Ep. 183: Supercharging The Human Side of Advice with Julie Littlechild

Come on in and sit back relax, you’re listening to Episode 183 of the WealthTech Today podcast. I’m your host, Craig Iskowitz, founder of Ezra Group Consulting and this podcast features interviews, news and analysis on the trends and best practices all around Wealth Management Technology.

My guest today is Julie Littlechild, Founder and CEO of Absolute Engagement. Julie founded this company 9 years ago, mainly offering a client survey tool, laser focused on improving referrals for advisors, and they’ve been very successful. They recently launched a new product called the Absolute Engagement Engine which is combination of advice engagement tools and workflow automation which we will talk about more in the episode. 

Julie is also the author of the best selling book The Pursuit of Absolute Engagement: Intentionally Design a Business That Supports the Life You (Really) Want to Live”.  Before starting Absolute Engagement she was the founder of another company called Advisor Impact which also built client survey tools. 

If you’re impressed by that and you’re an executive at a broker dealer, an asset manager or an enterprise RIA you should run not walk to a website, EzraGroupllc.com and fill out the Contact Us form on the homepage to meet with us about your technology platform issues. Our experienced team can assist with software vendor evaluations systems integrations, improving operational efficiency, software implementations and a whole lot more. You can take advantage of our free initial consultation offer by going to EzraGroupllc.com. Now, let’s kick this thing off.

Topics Mentioned

  • Absolute Engagement Engine
  • Connecting Surveys and Referrals
  • The Human Side of Advice
  • Advisortech Map Category
  • What Integrations Do You Have?

Episode Transcript

Craig: I’m super excited to invite our next guest on the program. It is Julie, Littlechild founder and CEO of Absolute Engagement. Hey, Julie. Welcome.

Julie: Thank you so much. Thrilled to be here.

Craig: I am always happy to talk to you. And this is not your first time on the program, right? You’re a veteran wealthtech.

Julie: I’m absolutely. This is — I’m a two-peter

Craig: Right. A multiple — you’re a multiple-peter. You’ve been here, you know the deal.

Julie: I know the deal.

Craig: Where the deal are you calling in from Julie?

Julie: I’m at my home office just outside Toronto. So enjoying a little time at home, which is not a bad thing at all.

Craig: I love Toronto. I haven’t been there since pre-COVID, but can’t wait to go back when it’s summer.

Julie: Summer’s better. Spring and fall are awesome. You know, there are a few months you want to avoid. Let’s face it.

Craig: Let’s face it, there’s a few months.

Julie: Let’s face it. We don’t talk about those.

Craig: In Canada at any point in time. Unless I got my snowboard, then I’m in good shape. Cool. Let’s just jump right in Julie, can you provide the listeners 30 second overview for the 30 second elevator pitch for Absolute Engagement?

Julie: Absolutely. So our focus is on revealing and responding to the feelings, needs and priorities of prospects and clients, giving advisors the tools to respond to those things in real time and ultimately to drive personalized engagement at scale. Is that 30 seconds? Do I need some filler?

Craig: It’s pretty close.

Julie: Pretty close. All right.

Craig: I like how when you introduce Absolute Engagement, I say given the 30 second elevator pitch, you go, Absolutely! Because it’s absolute.

Julie: It’s on brand.

Absolute Engagement Engine

Craig: Keep it that way. I like it. And up until now you’ve mainly focused on referrals and client surveys. And you’ve recently launched a new product. Can you tell us what that is?

Julie: Yes. So the Absolute Engagement engine, or the engagement engine is all about — it’s still about capturing direct input from clients and prospects at its core, the difference with what we’re doing now is helping advisors capture what I would refer to as contextually relevant input at each stage of the client journey. So as a lead is visiting a website, as a prospect is coming in for a meeting as a new client is on-boarded or a client is coming in for review, it’s all about what do we need to understand about that client in that moment and how do we need to respond based on what they’re thinking and feeling? That’s what we do.

