Magic Questions: Working with Client Advisory Boards
May 09, 2013
It has become popular in recent years for well-established advisors to create “advisory boards” to provide advice and support for the ongoing improvement of an advisor’s business. Composed of great clients and important referral advocates, these boards can be tremendously helpful, as they allow an advisor to tap into the expertise and experiences of successful people to stimulate creativity. Even more important, such boards are a great way to get clients and advocates even more engaged in supporting the business. If you are considering developing an advisory board, here are some points to consider.
Remember: There’s No Free Lunch
Obviously, you will want your board to be composed of your best, most thoughtfully engaged clients and the brightest, most successful referral advocates. This represents a challenge, as these people are in high demand by other organizations that want to tap their intellectual (and financial) resources. These people tend to be busy and are often stretched very thin. Great board members are naturally helpful and, as such, find themselves helping others in many aspects of their life. It is prudent to be sensitive to this when structuring the role of your board and frequency of meetings: you do not want to burn out the goodwill and support of these fine people.
A good way to start is to limit the number of meetings you will expect each person to attend. Two well-managed meetings a year will provide all the feedback and creative ideas you could possibly execute. We suggest clarifying your expectations when you recruit board members. Sketch out the meeting schedule and what you will be asking of them over the year. It can be very helpful to limit a board member’s term to one year (you can always recruit him for a second year as you build the next board). Busy people, even those who are inclined to help, are uncomfortable with open-ended or undefined obligations.
It can be very helpful to solicit from all potential board members what day of the week and what time of day are most convenient for them. Successful professionals and business leaders may find it difficult to meet during the day, while retirees may be reluctant to meet in the evening. When you target potential board members, you can float out some possible meeting times and gauge reactions. Once you’ve built a core group that has committed to meetings, your conversations with future potential members will be more constrained, but you should regularly revisit the meeting time to discover if there is a better, more convenient time for the meetings.
It’s also important to include a third “event” each year for your board members. Consider scheduling two working meetings a year and then adding a third meeting that is purely a way to say “thank you” to these important relationships. These events do not have to be expensive or elaborate, but they should be intrinsically meaningful for the people who attend. This means that they should be unique, naturally appealing and (if possible) something that board members would want to do on their own. We know one advisor who arranges for a private concert with a local symphony during their dress rehearsals before their season opens. Another arranged for a special corporate representative to reveal a new luxury car model and conduct an “insider’s tour” of the features of the car, along with a tasting of an unusual Champagne vintage. As long as your intention is to bless this special group of people with an enjoyable experience, virtually any event can be uniquely enjoyable. Be creative, and arrange for folks to have fun.
Getting the Most Out of Your Working Meetings
The two working meetings need to be highly productive. The point of an advisory board is to advise, not simply to provide more referrals to the practice. Many of your best clients are self-made successes and have a wealth of experiences and insights to offer. They are also thoughtful consumers of financial services; it’s likely that many of your clients have worked with other advisors in the past, thus putting them in a great position to reflect on what they liked and (even more important) what they strongly disliked about their previous advisors.
Ask your board members to reflect on one or two big questions for a few days prior to the meeting. Send an e-mail or a note to everyone that explains what you want to accomplish at the meeting, and ask the members to reflect on a couple of key ideas or questions. At the end of this article, you’ll find a list of “magic questions” that have been used with great results in various meetings.
At the first meeting, ask everyone to introduce themselves; set the tone by introducing yourself first. You’ll find that the board members will follow your lead and provide the same type of information, so provide a little bit of color about your personal life so that the group establishes a feeling of familiarity and good humor early.
Avoid unstructured meetings, as it’s easy for one or two extroverted and dominant voices to take over the conversation. Every member should have the opportunity to speak and be appreciated by you for the contribution made. Actively engage every member. When someone offers a thought, ask them to “say more” or to “stretch out a bit on that.” If you see someone else agreeing, notice that agreement and invite that person to weigh in.
Try not to interrupt the more long-winded members, but pay attention to those who are less assertive. They will need to be encouraged to add their thoughts. Bring a pad to the meeting, and take notes aggressively as people are speaking. This is especially helpful when someone makes a practical suggestion. Write down reflections, and explore the idea with other members of the group. Be generous with praise and appreciation of the great ideas that are generated: “This is very helpful” and “I really appreciate the insight” are examples of what helpful people want to hear. Keep the conversation moving; stay focused on the agenda and do your best to end the meeting on time. If things really get rolling and it is clear that some members want to keep going, make it a point to ask the group if extending the meeting is okay with them.
If you are authentically interested in your board members’ thoughts, virtually any inquiry can be productive. Here are some questions that are designed to provide useful information or to provoke unexpected creativity.
“Think back over the past year or two, and recall a business person, vendor or organization that wowed you in some way. How, specifically, did they do this?”
This question sparks a wonderful round-table sharing process and enables members of your board to recommend unique experiences and resources to one another, which builds camaraderie. Not every story you will hear will translate into an executable idea, but several will be adaptable to your standard of service.
Use “one-finger” questions to provide focus: “What is the one thing you like best about the practice and would like to see us do more of?” “What is the one thing that was most frustrating about working with your previous advisor(s)?” “What is the one thing you have found most frustrating about your experience with investing?” “What is the one thing I could do better or more often that would be most helpful?”
Ask for clarification and further thoughts when board members offer specific reflections on questions like these, especially when someone offers a practical suggestion for how you can improve your practice. When there are criticisms, listen carefully and ask for clarification, but do not attempt to address the issue during the meeting. Your job is to listen, receive the information and appreciate the gifts being given to you.
If the criticisms are serious, or if the concern being shared is based on a lack of information or a misunderstanding, reach out to that board member privately after the meeting to discuss and clarify. In some cases, you will find out important information about work-flow issues and staffing challenges. At other times, you will be able to resolve a misunderstanding that might potentially damage an important relationship. Either way, you will benefit from the insight of others, your business will be stronger and you will be a wiser professional.