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Why Clients Can’t Have You Only

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When I work with advisors on getting feedback from their clients, the number two question on the agenda is typically, “What do you value most in working with this firm?” A majority of the time the answer is some version of this: “I have access to the owner/principal/president/partner.” Some advisors even promote this when bringing in new clients.

But it's a problem and your firm would benefit from it being less important to clients. This is the “access to principals" paradox and there are a few ways it will complicate your life.


If clients feel this way, it is probably because they want to talk to you if they have a problem or have a particularly important question to ask. But every important question or client concern will end up clogging up your calendar.

One advisor I worked with described her biggest challenge as "always being so busy with client requests that we are always scrambling at the last minute to prepare for client meetings." After interviewing her staff, I learned that unless it was a purely clerical issue, clients always wanted to speak directly to the principal. Even when the staff offered to answer their questions or solve their problem, the client wanted to speak to the owner. They had not realized that this meant packing the owner’s schedule with activities that could have been handled by other staff, or that other staff could have been trained to address.


If you hope to cash in some day on the equity in your firm, you must systematically and deliberately build equity. If clients look at their relationship with you or their access to you as one of the most valuable aspects of working with your firm, how much value is left in the firm when you leave? You want your clients to value their relationship with your firm as much as or more than their relationship with you.

My favorite example of the symptom is when a client tells me "what's really important to me is that I can speak to the guy whose name is on the door," when the firm is not named for the principal and no one's name is actually on the door. If clients feel "he's my guy" then that client will almost certainly consider other options when you announce plans to transfer ownership, whether internal or external. When clients say "that's my advisory firm" it makes for a much smoother succession plan implementation.


When all of the clients of the firm are your clients (or if you have partners, when all your clients are your clients), what is the career path for the younger advisors in your firm? Often, younger associates are expected to bring in their own clients or to ultimately buy your clients. Either way, whether you feel the clients belong to you or if the clients feel that they belong to you, younger advisors don’t feel they are building equity with your firm. Even if that equity is only psychological, staff who act like owners are more productive than staff that act like employees. But it's hard to persuade your staff to have a "vested interest” when the clients believe they belong to the principal.


In some of the most successful firms the principal is the primary rainmaker, the person who attracts new clients to the firm. If those new clients can successfully be handed off to staff and advisers within the firm, the principal can be back out meeting people. If those clients value the your ongoing attention, it puts a real limitation on how many new clients you will have the time to attract. And if you employ business development people on your staff, you will make them much less effective if clients value their relationship with you above their relationship with the firm.

When clients place a high value on access to the principal, it quietly and secretly adds to your workload and diminishes the value of your firm. The clients of one advisor I coach told me, “What we love is that whenever we need something or have a question, we know that whoever picks up the phone can answer it or take care of it.” That advisor takes a lot of time off and will have no trouble selling the business when it is the right time for him.

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