Craig: It’s so important to organize this and to bring this all into more of an automated process. Did you find that more clients are struggling with doing it manually?

Julie: I think that was a big part of the driver for us is in a way what we’re helping advisors do is have better, deeper, more engaging conversations at the right time and deliver a better experience. Now, you could argue, and I would never disagree that advisors are often quite good at having good conversations. I mean, for many of them, that’s their superpower, right? And so in no world would I say we think we can replace that. But what we did observe is that to do that consistently, to do it at the right time, to do it in a way that appreciated that that client feelings and needs are changing was challenging. And so what we tried to do is say, look, how can we make this more efficient and more effective so that advisors can focus on exactly the right things when they’re in those conversations?

Craig: And full disclosure, for everyone listening, I am on the advisory board of Absolute Engagement. So we’ve heard about this product for a while. I’m super excited that it’s here. One of the big — one of the big parts of the product, I thought the benefits of the product I thought were going to be driving the sales is that it’s real time. That in the past they’ve had to wait weeks or months to get the data. Now they can get it right away in real time almost. What’s the benefit you see in having that over the old method?

Julie: It has to do I think with the relevance of the response. So look, we’ve done surveys, as you mentioned for many years. I’m a believer in gathering feedback and the traditional method of doing that would be a point in time survey. Maybe it’s once a year. I have some clients who say once every 10 years there’s a range on that, but there’s a point in time and it’s a one-to-many survey, right? So we survey all of our clients and there’s some real benefits to that if you want to measure satisfaction or you want to understand expectations. But the limitation is if you’re trying to go deeper, if you’re trying to understand what people are feeling, what they’re concerned about, that’s very specific to the time. It’s very fluid and it’s different within couples.

Julie: And so the survey just doesn’t work for that. I can’t ask you. I mean, imagine Craig, we were having a meeting, I was your advisor, and I said, look four months ago you filled in a survey and you told me you were a bit concerned about this. Can we talk about it, you going like, that was four months ago. I changed the next day. So what was missing in that is for certain types of data, we need it to be relevant to the time of the conversation and we need it to be one to one or within couples, otherwise it’s stale data.

Craig: And the way data’s moving these days, even a couple hours sometimes makes a difference.

Julie: Sometimes. Yeah. Well, I mean that is the challenge and at least it allows you to open up a conversation to say, look, as you were coming in for our review, this is how you responded and how you were feeling. This is how your spouse or partner responded, which is an important part of it. And therefore here are the conversations that we need to have right now. And so that’s what we’re trying to make more effective and efficient

Connecting Surveys and Referrals

Craig: With so many different tools out there. It’s important to have one that can help your firm grow. The growth engine of RIAs is referrals and prospecting. How do you see that connecting with the product you already have, which is the client survey tool. So how do they of link together?

Julie: Well, there’s two things there. I think they’re important. The way they link together is that there is still a place often for that point in time or occasional set of questions that you want to ask all of your clients. So that is one of the features we can still deliver on that. So traditionally it might be firms that say we want to measure satisfaction or we want to measure net promoter score, we want to pull testimonials out of that perhaps more recently. That makes absolute sense to do that on an occasional basis. You mentioned referrals. That’s the other thing that I think on an occasional basis is great to pull out those untapped opportunities. You don’t need to do it at every conversation, but it works well. So that became one of the features of the overall engine.

Julie: We can gather that one time or point in time data, but we can also add in that more real-time one-to-one data and growth. I guess I just sort of pick up on your comment on growth. The other limitation of the traditional client survey is it’s a client survey, right? It didn’t actually account for capturing input from prospects. And yet if we can capture input about how our leads and prospects are feeling and what they think and what’s on their mind, that’s going to drive growth as well because it’s going to make for a more powerful conversation.

Craig: The word feeling is so broad and it’s hard to know what someone is feeling, but knowing what they’re feeling is often the difference between a client who converts into a client versus someone who ghosts you or just moves on to something else.

