Defining Client Engagement Through Co-Creation

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We talked with Julie about:

  • How to build client engagement by getting into the client’s headspace
  • Why it’s important to have a niche that is authentic to you
  • How generational differences affect client experience

About Julie Littlechild:

Twice named among the 25 Most Influential People in Financial Planning, past member of the National Board of Financial Planners, and author, Julie Littlechild believes growing client engagement requires advisors to deliver not only what clients expect but what they need. She discusses how shifting conversations to truly understand each client’s headspace creates a personalized, high-impact service.


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Full Audio Transcript

Lauren Hong (00:00):

Thank you so much for joining us today. I was just reviewing your LinkedIn and all the things you've been involved with and it's so impressive. So you were on the National Board of Financial Planners for several years and then one of the 25 Most Influential People in Financial Planning. I think it was twice. Is that right? 

Julie (00:22):

Yeah, I think so. 

Lauren (00:24):

And the list keeps going, influential practice management awards and then an author and I'm thinking, oh my goodness, you've had such an incredible career that has not only been recognized but you’ve been able to add so much to this space and what's going on. And so I really appreciate your time and I'm excited to hear from you today. 

Julie (00:45):

It's all right. I think if you just stick around long enough, people have to acknowledge you for something. <laugh> That's been my strategy all along. 

Lauren (00:52):

<laugh> Well, it's working and I love to see great work acknowledged; it is so important. So I wanted to give a brief introduction just for folks who are listening. So it seems like the sweet spot here, a lot of it is around practice management and all kinds of research. And I'd love to hear more about that. We'll start there. I know you've looked a lot into client engagement. You've talked with tons of advisors and firms about kind of their secret sauce and what works really, really well for them. And what's kind of the umbrella? What are you seeing with firms over the years and growth and what works? 

Julie (01:34):

Yeah, so our focus is very much in that spot of client experience and client engagement. And you're right, we gather our insights, not just from talking to advisors of course, which we do every day, but from an industry investor study we do every year, and then our day-to-day work, which is gathering input on behalf of advisors from their clients. So every day we're given this glimpse into that particular piece of it. And you know, the whole concept of engagement has changed a little over the years. And we're really on a soapbox at the moment because I feel like we've been using this word, client engagement, for so long that it hasn't had much meaning for people frankly. Everybody has their own definition of what engagement is. And so they're right. 

Julie (02:34):

I guess if there's no agreement on a definition. So a lot of the work we've been doing lately, just to kind of give you a little context for that question, is to say, well, what is the definition of engagement? Can we actually have a clear definition? Is it defensible, as in does it actually lead to business outcomes that we're trying to achieve, in client outcomes? And then is it actionable? So when we've been looking at the research over the last year, that's really where we've started digging in and we've been able to really demonstrate that yes, there's a definition. The definition we use as an engaged client is the most satisfied, five outta five, and they've provided a referral. And then when we dug into that, we could see that they were more loyal, they provided all the referrals, they were more satisfied with investment performance as in like the flip side being they felt like they were getting more value from advice and clients were more confident about their financial futures when they were engaged. 

Julie (03:40):

So all of this began to get us saying, let's get really specific about what drives engagement so we can be more tactical about it. And we absolutely see some correlations in terms of what drives it. But a lot of it for us is sort of boiling it down to this idea that we can all deliver great service, understand expectations, meet or exceed them, you're good to go—but if you really wanna engage at that deeper level and achieve all of those benefits we talked about, then it's much more about leadership. It's about the conversations you're having with your clients, the kind of communications you're sharing, and the extent to which the entire experience is designed, intentionally designed, to help them based on what's important to them. And so this is what we're sort of seeing. It's kind of big picture questions but then we try to drive down to what does that actually mean, tactically mean? 

Lauren (04:44):

And what's important to them, specifically meaning the client, not necessarily the employee that's servicing the client. Can you maybe give some examples of the tactics? And you talked about leadership. Are there things you're seeing firms doing? Is it the kind of value sets in how they're communicating or are there specific technologies they're deploying or things that are helping with that client experience, however we're defining it? But really client experience as it does map to ROI. I’d love to hear a little bit of that side, of the tactical implementation. 

