First of a 2-part series
By JACK KWiCiEN
The first quarter of 2020 was a total dichotomy in terms of our national health, the economy and our quality of life. Coming into January much of life seemed positive; how rapidly reality can change. I am reminded of Charles Dickens’ novel, A Tale of Two Cities. The novel opens with, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity …” That sums up the last three months. What has transpired globally has been incredible and unprecedented in our lifetimes. It is an epoch of incredulity.
Certainly, these have become dangerous and uncertain times for each of us, our families, our clients and their employees, and our prospects. We’ve all had to get used to a new reality, one that is filled with daily updates regarding the number of infections and deaths around the world and where we live. We seemingly overnight have learned a new vocabulary: global pandemic; social distancing; self-quarantine; shelter-in-place; essential activities and more.
We’ve had to adapt to various restrictions on our mobility, access to products and services, supply-chain shortages, and personal isolation. Gathering places like restaurants and bars have been shuttered; millions of hard-working people are suddenly unemployed through no fault of their own; and 85% of hotels nationally are vacant. Part of the very soul of our lives has been temporarily severed: weddings have been indefinitely postponed; funerals have been put on hold; worshipping at church services has moved online; and family gatherings have become virtual. That’s a lot to absorb in a matter of weeks. And yet, we are doing it. We have adjusted our business and social behaviors and together we will emerge from this a stronger and better society. We all must persevere.
In the meantime, we still have businesses to run and our clients need us now more than ever in our lifetimes. Think about it: your clients and prospects are concerned, anxious, scared or worse. They need a trusted adviser to help them get through this crisis. You need to rise to the occasion; that’s what business leaders do to help the customers they serve during difficult times.
What role do you play with your current clients? Yes, I realize that you are their benefits advisor. But you want to become a “trusted adviser.” After all, that is the pinnacle of business relationships. Benefits strategic planning will in fact help you to accomplish the transformation of your practice. You can create a benefits strategy plan for each important client. It’s a written roadmap that will guide all their major benefits decisions and expenditures. After all, as the Cheshire Cat in Lewis Carroll’sAlice in Wonderland points out, “If you don’t know where you are going, any road will take you there.” We can discuss that at another time but it’s a powerful sales and client retention strategy. Let’s just agree for the moment, that becoming a trusted advisor is very beneficial and certainly a goal to which we should aspire. But where is your relationship with your clients today? How would you define it? Perhaps more importantly, how would your clients defne it? After all, if you don’t know where you are, how can you map a course to get to where you want to be? Having difficulty getting your arms around this? Let’s see if this will help.
The most basic form of a business relationship is that of a vendor. It defines where a product or service provider falls in the supply chain. A vendor responds to RFP’s. They provide quotes, respond to service requests and take orders. Invariably vendors state that they provide great service which they may in fact actually deliver. Often vendors feel that providing superior service is their key differentiator. But from the client’s perspective, they expect their vendors to provide great service. And it’s the client’s expectation that the vendor provide this level of service just to “get in the game.” A vendor is there when a client is ready to evaluate a new product or service offering. Over time, their products and services become viewed as commodities. Is this sounding familiar? A vendor relationship is reactive. It is not strategic; it’s tactical. As a vendor, you are not on the “inside” as decisions are being considered or alternative options are being evaluated. Having a very solid vendor relationship is great, and most businesses have this type of relationship. But is this what you aspire to? Is this the best that your firm can do? We think you can do much better than this, and in some cases, you likely are already doing so.
Moving up the pyramid, the next most desirable form of relationship is that of a credible or authoritative source. In this type of relationship, you have already proven yourself to be a very reliable vendor. You are a proven commodity if you will. You have performed consistently, and your client can count on you to be responsive. As a result, your client knows that you will come through on their behalf, even when they call you on short notice. Perhaps you have even developed relationships with multiple parties at the client’s business. You feel comfortable with your relationship with key decision-makers at the client, and you hope that they value your services. You are involved in certain tactical decisions. Your client may involve you directly in the process of evaluating new product or service offerings. In fact, you may actually assist them with the selection of new products and the carriers or vendors to be utilized. You may actually be part of the process for a finite period of time and help bring the matter to closure. You are viewed as one of their most dependable resources, and you are rewarded with a significant portion of the client’s business. You in turn are likely to view this type of client as one that you can count on and you may even begin to see some referrals from this type of relationship.
Clearly this type of relationship is better than being a vendor and many top-flight benefits advisors find themselves in this position.
Further up the pyramid of relationship categories, is that of problem solver or counselor. Your relationship with a client is deeper and more permanent. Your client is likely to involve you in some strategic issues. Presumably you possess pertinent knowledge about your client’s business issues and perhaps you understand the current industry trends, key drivers, and human capital management challenges they face. In this type of relationship, you are always thinking about your client’s business from a strategic perspective and you are proactive in bringing them new strategies to manage their business operations. As a result, you gain greater visibility to multiple levels in the organization, and have access to the “C” suite as a result. You are likely called upon by your client to assist with the creation of an RFP, and you may be involved in helping them to vet proposals and vendors. You help to initiate the process and are likely involved every step along the way, including evaluation, negotiations, reference checking, contracting, and implementation. In this type of relationship, your client views you as a valuable business asset.
At the top of the relationship pyramid is the role of trusted advisor. Your client’s senior officers take you into their confidence. They openly discuss their business issues and they seek your counsel before strategic decisions are framed. They want your input right from the outset, since they are confident that you can save them precious time, money, and errors since you clearly understand their business issues. You are viewed as their business consultant first and foremost. You remain a part of the decision making process and never exit it when a project is completed. You are still part of the discussion about what comes next. You are part of the problem assessment, and you proactively develop and pro- vide solutions, in some cases before the client knows that a problem is emerging. Your relationship with this type of client is unique and very often you are insulated from competition since no one can replicate your relationship or standing with this client. You ultimately provide more products and services to this type of client and you retain this client relationship much longer. And your business will be more profitable, predictable and command a higher valuation. This is the pinnacle of relationship success.
Think about what you have just read and really contemplate the implications of this commentary. If you want to discuss any aspect of this, just contact me.
In the next issue, we will provide strategies that are immediately actionable to help you ascend to the status of a trusted advisor while attracting and retaining long-term client relationships.
Prayers, Planning and Preparedness.
Jack Kwicien, CLU, ChFC, Registered Investment Advisor, is managing partner of Daymark Advisors, LLC (www. daymarkadvisors.com), a position he has held since co-founding the firm in 2001. He has over 40 years of executive management and entrepreneurial experience with specialization in business development, negotiating strategic alliances, financing transactions and mergers and acquisitions. Kwicien has significant experience in insurance, benefits and voluntary benefits. He is also the co-developer of the SMART Benefits Strategic Planning program (www. smartadvisors.biz).