Automating services makes your job easier.

It boosts output, and lets you focus on building your business and incorporating value-added services.

But be careful. New tools and technologies shouldn’t reduce how much you see and talk to clients, says Jason Pereira, senior financial consultant with IPC Investment Corporation in Toronto.

Though he automates as much as possible, he makes sure any tools he adds don’t create more work for him or his staff, or reduce his availability to clients.

Kevin Cork, president of The Absolute Group in Edmonton, Alta., adds, “It’s easy to get caught up in finding more ways to make your practice efficient, but clients should be your first priority.”

If you do automate, start with your back-end processes; and don’t change anything that might impact regular interactions with clients. Implementing services they don’t want or appreciate will make you seem robotic.

Take, for instance, the quarterly reporting process: though report generation times have shrunk from three months to a few weeks over the past 20 years, automation will never replace the meetings you book to discuss results with clients. However, some advisors use video chats, such as the iPad’s FaceTime application, to hold those meetings virtually if their clients are bedridden or live far away.

Customize with care

Cork says his clients don’t appreciate generic quarterly newsletters or preprinted Christmas cards. Fine by him; they’re relatively expensive.

He’s redirected the money he spent producing them to charity donations made in clients’ names. They’ve expressed appreciation that he listens to their feedback, he says, and also love the gift.

Still, if you’re set on providing services like monthly insights mailings, find out which clients truly appreciate this gesture. And make sure the mailing system you’re using lets you cater to those who want to be left off lists, while upping communication for those who want more contact.

“People who previously worked with a stockbroker might expect a call every month, while those who’ve never had an advisor aren’t sure what to expect,” Cork says.

“Let them know how often you’ll communicate and meet with them, and figure out what types of updates and messages they’re looking for.”

Pereira, meanwhile, asks his administrative staffers which tasks are straightforward but time-consuming, and either outsources or automates them (see “Dos and don’ts,” below).

Dos and don’ts of automation

Do: Forward your office phone messages to your email, so you don’t have to check them while away.

Don’t: Automate your phone answering service. People prefer a human voice.

Do: Let clients opt out of automated emails and newsletters.

Don’t: Offer to customize their services completely. You’ll end up with too many varied requests, and that makes extra work.

Do: Pre-schedule tweets or posts on social media platforms, and write and pre-schedule blog posts ahead of time.

Don’t: Schedule anything that offers tips or ideas that are supposed to be timely. They can become irrelevant between the time you schedule and send them.

Do: Take the time to upgrade your data management systems and processes.

Don’t: Remove yourself from the process and training. It’s key to know how they work, and how they specifically improve your services.

Do: Let clients know some of your services are automated, like tax return data entry. They’ll appreciate your efficiency and organization.

Don’t: Let them in on all of your time-saving processes. You’ll appear lazy and neglectful.

Do: Write email, letter and report templates for clients.

Don’t: Use greetings like “Dear valued client,” or include details not relevant to all recipients.

A prime automation candidate is tax receipt entry, says Warren Baldwin, regional vice-president of T.E. Wealth in Toronto. He digitally scans all clients’ receipts and uses online tax tools to complete the filing process. Doing this eliminates most of the grunt work for his team, and clients receive their tax returns sooner.

Secret services

You’ll know automation’s effective when customers don’t notice. Good procedures generate the impression that “you’re checking their portfolios on a regular basis,” says Cork. To achieve this effect, he rarely mass- communicates with clients.

Instead of sending prepared email newsletters, he prefers to blind-copy emails to small groups. “We sort clients using our back-office software first, and then select that group [in the database] as the recipients of a relevant email about a specific investment,” he says. “We see that 17 clients have a certain fund, for example, and send the notice to those 17 clients,” rather than to the whole database.

These templated emails each take fewer than 20 minutes to create, and discuss topics that relate directly to each group’s portfolios and investment styles.

For instance, he’ll send housing market updates to clients with significant real estate holdings. He also alerts people to fund changes that affect their portfolios. Often, they thank him and follow up with questions or concerns they’ve been meaning to run by him—related or not.

“While some firms automate the investment process by using pre-packaged portfolios of funds, others do so through smaller gestures like gift giving, newsletters and social media.”

To further personalize these communications, his CRM database yanks tidbits about each client, such as preferred names (Tim, not Timothy) and their specific investments.