Julie (05:24):

Yeah, sure. So when we think about it tactically in that sense, there's definitely examples and you mentioned technology because I think technology is allowing us to do a lot of this more effectively now. So that's certainly a big help. But I would give examples like, if you wanna deliver good service, you understand your client wants to meet twice a year and you reach out twice a year and you set a meeting and you have a good review, and you look at their plan or portfolio and you follow up and you do all of the things they expect you to do; that's good service. It's what they expect. When we're seeing the shift to engagement, it's advisors saying, I'm gonna do all of that but what I'm going to do is try to co-create the agenda by getting incredibly good at teasing out what's on your mind, how you're feeling, your concerns, challenges, and aspirations. 

Julie (06:21):

And then we're gonna build the agenda around what you wanna talk about, not just what I wanna tell you. And so these are kind of subtle shifts. That's one example. And the theme of co-creation is sort of big in our world. Maybe a more granular example would be, we could have an advisor who has a great content strategy, right? Sending out great articles, writing blogs, doing all of that, in touch regularly. But maybe it's more generic content. Maybe it's content the advisor thinks the client should find of interest. And then the shift we're seeing is actually asking clients what they are concerned about, what their interests are, and then being able to personalize the content that is shared based on that. So it's like tweaking how we service in a way that's much more client-centric. 

Lauren (07:16):

Yeah. Less about sort of your own headspace and more about how do you get in the headspace of your client. 

Julie (07:22):


Lauren (07:24):

Basically serving up things of value for them. We see that all the time too. Especially content brainstorms, things that we may be passionate about but that doesn't mean the receiving party is. 

Julie (07:38):

Well, and I think we have to be careful even in how we ask the question, cuz I've seen people talk about that and then maybe they get a little better and say, well, you know, I'm gonna think about the last questions my clients asked, that would be good content. Which is true. I think, if these are the questions you're hearing but often the questions you're getting from clients are still quite investment-focused or planning-focused. They're very granular and tactical and that's great. It's never gonna hurt, right? But if you could almost look inside your client's head and understand what was stressing them out and what they were worried about and what they were talking to their spouse about that night or the night before, and provide content that got at that stuff, that's a whole different level. 

Lauren (08:24):

Yep. I absolutely respect that. Easier said than done. 

Julie (08:29):

Of course <laugh> there are ways to do it, but easier said than done for sure. 

Lauren (08:32):

Absolutely. We talked a little bit about client engagement, leadership serving the clients, but then there’s the team, right? Cuz it can't just be a solo advisor who’s spearheading; it's gotta be the team. Are there certain things you're seeing that help create that communication and cohesion within the team to be able to have leadership at various levels besides just holding that to one person to help and not just be the rainmaker, just the CEO, but really bringing out that culture. I'd love to hear if you're seeing ways that's carried out through training or what have you. 

Julie (09:10):

Yeah. I mean, to me, this is a big question. It's an important question because when that kind of culture is infused all the way through and it's being reflected in every part of the business, that's pretty powerful. And I think some of the challenges we see are helping the team understand how their role connects to this idea of leadership, right? Because it's one thing, as you say, to sit down and say, well, I'm meeting with a client, we're talking about their life. The leadership opportunities might be a bit more obvious than the receptionist or if it's a paraplanner or somebody who's in the background. And one of the best ways I've seen is simply helping the entire team formally invite input from clients. 

Julie (10:04):

Sharing that with the whole team. So if clients feel concerned about their children's future right now, how could we each lean into that? How can the marketing team find content on that? How can the receptionist find an opportunity to maybe chat about the kids when they come in? How can we ensure we build that into the plans? Right? It's almost like taking the key challenges and concerns and then looking at how that might filter throughout the entire organization. That takes intention and it takes focus. It's not just gonna happen but I think it's a powerful exercise. 

Lauren (10:46):

Absolutely. Oh, I love that example. You can see how it can transcend. It really bleeds into all different parts of the organization too. 

Lauren (10:56):

Shifting gears a little bit, obviously it's been a kind of crazy few years with COVID. It's been stressful, it's been chronically stressful, with so many political and cultural things, all kinds of things going on. So, the markets, etc. How is that or has it impacted the clients you're working with? And has it changed really the definition for client engagement or just really shifted at all what folks are doing?

Julie (11:31):

It has, I think significantly, and I would argue that there's always some formance of uncertainty in our lives. It's always impacting clients and what they're worried about. It might not be a global pandemic, but it could be a family health scare, right? Sometimes it has the same impact, just at a very different level. So I think a lot of these concerns have been there but the pandemic and all of the other uncertainty you point to has really put a spotlight on how clients are feeling. So we've been thinking a lot lately about how client mindset actually impacts the experience or should impact the experience. And even in the research, when we went out this year, we were very focused on not just what they expect but what they need. 