Julie: It is, and it’s an interesting challenge because I think every advisor would go, of course we need to know how people feel. And whenever I meet with a prospect or whenever I meet with a client, the first thing I’m going to ask is, what do you want to discuss and how are you feeling right now? The problem is we’re human and we don’t answer those questions particularly well. If you ask me how I’m feeling, you sound fine, things are fine, and then we tick that box and we move on. I think the beauty of what we’re trying to help advisors do is to capture that data before the meeting, to give the prospecting clients some time to consider not a set of questions. And we don’t say what’s on your mind and what are you concerned about? We give — we feed them, right? So we try to tease out the issues and that’s what makes it so effective is that now you’re sitting down as an advisor and you’ve already got that insight. You can go straight to the core of what’s important.

The Human Side of Advice

Craig: One of the benefits of a tool like the Absolute Engagement Engine in my mind is that it levels the playing field because advisors are human, as you mentioned. Let’s emphasize that advisors are human.

Julie: Yes. They are. 

Craig: Which means there’s very big differences in their capabilities and their abilities and how they interact with clients and prospects. Some people are more empathetic, some people just have that innate ability to connect with other people on a deeper level or pick up nonverbal cues and understand their feelings right away. But I think a lot of people don’t have that ability. So I think a tool like yours would you agree, can level the playing field and raise up the ability of a lot of advisors who maybe don’t have those innate capabilities.

Julie: I love that point actually, because you’re so right. We talk about it as if everybody does, but these are — this is a different skillset, right? This is very much the softer side of what advisors do, and we’re talking a lot more about the human side of advice. This is part of that. Right? And you’re right. It makes it easier and it makes it more comfortable so that you’re starting with that information. You don’t have to tease it out. That’s a completely different skillset. And, you know what, I think it makes it easier for clients as well because by just answering a set of questions, they’ve effectively told you how they’re feeling without it feeling overly intrusive.

Advisortech Map Category

Craig: One area I wanted to talk about was where your product, where the engagement engine fits what category it falls under. We had this discussion earlier and yeah, as everyone knows, I partner with Michael Kitces, on the Kitces Ezra Group advisortech map, which just dropped the April version of it just dropped this week. And we put everyone into a category. Now sometimes it’s easy. 

Craig: But sometimes it’s hard because applications have multiple functions, We initially put the engine in the workflow support category because it has strong workflow features. It connects different parts of the advisors applications together. And it’s got — it fits seamlessly into existing workflows. It automates a lot of things. But you said, well, why aren’t we in the advice engagement category. Can you explain why you feel it should be in an engagement versus workflow?

Julie: I’ve been thinking a lot about it because the way, as you explain it, I completely understand both sides of it. And it’s an — so it’s an interesting question for me as well. I think from an advice engagement perspective, this is not about delivering better technical advice, right? So I want to be clear about that. It is about delivering more contextually relevant advice and ensuring that advisors have the tools and the opportunity to have the best possible conversation. So that’s where I was thinking of it. The workflow pieces is interesting to me as well. And the best example I can give there, and maybe what leads it, and to you to think of it in this category is you could say, look, I’ve got a great experience, a great process for setting client reviews.

Julie: We’ve got eight steps and Mary does this and it’s all automated and wonderful, very efficient process. What’s usually missing from that is client input. So we work with two different types of advisors, those that have a workflow, and we’re trying to make it better by injecting the voice to the client into that co-creating the agenda, focusing on the right things. We also work with some who don’t have a workflow in that sense, don’t have a standardized agenda. And we’ve become that workflow, if you will.

Julie: And so the main difference for me, and what I’m interested from your perspective is there is a workflow component without doubt. And what’s been missing from workflows generally is the voice of the client in all of this. So we do have these workflows. Similarly, you could use the tool to create a completely different poll, right? It could be completely configured we’re — I don’t know, we’re doing a workshop. What should — what are the topics you’re interested in? You know, we could do pulse pools, we could do other sorts of things. So it’s a little broader in that sense.

