"Mind maps" are transforming how advisors communicate with clients and staff and how they organize information throughout the firm. Results include better-informed clients, significant time savings, higher retention rates and increased fee revenue.
A mind map is a one-page visual method of organizing and capturing information. It is based on a circular format, with relevant topics branching off a central theme. Each branch, in turn, can be broken down into sub-branches/subtopics that link to related documents.
Financial advisory firms use this methodology not only for client meetings and document management but also for internal meetings and documents.
"This is so much more effective than an agenda," said Susan G. Schildt, certified financial planner and managing principal at Stratford Consulting.
Her firm began using mind maps five years ago as a way to engage clients after they came on board.
Because everything is on one page, a mind map helps both advisors and clients make sure nothing falls through the cracks.
"It's a visual way to show how everything is integrated," Schildt said. "It helps clients focus on the things that are important and [they] can control." (See mind map example below.)
Source: Coyle Financial Counsel
"For example," she added, "it helps clients think through 'How does this money help me reach my goals?' instead of focusing on return."
Gary Klaben is president of Coyle Financial Counsel and offers training programs to other advisors in the use of mind maps. His firm has been using this methodology since 2006.
"The main reason we started using mind maps was that it gave clients the ability to gain clarity and understanding about their complex financial lives," he said.
Once a year, clients are given a 17-inch by 14-inch printout of their financial mind map.
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"They want a tangible document in their hand," Klaben said. "That is more important to them than any wire-house statements. It's in plain English and understandable."
One of the topic branches on Klaben's maps is called "Communication," with sub-branches that show what kinds of contacts clients will receive from the firm and when. There are also sub-branches that show contact information for financial team members, such as accountants, attorneys and custodians.
"Clients love it," said John Hochschwender, a CFP and executive vice president of RTD Financial Advisors. "It's especially good for non-linear questions with a multitude of answers, such as 'What would you do if got $10 million?'"
Hochschwender saw someone using mind maps to take notes at a conference five years ago, and he was immediately sold.
"That was exactly what we needed," he said. "We were going paperless, and we had all these documents scanned."
"But we were dealing with [questions such as] 'Where is all this stuff when we need it at the meeting?'" he added. "Mind maps allow us to organize all this information in one spot."
Hochschwender said the technique enables him to deliver better meetings.
"It takes less time to get ready for a meeting, and we're never scrambling around looking for things," he said.
"We can do more financial planning in the moment," because documents are linked to the one-page map, he explained. "For example, a client says, 'I don't know who my executor is.' So I can say, 'OK, here's your will.' There's no more 'I'll get back to you.'"
For his part, Klaben, at Coyle Financial Counsel, said mind mapping allows him and his colleagues to see how much time they are actually putting in for clients.
"It made us realize that we needed to charge a retainer to some clients," he said. "There was no pushback because we could easily show them all the areas where we were working for them."
The first year after the firm instituted mind maps, the new retainers increased the firm's revenues by 10 percent. Retainer fees now comprise more than 35 percent of total revenue.
The clarity and detail of client mind maps also helped the support team understand clients' situations better, in turn allowing all staff to provide better backup.
"We've institutionalized the information," Klaben said. "So I can walk away, and the team can deal with 95 percent of issues."
"Mind maps totally changed our practice," said Rob O'Dell, a CFP with Wheaton Wealth Partners.
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The firm, which is a paperless office, has run entirely on mind maps since 2010 and uses them for both client management and internal business management.
"We don't use pen and paper—all notes are taken on the mind map," he said.
During client meetings, participants view presentations on a 60-inch screen. The right-hand side of the mind map portrays more conceptual and social topics, while the left side is for more objective, number-oriented topics. However, the software allows users to organize the branches any way they wish.
Some other ways O'Dell's staff uses mind maps include:
"Clients choose us because of this approach," O'Dell said. "Four of the last six new clients came to us because they were intrigued by the mind map we have on the website."
—By Deborah Nason, special to CNBC.com