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Using Client Surveys Effectively

So how are we doing?

Client surveys, provided they’re done properly, can provide valuable information and identify possible business opportunities. Asking for feedback isn’t a new idea, of course. Robin Green, AIF, senior vice president with Ann Schleck & Co. in Woodbury, Minnesota, says that her firm’s 2017 Practice Management survey of 265 practices, representing more than 900 defined-contribution specialist advisors, found that 77 percent of respondents sought ongoing, informal verbal feedback. Far fewer conducted surveys, however. Only 16 percent used written, online (11 percent) or phone (3 percent) surveys.

Benefits of Outsourcing

You can develop questionnaires and analyze the results internally, hire a survey firm or blend the two approaches. Internal development is the most cost-effective method, says Green, but it’s also, possibly, the lowest-value approach. The biggest gaps her firm has seen include: (1) making the survey too long, (2) asking questions in ways that don’t help consultants determine how to change, and (3) not conducting the survey professionally and in a way that strengthens the client relationship and the client’s opinion of the consultant. 

Jack Semler, president and CEO of survey firm Readex Research in Stillwater, Minnesota, notes that success with do-it-yourself surveys depends on specific skills. “If you have a good handle on what it is you want to ask, and you can find those types of questions via a DIY tool, or you know how to architect them yourself, you’re generally in pretty good shape, and I can’t argue that point,” he admits. “However, if there’s any doubt at all as to the kinds of things that you want to ask about and then how a question should be structured, that’s typically where things can break apart and where someone who knows questionnaire content and design can be very helpful.”

Green points out that established research firms have tried-and-tested feedback survey questions for use with firms in specific industries. Consequently, the consultant benefits from lessons the researchers have already learned, which can jumpstart the client-feedback process and provide better, faster results.

Firms also need expertise to derive the most benefit from a survey’s analytics, says Semler. He cites his experience with companies that have conducted DIY surveys but don’t know how to properly tabulate the results, communicate them to stakeholders or incorporate the results into their operations.

Benefits of DIY

The biggest thing that advisors need to consider when deciding whether to create their own surveys internally or outsource them is the balance of available time for the project versus the costs, speed and flexibility, according to Sarah Cho, director of research with SurveyMonkey in San Mateo, California. When you are working with an outside agency, you discuss your project and work on a survey together, but once they launch it for you, you are in the dark, often for weeks. In contrast, if you are running your own survey, you immediately see the first responses coming in and can update the survey as needed.

Cho agrees that it can take more time and effort to develop, conduct and analyze a survey internally. However, she points out that often you spend just as much time briefing an external partner, going back and forth on the questions and results. 

SurveyMonkey provides several tools to help users. The Question Bank is a searchable database of questions. For client-satisfaction surveys, users can search specifically for the best questions prepared by SurveyMonkey’s research team or for predesigned survey templates, says Cho. A new tool, SurveyMonkey Genius, uses machine learning to calculate the amount of time it will take participants to complete the survey and estimates completion rates. Based on these two factors, users get practical recommendations on changes to speed survey completion and increase completion rates.

Wells Fargo Asset Management offers a plan-sponsor survey that advisors can download and modify free of charge. The survey includes 11 questions on clients’ general needs and satisfaction, their opinions of the advisor and the advisory services, plus additional open-ended questions.

The results give advisors a good indication of where they should focus their attention, says Ron Cohen, head of the DCIO (Defined Contribution Investment Only) sales channel with Wells Fargo Asset Management in Boston, Massachusetts. “If staying in regulatory compliance is the most important thing you’re seeing from your clients, and ERISA and things like that aren’t your strong suit, you need to make sure that you’re partnering with or finding providers who can help you in those areas so that your clients are getting the necessary services,” he says. “It might not be directly from you, but you’re facilitating it for them so that they see the value in what you’re doing.”

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