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Professionalism, knowledge and ethics.

A sure-fire approach to satisfying client expectations

Businesses that provide professional services to their clients are increasingly being challenged. Are their services, whether financial, accounting, medical or other really relevant to today's marketplace? Do they meet the changing needs of their clients and customers? What is quality service and how can it be institutionalized?

Clearly, a number of trends are affecting the ways in which businesses provide services. Here are some of the major ones.

Education/Information Puts Power in the Hands of Consumers

As with business in general, the demystification of professional services providers and advisors is the new reality. Two major trends have contributed to this. The first is the greater sophistication of consumers. Television and other media, especially magazines, devote considerable attention to 'pop education'; that is, providing easily digestible information on everything from gall bladder surgery to buying stocks and bonds to preparing a will. People have come to know much more about the issues that used to be the sole purview of the service provider.

This trend has been supported by the broader reach of education among consumers. Education supports choice and consumers are exercising their options more than ever before.

They're Not Going to Take it Anymore

When service levels are found wanting, there is now less of a tendency for clients and consumers to suffer in silence. The enormous growth of consumer and interest groups has persuaded people that they can make a big noise if they do not receive the service and advice they need and expect. This has major implications. Whether we speak of consumer boycotts, adverse publicity or complaints to human rights bodies or other government agencies, the consumer now has power.

What are identifiable characteristics of good service in the realm of professional services and advice? And what can an organization do to cultivate these characteristics?

According to University of Western Ontario Professor Steven R. Foerster, who coordinates the university's involvement with Nesbitt Thomson, one of Canada's major investment firms, there are three characteristics of good service. They are particularly pertinent to professional service providers and advisors. The first is professionalism and the second is a value-added approach to providing products and services. The third, in spite of specialization, is a significant trend toward a more holistic approach to service.

What is professionalism? There are three elements, according to Foerster. The first is knowledge, the second is being able to share this knowledge in a manner that benefits clients or customers and the third is a strong adherence to ethics.

Gaining and sharing knowledge are functions both of an individual's education and his or her training post-employment. Ethics, the third criterion of professionalism, is a continuing concern of both professional service providers and advisors. Witness the medical profession's strong moves to discipline doctors involved in sexual improprieties. Be clean and be seen to be clean is the motto for our decade. Accordingly, attention is focused more and more on how to reinforce ethical behaviour, particularly in a more diverse and complicated society.

The quality of service delivery also requires a value-added approach. This relates to such actual intangible as the advisor's perceived interest in the client's wellbeing. An orientation to providing more information and more support motivates advisors to learn not only what the customer or client wants and needs in terms of a specific service but also why. Finding out how to meet a client's spoken and unspoken needs should be centre of attention.

The latter feeds directly into a viewpoint which regards the client as a whole being with interrelated needs that require satisfaction; in other words, a holistic approach to service delivery.

How is an organization to satisfy these criteria for service quality?

The experience of Nesbitt Thomson is provided here as an example.

In the last decade, Nesbitt observed, and research both in Canada and south of the border confirmed, that the profile of its investor clients was changing. Nesbitt decided to take a strategic approach to serving these client needs by examining and reviewing its hiring and training policies.

The following are the steps it took to accomplish this:

1. Identify changes in consumer needs

Nesbitt Thomson accessed both internal and external research to determine what these changes might be.

Some of these changes are listed below:

* The 'new' client tends to have more money but less time than the 'old-style' clients. Accordingly, the new client wants more involvement by his or her broker.

* Many clients prefer to have one broker attend to all aspects of their financial activities from investing and budgeting to wills and insurance. They are moving toward a longer-term relationship with a specific broker rather than short-term activities with several brokers. Because they are investing more psychologically and materially, management of risk has assumed greater importance.

* Today's investors are looking to advisors who will develop financial management strategies to help them realize life goals and support specific lifestyles. They want advisors who can manage their money so as to enable them to enjoy the other parts of their lives.

Obviously, Nesbitt reasoned, the profile of the investment advisor would benefit from adapting to the changing needs of the nineties investors.

2. Match products, services and human resources to consumer needs

While considerable attention was devoted to developing new products and services to meet client needs, this article focuses on the human resource element in the service equation. Nesbitt wanted to ensure that their investment advisors had not only education, but also the commitment and 'other-directedness' that would make them good advisors.