Craig: It’s sort of like the old Saturday Night Live commercial. It’s a dessert topping, it’s a floor wax, it’s both!

Julie: But some of your ice cream sundae.

Craig: But that isn’t, don’t you find that as you build out this map to be the big challenge? I know we did as we were launching this new tool to say it does so much and that’s good and bad, right? Because it does so much. And yet it’s really those specific use cases that seem to resonate more. You can use this tool to drive growth. You can use this to drive engagement. You can use it to measure the relationship. And I have to imagine that’s where the confusion of advisors sits as well as they look at the array of options now.

Craig: It’s becoming more complicated. In the past, in this map, Michael started the map in 2017 and there were fewer categories then. And fewer applications, then it expanded. We created the advice engagement category sort of as a catch-all. Because we had a bunch of applications that we didn’t know where to put them because they didn’t fit neatly into any of the other buckets. So a companies like Asset Map and FP Alpha, and ForwardLane we think —

Julie: Bento’s in there.

Craig: Bento Engine, fpPathfinder, Elements, Lumiant are now all in that category, but it was only three or four than when we started. More have come in. And now firms are seeing — now we’re getting calls from vendors. How do we get into the device engagement category?

Julie: Right. Isn’t that interesting?

Craig: It’s become a hot category. Oh, that’s what we do. We do engagement. Yes. Put us in there. Like, well, everyone kind of does that. And especially your firm, it’s in the name of your company.

Julie: It’s about engagement that much, I’ll say for sure.

Craig: Absolutely. It’s absolutely that engaging.

Julie: Absolutely. 

Craig: I can see it could be in either and a case can be made either way. And I think for a lot of companies that are listening to this, you’re thinking about what category you should be in. And if it’s not immediately clear, sometimes it’s better to be in the category with less vendors. That people can find you easier than if you were in a more crowded category. There’s just too many. So that’s another — it’s a marketing tool in some respects.

Julie: And this is — but I think this is representative of the challenge we see for advisors, because at the end of the day, it’s what are the objectives? What are the problems they’re trying to solve? And that’s going to help them choose the tools that are right. So it’s complicated because it’s complicated. There’s just, and there are new objectives being met and new categories presumably being created. I do a fair bit of work on different judging panels and the number of categories explodes year after year after year. Same issue.

Craig: It’s an evolution as in any field, firms keep coming in, new ideas come in, people look at things differently. Sometimes people come in from other industries and see it with a different point of view, and it’s a slow migration or evolution over time. We rarely see completely new things come in. Occasionally, Completely new things come in and disrupt the status quo. But that’s not common and so that’s — so we’ve a dded categories.

Craig: In fact, the two categories we’re talking about now, workflow support and advice engagement didn’t exist last year on the map. So those are brand new. It’s a constant change as we see more vendors coming in different areas that encourages us to say, well, where these don’t really fit. Like we were talking about CRM and I want to talk about how the engagement engine connects to CRM when we were talking about CRM versus CRM overlay and what does that mean?

What Integrations Do You Have?

Craig: But it becomes semantic. A semantic discussion about what is actually an overlay. Is it an app exchange app where I can just plug it into my existing Salesforce implementation or Salesforce instance, or is it a whole another version of Salesforce? If they built it so customized, then I really have to do a whole conversion. It’s not the same thing. So it’s not really an overlay, but it requires Salesforce. So kind of is so, but how does Absolute Engagement engine integrate?

Julie: We get to make some decisions as we were building this out. Right now you would have a label for it with your map, but it’s often just SSO or a light kind of integration. But that is one of the biggest things that we’re looking at right now. So we built as a standalone to start, and that was a conscious decision to say, we need to know what this does and how it can impact advisors and get them using it. And then we want to focus on integration, which is exactly where we’re at, and we’re gathering insights. I don’t know if you find this, but everyone has a different definition of what integration is. So what we are looking at is at a minimum, being able to not recreate workflows that already exist in the CRM, being able to push sort of insights and documents and what not into CRM.

