (if sponsoring the event)
  • 6:30 to 6:40: Main course arrives
  • 6:40 to 8:10: Main meeting, dessert delivered
  • 8:10 to 8:30: Advisor closes meeting, thanks staff members, sponsor and participants

What are the benefits of conducting an advisory board meeting or focus group?

In addition to the wealth of information you will gather, this type of event deepens your relationship with participants.

The participants will be more fully aware of your menu of services and may take advantage of more of the services that you provide.

Referrals are often provided by attendees shortly after the meeting. This occurs because participants are newly aware of a service you provide that would benefit them or someone they know.

What if one client learns about a service being provided to another client, but not to them?

Some version of this question comes up during every conversation I have with advisors when discussing client-advisory boards. My answer is the same every time: There has never been an instance when a client learned about a service being offered to someone else and became upset. Your clients understand that not every client is treated exactly the same. As long as you treat everyone fairly, no one will be dissatisfied.

What if a client learns about the advisory board and wants to participate?

Let the client know that you need to keep the number of participants to a manageable level. You will be alternating participants to give current participants a break and to bring in participants with new ideas. If they express interest in participating, keep them on the list for future meetings.

Depending on the subject matter, this particular client may not have been able to provide value to the current conversation. Consider them for future meetings as appropriate.

What if a participant doesn't want to leave the group when their term is up?

If a participant continues to add value to you and your business, there is no reason they can't remain engaged. This is a personal decision you have to make. If you feel it is time for them to depart, consider them as a fill-in if a current participant needs to remove themselves from the group down the road.

What else should I consider?

You should definitely have a facilitator. A manager, wholesaler or COI can be the facilitator. One of my advisors facilitated his first client-advisory meeting himself. After having me facilitate his second meeting, he said he would never facilitate again. Having someone else take the lead allowed him to fully engage in what his clients were telling him, without having to think about his next question. He was also able to notice if someone seemed like they wanted to say something but were holding back. By noticing this, he could ask that person to comment.

A facilitator can ask questions that might seem harsh coming from the advisor himself. Here's one example:

One of the topics of discussion in a recent meeting was how best to get data and paperwork returned from clients. As you know, this can be a challenge and can take a significant amount of time. In advance of the meeting, the advisor informed me that a certain client in the group was particularly troublesome in this area. When we got to this agenda item, I was able to discuss the cost of continued follow-up and ask how best to encourage clients to act on the initial request.

If the advisor were the one having this discussion, the "guilty" client may have been offended by the topic, thinking the advisor was directing the conversation at her. Coming from me, the topic was more objective and did not seem like a personal accusation.

Consider having a wholesaler-advisory board instead of, or in addition to, a client-advisory board.

Consider having a COI board to find out information that will make you more referable to them.

Although there are many decisions to be made when considering conducting a client-advisory board meeting, from personal experience, the benefits far outweigh the cost.