Julie (12:29):

And that took us down the path of asking them about client self-confidence, which is a sort of index we track, the impact of uncertainty on their lives, the concerns they have right now and how they're experiencing stress in their lives right now. And it's probably not any surprise that it was pretty significant <laugh> and even to this year, right? It's not as if it's gone back to where we were, right? And so I think for those advisors who have leaned into this idea of mindset may influence experience, it might not impact how often I wanna meet, but it's going to impact what I wanna talk about when we meet. It might not impact my expectations of the material you send me, but I'm gonna be much more impacted if you can send me the right stuff, right? 

Julie (13:27):

So it's been a fascinating ride for me looking at this data because the other thing I'm very aware of as you look at it is that how I'm feeling can influence my relationship. So for clients who are less confident in their financial futures, satisfaction tends to be low, loyalty tends to be lower, all those metrics. So there's like this positive or negative halo effect on the advisory relationship. And that to me is an opportunity, right? For advisors to really lean into, understand, not just say how are you doing but to tease that apart, understand how clients are feeling and have those different conversations. Cuz we're seeing the impact just all over the place right now. 

Lauren (14:17):

Yeah. I love actually to hear about shifting the conversation too. You gave the example of how are you doing or other ways to be able to say how are we doing for you? How can we support you? Those kinds of things. Are there further examples of personalization that help to kind of carry through what you're seeing in those emotions, either that the individual's carrying out or that you're seeing globally or through the data that you can be more aware of that relationship to create more personalization? 

Julie (14:55):

I think one of the things that almost gets in our way with this issue is that I think as human beings we're not particularly good at articulating how we feel, right? I mean, it's not always the problem of the advisor. Sometimes they're trying to do all the right things, trying to understand how clients are feeling, but you know, if you asked me if I sat down with my business, how are things going? I'd say, yeah, they're good, you know, it's good. The kids are good, everybody's like we're not dealing with any major crises but it wouldn't take them scratching too far below the surface to understand, I've got a 13-year-old son and a 90-year-old mother and this and that, and all of this impacts my ability to hear advice, to take action, to think reasonably in a way. So I say all that because I think we have to be very clever about the kinds of questions we ask. So if it's just tell me how you're doing, you might get a good, fine. But if we can ask even things like can you rate your level of concern on the following things right now, I'm gonna give you a one to five, that's easier than sitting down and seeing if there’s anything you're concerned about, right? 

Julie (16:13):

So if we can tease those out, learn if the plan reflects what's most important to you right now? These are the kinds of questions that are preludes, I guess, to deeper conversations. 

Lauren (16:28):

I love that too because it all maps up to what we started the conversation with, right? Which is around how do we define client engagement and how is that directly related to ROI and what are ways we can do that subtly, either individually or through technology and such. So I have a few more questions for you here. I know we're covering a lot of different things but they’re all related. So in marketing, of course, we talk a lot about really finding your niche, right? And I'd imagine if you're looking at a firm at large being more personal if you know a particular niche, if you're working with Gen X or whoever it might be, right, you can create an experience for that audience. I'd love to hear a little bit more about that. Do you see a lot of firms really going after niches? Or is there a way that folks can choose a niche to be just more authentic or really to help support with client engagement being the end goal, right? Cause that impacts retention, that impacts the bottom line. 

Julie (17:43):

Yeah. I mean, you've hit on so many of the issues cause I know you see this I'm sure as well, but one thing for clarity is I absolutely believe that this is a critical part of engagement. That to deeply engage we need some focus. Otherwise, diffusion is the enemy of engagement if we're just trying to be all things to all people. I think you can deliver good service to a lot of different kinds of clients. I don't think that's a problem at all. But if it comes to engagement and leadership and some of these other issues, you've gotta go a lot deeper. So that's my bias <laugh> here. I would also say this is probably one of the hardest things for advisors to do. 