Julie: But at the most fundamental level, what we wanted to ensure was the CRM was the source of truth on contact data. In no world did we want to say we’ve got two lists of clients who are participating. So that’s where we started. And we’re now just at that point of looking for, how can we, we don’t want another app. We don’t want another platform. We want to work within those workflows where possible.That’s how we see it flowing going forward and more to come. But equally, we’re looking at integrations with marketing platforms, email distribution, we capture a lot of information on what people are concerned about and what they’re interested in. Well, in my mind, that should trigger some customized nurture and follow up based on those topics. And then there’s just the basic sort of BIs there, what data is feeding into the leadership team on satisfaction or net promoter and those sorts of things. There’s a few different areas we’re looking at there.

Craig: I love that. And you’ve come to the right place if you’re looking for a definition of integrations.

Julie: I know.

Craig: At Ezra Group, we created the wealth tech integration score just for that reason because no one really knew what an integration was or how to measure it. And we had spent years and years working with vendors and very frustrated clients who didn’t know what integrated with what even when the vendor told them. And a lot of times they would have built a bunch of SSOs and claim they have integrations. SSO is really not much of an integration in our scoring. It’s the basic, it’s a one out of five. Right. So it’s a good place to start and it makes sense that you started out with the standalone app and you add the integrations now.

Julie: I know that the work you’re doing there is helpful for advisors, it’s really helpful for vendors. I can assure you because it gives us a way to think about it in a more clear and structured way. So thank you for that.

Craig: Hey, you’re welcome. Anything we can do to help? But along the way, so you’re talking about CRMs that you don’t want to recreate the workflow, so the CRM as a source of truth which is perfect. That’s how most other vendors are doing it as well. They’re not trying to replace the CRM but they want to interact with it, send data to it, pull data from it.

Julie: Yes.

Craig: And we’re seeing advisors spending more time than they used to. They used to spend a lot of time in the CRM and now these other tools are fronting the CRM and they’re spending more time in the advice engagement tool or the workflow tool or the meeting automation tool. And then the CRM just becomes a backend database. Is that something you’re seeing as well?

Julie: Absolutely. You just touched on something that I’m excited about with the future around different data flows. Like we know the data we capture, we’re very clear on that. But what excites me is how we can combine that with other data sources going forward. So if you just took our data at a point in time, you come in, you’re a client, I’ve got great insights on how you’re feeling. The next time you come in, I’ve got even more insight because now I see change. You add your spouse into that. I’ve got, so even with our data, the longer term we’re capturing that obviously the more insights we can drive to the advisor. We’ve always known that. But then we’re talking to some of our clients about how do we connect this now to the backend so that we can see the impact I don’t use the word predictive lightly in any sense of the word, but the ability to see how clients are responding as they’re coming in and if, or how that connects to fund flows or leaving or risk or what have you. That to me is a really kind of cool part of the future.

Craig: Absolutely. I’d like to see that. When you’re pulling in the leads, feelings, priorities of leads and prospects, how you categorize those. And then can that be — can the AI identify patterns between the feelings, priorities of a lead when they are a lead versus their actions when they become a client and following them over the years?

Julie: Exactly.

Craig: So does it change, so like, only an AI can do that. Looking at all the data across depending on the size of your firm could be hundreds or thousands or thousands, not thousands, hundreds, or thousands of clients over years or decades. Here’s how they came in as a lead. Now here’s what the outcome of them is. Oh, they left after a year, or they’re our best clients and so those type of patterns I think would be very helpful.

Julie: They are. And there’s a couple of core indices that we created. One is around confidence and one is around concerns where we calculate a score. And we also have an alignment score between couples. And so just having that snapshot, so you’re going into a meeting and you can see that graph. Here’s how Bob responded, here’s how Mary responded, here’s how it’s changed over time is going to drive far different and I think more interesting and relevant conversations.