What is meant by 'other-directedness'? The advisors had to be oriented to listening to the client and be sensitive and responsive to their needs. It takes time to learn and to build relationships; exactly the kind of person an investor would be likely to entrust his or her future security and lifestyles with.

Nesbitt was sensitive to consumers' criticisms about advisors in general. A long-standing complaint is that advisors frequently do not listen attentively enough or show sufficient concern to seek out their clients' or customers' needs. Recent evidence of this kind of complaint was the Law Society of Upper Canada survey of the clients of legal firms. This survey revealed non-listening to be one of the top criticisms of the law profession. And I am sure if surveys were done of other groups we would find this complaint repeated.

It was also noted that the slightly older candidates the firm seemed to be attracting would complement the needs of other clientele as age -- rightly or wrongly -- is frequently equated with maturity. Investors were confiding their life goals to their advisors. They needed to feel that their advisors appreciated these needs and could translate them into appropriate financial strategies.

What other qualities would we be looking for?

Assessing client needs and those of an increasingly demanding and competitive business encouraged Nesbitt to expand their list of desirable people who are looking for a second or third career, having been successful in their previous ventures. Such people generally have a broad range of contacts and a track record in understanding and satisfying client needs.

3. Make necessary alterations in policies and strategies to implement change.

The investor trends mentioned earlier -- investors looking for a longer-term relationship with their advisors, investors requesting advice on larger pools of funds and on broader issues to do with their futures; more emphasis on management of risk rather than management for return -- these and other factors also dictated a new approach to training.

The decision was that training had to be lengthened and strengthened. It was important to inculcate our staff with professionalism in service delivery. All three aspects of professionalism: knowledge, sharing of knowledge and ethics were to be covered. In order to get the best results Nesbitt's decision was to seek the involvement of specific experts to add to the contingent of internal training personnel.

Nesbitt approached the School of Business Administration of the University of Western Ontario. They presented them with an outline and a list of topics to be covered.

One of the major non-industry-specific topics to be covered was and is ethics.

Professor Geffrey Gandz of the University of Western Ontario teaches the course. He identifies one of the most valuable elements of this training as being the opportunity for more experienced people to share real-life experiences and dilemmas with less experienced people. "This sharing brings ethics out of the textbook and into reality," Gandz says. "It also enables new recruits to know where the minefields are."

The design of the course incorporates several elements. Following the introduction of the topic, ethical issues are presented along with a discussion of why ethics are important. Case study work follows. For example the course might discuss the propriety of advertising claims for a new car. "We look at these from the perspectives of the car company, the dealership, the advertiser, the buyer and the competitor. We also look at what standards we have for fairly representing a product."

Students deal with such questions as "What is the truth?" and "What is the difference between a lie and puffery?". Neither are so easy to answer as they may seem and there is always a variety of viewpoints.

Says Gandz, "Our objective is not to give students the answer that something is right or wrong, but rather to prod them and to get them to develop a framework for their actions with which they are comfortable."

In addition to reinforcing core materials, expanding the range of topics covered with new recruits and substantially lengthening the training period, It was decided to change the method of delivering the training.

It has been Nesbitt's experience that after three weeks of training it was difficult to maintain an exciting level of attention. Since the training period was now to be 18 months long, it was decided to intersperse classroom training periods with direct practical experience gained back in the office. This approach was taken because training works better when it is seen as relevant and immediately applicable. It also helps training to "stick".

Mentoring Formed a New and Vital Part of our Training Program

Mentoring provided an excellent way to enhance and maintain service standards. Nesbitt's new program paired each new recruit with an individual who is broadly experienced in virtually any type of client situation. This individual acts as a coach, cheerleader and compliance officer.

The initiative has proved so valuable that the teams are continuing beyond the 18-month mandatory period and becoming permanent support systems.

Nesbitt believes the work they have done to identify what their clients want and to satisfy them with progressive hiring and training policies will serve their needs, maintain competitiveness, and support the motivation and loyalty of their investment advisors.

The payoffs they have seen are certainly attainable for any organization that wishes to explore service delivery from the vantage-point of consumer needs.
COPYRIGHT 1992 Canadian Institute of Management
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1992 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Jackson, Terry
Publication:Canadian Manager
Date:Dec 22, 1992
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