Julie (18:36):

So you see that too. It's when we talk, everybody nods and says, I get it, I get it, I get it. And then a fear of some sort takes over. It's like, what if somebody walks away? Or what if my clients think I'm not focusing on them? Or what if and what if and what if? And I get that too. But if I set that aside for the moment, <laugh> I do believe if we can really sit back and say, what if every minute of every day our team was focused on the needs, goals, and aspirations of a defined group, wouldn't we come up with some really cool ideas and ways to support them? And couldn't we build the entire business around that from the form of our communication to the frequency of our contact, to the content, to the digital presence, to all of that? 

Julie (19:40):

I mean, that becomes such a powerful attractor. One of the battles I guess that we see is partly in definition so I'm certainly a believer that there's a difference between a target audience and an ideal client. So I could say I'm targeting business owners doesn't mean I target every business owner. My ideal might be a certain net worth or an investment philosophy or something. But I think we conflate those two things so much and as a result, we get a lot of people saying, yeah, I have a niche and it's clients with a million dollars or more, which we all know is not a niche, it's just a wealth. That's an ideal client and that's fine to have a target. So all of that makes it harder. 

Julie (20:36):

So I think there's some work to be done. It's like, why am I there? Who truly energizes me? Who do I wanna work with? Who do I wanna support? Who do I wanna build this business to support? What's gonna get me bouncing out of bed every day? Cause I just either love to work with these clients or do this work. I think specialization can be an itch as well. I mean there's challenges but we've seen it work more times than we can imagine. 

Lauren (21:05):

And to circle back, at least from what I've seen it take, it really does take leadership to be able to make those play calls and champion behind them and put resources behind them but when it happens, it can be very powerful. 

Julie (21:18):

Yeah. One of the things we've been talking about is to use the word authenticity earlier. We talked to advisors a lot about this idea of what we call the authenticity test. The idea is first of all, that whomever you're focused on has to be authentic to you. Right? So if I say the words, I'm targeting clients with a million dollars in investable assets and more, does that truly resonate for me? Is that inspiring to me at some level? And then if I flip that around, if that was the welcome sign on my door, <laugh> would clients go, oh my gosh, they understand me? And of course they wouldn't in that case. But I think as soon as it's authentic to you, if you can understand why you wanna target a certain group, usually that's the answer. 

Julie (22:15):

Maybe it's even if you picked a group like pre-retirees, which some people do and we kinda laugh cause it's so big. But I actually believe if you did it well, like they have a set of needs, they have certain concerns, there are demographic issues, there's a lot that you could pick up and if that's what compelled you, helping people through that phase of complexity and anxiety for some in their lives all of a sudden, that's very compelling. That can be the sign on your door. 

Lauren (22:48):

That’s so well said. It gets me excited <laugh> but you're right. Because it's coming from a place of authenticity, which fuels passion. And so it's all interconnected. 

Julie (23:06):


Lauren (23:08):

Okay. One last question—we're about at our time here—but one last question just for folks to get a look ahead. I know you're doing research and you've got your finger on the pulse on a lot of different topics. Anything you’d like to share related to that? Just kind of look ahead or trends that you're seeing? 

Julie (23:34):

Yeah, for sure. We do this every year because we can see trends and doing it over the last few years has been a real gift because it's given us this look into mindset. I guess the one thing I've noticed that I might mention as a way to think about change in future is that a lot of the change we saw in the last few years has been to do with the pandemic, right? So obvious things like we shifted in terms of how we meet with people, all of those kinds of obvious things have changed at the same time. And maybe we weren't noticing because the pandemic was so all-consuming that the demographic shifts were having the same impact, so younger clients under 45 wanna meet more often, want virtual, tend to use social media, and these trends aren't going away. 

Julie (24:34):

Right, <laugh> even if you believed we'd go back to how some people felt pre-COVID, which I would argue is not happening either. We've got these demographic shifts and some of the most significant differences we see are based on age. If it's younger, it's about expectations. But if it's older it's actually about concerns and challenges and mindsets. So I think we need to lean into demographics and think about if and how that means we need to segment our experience a little differently going forward. Because it's very clear we're not going back to the way it was. 

Lauren (25:13):

That’s so interesting. It makes me wanna dig into the research and hear more of what's going on. 

Julie (25:18):


Lauren (25:20):

Well goodness, thank you so much for your time and for all the work you do. And it's really fascinating to hear not only what's happening today with the pandemic and what you're seeing but also just that bird's-eye view of what you've seen over the years and what works and what doesn't. So I appreciate your time. 

Julie (25:40):

Well thank you. Appreciate it.

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