Craig: And that’s why I do lean towards putting you in the advice and engagement category. Because a lot of other engagement tools do similar things, different bits and pieces where they’ll try to help the advisor communicate with the non CFO spouse.

Julie: Yeah. And I love that. That’s what I love about this. There’s a lot of people looking at the same issues, but from different perspectives. Lumiant has some great stuff around that and so I would agree completely, we need to do that. We just look at it from, you know, different parts of the journey. But I think, I’ve seen a couple lately where they’ve come out with, you know, like capturing a couple of data points on clients and being able to have a conversation. I love that stuff. We’re really looking at the overtime piece of it and how that changes the conversation. So it’s the data plus the workflow and, you know, that’s where the magic happens, I think.

Market Trends

Craig: Speaking of over time, what trends are you seeing in the market? What data points do you have that you can share about the back that up?

Julie: Our focus is obviously very much on experience and engagement. We do our annual investor study every year, go right across channel, across country. We’re just about to go into field with the current one. And what has always captured our imagination and has sort of informed what we do is, you know, the basic idea of satisfaction versus engagement. We know that 90% plus of clients are satisfied. We know that they’re loyal. That’s not our issue. We see that engagement, which we define more as both satisfied and providing referrals is relatively low. So there are some gaps, there’s some opportunities. What I found most compelling about the data over the last few years is we began to sort of scratch below the surface on how people were feeling. And it would be no surprise to you if I said we segmented the data by age.

Julie: So no surprise, younger people want more digital. I mean, everybody says that and it’s true, that’s why they say that. But what I noticed is that the older segment was vastly different in terms of mindset. So the things that they were worried about, their concerns, their priorities, the level of stress, particularly in the 45 to 54 year old segment were vastly different from every other segment. And that had a negative halo effect, unsatisfaction and loyalty and net promoter score. So I think, you know, what the data is showing us just in those examples is, we need to be on top of changing expectations because we’ve gotta deliver that, but we’ve gotta go deeper to understand what’s really on their mind. Otherwise, we’ve got client segments who may be at risk right now and they happen to be some of our most important clients because they’re heading into retirement. And if we’re not capturing that change, they may look elsewhere or they’d be open to another conversation

Craig: That is an issue that all advisors have. Right? And they all run into that, you know, especially that age segment.

Julie: Exactly. And to me that underpins a lot of the experience trends. So we look at a trend toward a more co-created client experience where the client has a — which is exactly what we’re doing. The client has a role in defining the agenda, for example a personalization. Look, it’s not, I’m not the first to say that, and I won’t be the last, but I think it’s an incredibly important part of how we need to deliver the experience going forward. And I think technology’s making this possible in a way it didn’t in the past. And even, you know, maybe related to that, there’s been a lot of talk around how technology can support a very human process, right? How can technology else actually help us have deeper conversations and support clients in a different way. There’s a lot of innovation in all of these areas. And I think that’s because those are the trends that we’re seeing in the data as well.

Craig: That’s exactly what we’re looking for. Can you talk about the — we’re running out of time, but I want to squeeze in one more question. What’s on the roadmap for the absolute engagement engine this year?

Julie: So three big things. We’ve talked about integration and that is very much at the top of the list. Expanding the notion of who responds from an individual or couple to the entire family. So really looking at the multi-generational input and how that drives the plan and process and leaning into that data and analysis over time to get deeper insights. So all of that’s really kind of consuming us in terms of the development plans.

Craig: Terrific. Alright. So we’re out of time. Julie, tell us where we can find out more about Absolute Engagement?

Julie: Absoluteengagement.com. There’s information on the product. You can see our blog and access any of our ongoing research there.

Craig: Julie, thank you so much. Being on the program is always a pleasure to speak with you.

Julie: Thank you. Appreciate you.

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The Wealth Tech Today blog is published by Craig Iskowitz, founder and CEO of Ezra Group, a boutique consulting firm that caters to banks, broker-dealers, RIA’s, asset managers and the leading vendors in the surrounding #fintech space. He can be reached at craig@ezragroupllc.com

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