The BIC Top 50 Bank reps of 2010 have a lot to tell us about how to create and manage deep client relationships. To distill some factors that distinguish the best reps, Bank Investment Consultant partnered with Primevest to create a Top 50 Advisory Board and polled them about what makes their businesses tick.

It's no surprise that strong relationships underpin every success story. Top advisors deepen and maintain relationships with their clients, centers of influence and clients' heirs over the long haul. And it is a long haul: Many BIC Top 50 advisors have had their clients a long time. Almost half, 47%, say they've worked with their average client for five to 10 years, and 31% have been working with their best clients for over a decade.

These relationships aren't overly onerous to maintain, though. While 56% of BIC Top 50 advisors meet with clients quarterly, 41% find one annual meeting is all that's required. However, many advisors extend their client touches beyond account reviews. Some 41% meet with clients at least quarterly outside of account reviews, and 31% do so at least annually. However, one-fourth of top advisors keep their client contacts purely professional and don't meet outside of account reviews.

BIC Top 50 advisors also keep in touch, mostly through occasional phone calls and/or emails, as well as through community involvement and client appreciation events. However, at 88%, most advisors aren't using social media with clients. The remainder only uses social media as a casual connection to clients, not as an outreach strategy.

Centers of Influence

BIC Top 50 advisors generally network with centers of influence the old-fashioned way, by asking clients for their accountants' and attorneys' names and addresses during the fact-gathering stage, contacting those professionals and then making sure to keep them in the loop and refer business to them. "That is the quickest way to get to know them and receive business in return," says one respondent. Another is quick to establish a two-way street for referrals: "My policy is send two referrals, get one back."

Top reps don't measure the strength of client relationships in any scientific way. Some look at the number of client referrals, others, the complexity of client accounts. Still others gauge clients' readiness to act on their advice. For most the strength of client relationships is largely instinctive. This may indicate room for a best practice such as surveying clients about their satisfaction.

Ones That Get Away

As with everyone in the industry, top advisors lose clients—sometimes big ones. But top reps responding to the survey consider that loss as bittersweet. "I realize that my niche is working with clients who are interested in obtaining advice and in learning," says one. "I have tried to not spend as much effort on clients who don't fit that mold, even when it comes at the expense of turning away business."

One advisor reports running afoul of the dynamics between a husband and wife. "I lost a couple I had been working with for five years because I didn't do a good enough job understanding the wife's goals, which I came to find out were different than her husband's," he says. "It caused a rift in their marriage, and the only solution was to change advisors. Lesson learned is to make sure you understand the goals of all people involved."

BIC Top 50 reps agree that the best way to get clients to open up about their deeper values is to use softer, open-ended questions, such as "Tell me about yourself," "What are your dreams?" or "What scares you the most?" The common thread to all these opening gambits is solutions-based selling focused entirely on the client's qualitative answers. Getting and understanding these answers is fairly easy—but critical to a successful relationship. One advisors tells clients: "I cannot do business with you unless I know everything, just as your doctors can't help you unless they know everything."

Another advisor reports having little patience for a perpetually cagey client. "Unwillingness to share personal details is usually a sign of a difficult client," he says. "We recognize that it takes time to get folks relaxed and comfortable opening up on some things. We usually can get this done with the folksy approach of spending time with them so that both sides see the other as real people. This works much better for us than some sort of efficient, time management approach of 'Get 'em in, get 'em out and on to the next one.' We have a high-end, professional clientele, so they are looking for this type of personal attention."

BIC Top 50 advisors ask for referals by wowing their clients with service to the point where they'd probably refer them without prompting. Don't assume it'll happen by itself, though. "Ask for referrals," says one respondent. "If you don't ask, you don't receive."

That holds true for intergenerational relationships too. "I always ask to meet the children when they come to visit mom and dad," says one advisor. "It's the start of trust building with the kids for when they become involved with helping mom and dad manage the finances." Adds another, "It is very important especially if you want to keep the account after the client dies."

BIC Top 50 advisors are also mindful of crossing the line and getting too close to clients. "I don't ever give my home phone number or home email address," says one respondent. "If we ever get together on weekends for sporting events or charitable auctions, we meet at a neutral site. I have a wife and three little kids whom I keep away from clients." Another puts it even more succinctly: "Remain a trusted advisor, not a friend."

Top reps are finding new ways to serve their clients more efficiently. In one case that meant eliminating some clients. "Three separate times I have moved clients out of my rep code to younger financial advisors and each time it has helped me focus that much more on my top clients," says one rep. "I really believe in the 80/20 rule."

Others use technology to manage quality and to serve clients in a timely manner. "Production grew by about 25% just by having an automated client contact system," says a respondent. Another added $100,000 in production just by implementing better systems. "I made up a client contact schedule and can easily track my last contact, and those relationships I have perhaps been neglecting," he says. "It's been very powerful for staying engaged with clients by making sure there's no lapse in contact."

Ultimately, it's the special personal touches that resonate for clients. "I recently began working with a prospect who had lost his job about 18 months ago," he says. "After our initial meeting I saw an ad for a job in our local paper that I thought would fit his situation. I called the prospect and told him about the job, which didn't pan out. But he was so impressed that I cared about his personal situation that he said he felt I would care about his money the same way, and became a new client."