Many advisors struggle with the issue of efficiency and complain they simply don’t have enough time to execute new ideas because they are so busy managing clients.

Advisors spend too much time responding to incoming telephone calls from clients—in fact, prioritizing the demands of various clients above their own business priorities. For many, being available to clients and being seen as highly responsive is the number one priority—as if being responsive is the primary way they will get and keep more new clients.

Responsive vs. Reactive

Being responsive is important. Client surveys have shown that clients are frustrated when advisors are not responsive to their needs. Responsiveness is especially important to clients during major market corrections. However, responsiveness is not the same as reactivity. Being reactive means assuming that any and all client requests deserve immediate attention and represent the highest priority. This attitude actually encourages clients to become increasingly demanding over time and to assume that the advisor has nothing better to do than to respond to telephone calls.

A financial advisor can be responsive to clients’ needs without reacting to their demands. The simplest way to do this is to delay the response. As long as the client learns that the advisor will respond within a reasonable period of time (such as 24 hours), the client will feel respected and engaged.

Obviously, if a client needs to place a time-sensitive order to execute a trade, the advisor must accommodate this need. In these cases, reacting may be the only option available to satisfy the client and you may not be able to delay your response. In an important way, advisors who provide this kind of access for clients are stuck with an essentially “unmanageable” business. They will have to make a business decision as to whether or not accommodating such clients is worth the impact it has on their business.

A Closer Look at “Delay the Response”

When we coach this strategy with well-established advisors, often their first reaction is to be concerned about disappointing clients. It’s important to realize that by delaying the response you create the only condition that allows you to not disappoint your clients. If you establish the expectation that you are always available to answer the telephone, the only possibility is that you will, from time to time, disappoint people who are calling. When you’re meeting with one client, you cannot interrupt that conversation to talk with someone else. When you’re on the telephone with one client, you can’t stop that call to take another. There are many times every week that you will not be able to fulfill the expectation that you will answer your telephone. 

By training clients to wait for a return call, you establish a contract that you can fulfill, instead of possibly disappointing them. In essence, this is an exercise in managing client expectations. Since you cannot always be available when someone wants you, it’s important that both you and your clients recognize and accept this limitation: you are running a big business, and every client deserves your focus of attention when they have a need. The only way you can provide this is to establish the meaningful limits of what each client can expect.

Using Time Intentionally

This delay allows you to manage your time intentionally. Instead of answering the telephone and responding in the moment, you can allow your sales assistant or receptionist to answer the phone, engage the client, take a message and arrange for the client to wait for your response. This allows you to use each hour according to your plan, rather than be interrupted by the impulsive needs of dozens of needy clients.

It’s important to understand that this approach does not mean that the client is ignored or neglected. It simply means that you’re able to decide when and how to respond to each client rather than allowing each client to determine your use of time. Responding to client needs is a high priority for any advisory practice. However, so are new client acquisition, face-to-face meetings with clients, preparing for annual reviews, building portfolios, fixing administrative problems and research. 

Understanding the Strategy and the Role of the Sales Assistant

This time-management strategy requires that the sales assistant or receptionist intercept and manage all incoming calls to the Financial Advisor. It assumes that the advisor will set aside one or two times each day to return calls to clients and that he will be using the rest of the hours to fulfill other priorities in the business. The idea is that by intercepting and effectively managing incoming calls, the advisor can respond to each client’s needs at a time that is convenient for the advisor and make that activity a priority.

The key to the strategy is how the sales assistant manages the client. When receiving the incoming call, the sales assistant must understand the following dynamics:

  1. The client’s need does not “trump” the FA’s need to manage her time. The client must wait for the FA to call him back regardless of how emotionally upset or urgent he feels about the issue. This may mean that the FA calls back in a few minutes (on rare occasions). More often, the FA will call back in the next window of time that is available. The sales assistant’s job is to manage the client’s needs and to arrange for him to delay gratification. Many good sales assistants have been trained to route client calls directly to the advisor regardless of the agenda. Assistants are often very busy managing the daily details of the business, and it will be important for the advisor to clearly educate all of the support staff about both the importance of managing the calls in the new way and the method that the staff should use.
  2. In balance with delaying the conversation, the client needs to feel important. In spite of the delay, the sales assistant and FA need to connect with the client during the first and subsequent calls.
  3. Finally, the advisor needs to know the reason for the call in order to prepare for the return call. The sales assistant must manage the client’s needs and ensure that he feels important. In addition, the assistant must clarify what the client is calling about and relay that message clearly to the FA. In some cases, understanding the nature of the call enables the sales assistant to respond to the client’s needs immediately without involving the FA at all. In these cases, our guidance would be for the FA to follow up later and “check in” with the client about the issue even though the sales assistant already resolved it.

The Method and Script

When the telephone rings, the sales assistant understands that no matter what the issue, the client will need to wait for the advisor to return a phone call. The following script allows the sales assistant to respond helpfully, make sure the client feels valued and important, find out what the issue is, and prepare the advisor to make the return call later in the day.

“Hello, this is Jane Doe in Bill Smith’s office. How may I help you?”

Sue Thompson, the client, asks to speak with the advisor.

“Oh, I’m sorry, Sue. Bill isn’t available right now. But I know he will want to talk with you. Are there a couple of good times today for him to call back? He can probably do that before the end of the day.”

Sue provides one or two times for the return call.

“I’ll make a note of those times. Let me also make a note about what this is in reference to.”

In many cases, Sue will provide the information about why she is calling. Then Jane will make a note and the call will end. In other cases, the client may say she would prefer ”just to talk to Bill.” In these cases, Sue must remember that she needs to provide some information about the reason for the call in order for Bill to be prepared when he calls the client back. The call should not be considered successful unless the advisor knows what he is returning a call about.

If Sue says she would prefer to talk with the advisor, Jane should say, “I totally understand that you want to discuss this with Bill; however, Bill prefers it if I put something down in the note. You know how detail-oriented Bill is.” In this way, the assistant joins with the client with a positive reflection on Bill’s detail-oriented style. This allows the client to share a bit more about the reason for the call.

The sales assistant can either provide hard-copy notes for each call for the FA to pick up at various times during the day or note each call on the advisor’s digital calendar. Using digital resources such as a BlackBerry or iPhone can be especially helpful if the advisor spends time out of the office doing new client outreach, as it enables calls to be returned without coming back to the office.

It may seem counterintuitive to delay responses, but in the long run, it serves two key purposes: (1) it allows you to better manage your time and become more efficient; and (2) it allows you to answer questions thoughtfully instead of instinctively. Give it a try, and let us know how it works. 

Ken Haman is the Managing Director at the AllianceBernstein Advisor Institute, visit