When client portfolios change, update your records. If an investor reduces bond exposure, make sure he stops receiving your bond market reports. Otherwise, you give customers the impression you’re not paying attention.

Necessary or excessive?

If overused, technology can build a wall between you and your clients.

“The more automation a firm uses, the less cozy the clients feel,” Cork says. “So it’s up to each to find the right balance.

And, evaluate whether you need automation at all.

Firms with 50 or fewer clients may not need to automate, Cork says. When dealing with such a small group, being aware of each person’s needs is crucial to the practice’s survival.

If you’re operating a medium-sized firm, however, time savers can help you better serve clients. Cork works with 130 households, so automation allows him to stay on top of their requests, needs and preferences.

During initial meetings, Cork asks new clients about their financial interests. While he’s at it, he asks about their communication expectations, and then inputs the information into his contact management database—which he had fully customized for $10,000 over four months to facilitate better client management. The data is readily available, and he reviews all notes and forms biannually.

The upshot of upgrading his software is it’s more “tightly integrated with Outlook, so all emails are automatically saved and attached to client files. Meetings can also be scheduled into the system from Outlook, and the program offers customizable tabs for investments, insurance, financial plans and enhanced reporting.

“The extra tabs allow us to store expanded information,” he adds.

Under the investment tab, he can keep notes about things like how a client plans to fund her next vacation, or a reminder about what to do once a client’s fund has matured. These notes are all available in one place. The software also lets him search his client base in depth.

He can bring up all clients who have children two years away from high school graduation so he can send them university budgeting planners, for instance, or all clients he hasn’t met with in six months.

Another plus—these systems can be accessed at home or on the road.

Cork also jots down client preferences during all meetings and phone calls. Whether they’re personal details like a favourite restaurant or a financial concern, he files these tidbits under a notes tab.

Printing this data off before meetings provides him with a quick summary of all that’s been discussed over the past few months. Since inputting exhaustive data takes time, he uses tools like dictation apps to digitally translate notes.

Tips and tricks

Cork also automates the client discovery process. As soon as a new client signs on, to-dos are scheduled for the first six months for him and his staff—this is called an activity series.

His advisors receive periodic calendar reminders to book their client calls and meetings. These keep them on track with customer communication.

He also furnishes clients with previously prepared materials, such as relevant fact sheets and forms that need to be completed. Following the six-month orientation period, he schedules meetings at regular intervals.

“The activity series can be moved as a group. So, if I move the annual meeting date out two months, all to-dos that are scheduled to occur around the meeting, such as creating the prep statement seven days before and sending the meeting agenda out three days before, also automatically move out two months. They can also be changed manually.”

This ensures clients are always aware of when all meetings will be and what to expect for each.

For his part, Baldwin uses voice-recognition software to take notes, as well as a message-forwarding app that lets him know via email that he has voice mail.

And Pereira has created fact sheets and articles to address recurring client questions and concerns. He gives these to clients during initial meetings, and always saves spreadsheets or materials on specific topics in case another client requests the same information.

You can also use aggregation platforms to collect related article links, such as critiques on the latest federal budget, in one location.

Sites like Evernote and Instapaper host the text of articles you save, and are designed to make them easy to share. That way, you don’t have to keep track of multiple bookmarks, and you only visit one site to read all of the stories.

Cork often uses these platforms to collect news on current trends before putting together a client email on the topic. He writes a quick greeting and introduction, and then inserts links rather than attaching a large text document with all the information.

Free up office space

Advisors should invest in digital storage systems, which involves scanning forms and storing them online rather than physically in the office.

One such service provider advertises potential annual cost savings of: $26,000 for small firms; $71,000 for medium firms; and $124,000 for large firms. Though implementing and maintaining these systems cost money, the provider says the benefits of reducing on- and off-site storage and manual labour costs can be seen within the first couple of years.

Since everything is clearly indexed, you also keep a cleaner paper trail for regulators and ease the pressure on staff by making all documents easier to locate.

Make the process more efficient by adding barcodes to documents to help you scan them into the system (this is known as optical character recognition, or OCR). The barcodes categorize files based on form IDs and file types, and you can also scan client names to ensure documents get added to their specific files.

Want to integrate tech into your practice?

Katie Keir is the assistant editor of Advisor Group.