As a company, Mathews Comfort has been going a long time – the business was first established in 1851.
We started off as a business geared around life, pensions and insurance, based in the centre of Oxford.
The way the business has grown and evolved over time has been by advisers coming in as employees and then buying shares in the business, and that’s always been how the business has progressed.
We as directors feel we are custodians of the Mathews Comfort name and brand, and so we’re keen to see this carry on to the next generation.
Our more recent history saw the company split in the late 1980s into separate financial services and insurance businesses, with the insurance side then sold in 2017.
One of our directors, Dan Weston (now our chief executive), had been moving away from the advice model for several years towards a more holistic approach to financial planning.
This has naturally led to changes in the way we service our clients and ultimately led to working with Standards International.
They came in and completed a business review which really helped us step back and look at the business, helping us clarify the changes we needed to make in the operational side of the business.
Beginning the change process
Previously, we had very much run the firm as a lifestyle business. We wanted to change this to make it more structured and make it a business that would grow with us into the next few decades and beyond.
We recognised we needed to make that change, particularly due to the way the business was growing, but we weren’t quite sure where to start.
Starting the business review process was great, scary and mind-blowing, all at the same time!
Once we'd started the journey, we joined The Woww!® by Design Development Programme™ in January 2019, and we’re now about halfway through it.
A big piece of work that we did was around communication. One of the things we identified quite early on was that we didn’t communicate in the best way we could with our clients – or with each other.
We used email a lot, certainly for clients. When we started to look at how to improve our communications, we realised client communications was a big part of this.
One idea we looked at was producing an app. This ultimately led to our own branded app, MCFP Connect, supplied by Moneyinfo.
This allows clients to connect to their money, review their bank accounts and pensions and get a real-time snapshot of where their finances are, while it allows us to message them securely.
Also, we liked that we could brand it as our own and make it bespoke to us.
Now, when clients come in for a planning meeting who aren’t signed up to the app, a dedicated person on the team will take 10 minutes to explain what the app does, and how it fits in with our communication with them.
We’ve tried other approaches, such as email, but we’ve found that a quick face-to-face session works best, and it’s a better experience for the client as well.
The change that worked
Another important change we’ve made is hiring our client relationship manager Vicki Smith.
Before we hired Vicki, most of our communication had been done through the financial planners. We wanted to bring in the wider team into the way we kept in touch with clients, so that they don’t just see one person but see the team as a whole.
As well as helping clients with MCFP Connect, Vicki does a lot of face-to-face work with clients. This includes running our client advisory board, together with Dan.
This was introduced after Vicki joined us, and the meetings are held every four months. They’re a great way to discuss with clients about how things are going, any new ideas and how we can improve.
It gives the client a voice and a way to tell us what they like about working with us, as well as perhaps the things that aren’t working so well.
We also looked at our client journey and redesigned the workflow so that clients had more touch points with the wider team beyond just the financial planner, including the technical assistants and paraplanners.
In terms of client-facing changes, another decision we made was to move from our old Oxford city offices and into the building we’re in now in North Leigh, which we completely renovated.
We’ve got three different types of client meeting room, and also created a ‘discovery room’ in our reception area.
This is a more relaxed environment, particularly for new clients, with sofas, nice lighting and coffee machines. It puts people at ease, but also makes the conversation flow a bit easier without feeling constrained by a typical office environment.
We’ve done a lot, but it’s because we’ve realised that communication isn’t just about talking – it’s about how people feel the moment they step into the office. If they’re relaxed from the outset, it makes for a better financial planning conversation.
Our internal structure
As part of our business review process, we’ve put in a place a more organised team structure with a clear framework for who does what.
It changed from having financial planners at the centre of the business, and that dictating things like new hires, to having a greater understanding of what it is the business needs.
We’ve spoken to the team about their aspirations, and some roles have changed as a result.
But having a good structure in place also means they communicate better between themselves and with the management team.
If they’ve got an issue, they know where to go, but there’s also greater clarity around what people’s roles and responsibilities are.
We’ve also introduced more structure to our internal meetings: a strategic board meeting every three months; ‘level 10’ management meetings every week; and staff meetings every month.
The board is more strategic, while the management team can get on with running the business.
If we’ve got a project on the go it’s not the board that’ll tell us how it’s run, but the managers and the wider team that’s part of the project. They then work together on the best way forward.
When we started staff meetings, it was probably me doing most of the talking.
Now what we’ve found works well is to have a different member of staff chairing the meeting each time. This was initially quite scary for some people to put themselves out there, but they got there with a bit of encouragement.
Challenges and lessons learned
The hardest thing about all this is you can sometimes forget that people can be quite scared of change, especially if you’re someone used to managing change yourself.
It may be that people need to be coaxed into doing things differently, or doing things they’re not used to.
But I’ve got to say the team here have been fantastic, and have been prepared to try new things and take different ways of working on board.
Admittedly, there have been times when change hasn’t worked.
We’ve been trying to manage an open office and cater to different styles of working, and tried a ‘red flag’ system to show when people were trying to concentrate or not to be disturbed.
Sometimes the red flag was forgotten and left ‘on’ all day, so that didn’t quite work. The team have also been very patient where we’ve tried different office layouts.
The view from Michelle Hoskin
Standards International founder and director Michelle Hoskin says:
"Mathews Comfort are a shining example of how a determination to achieve more can, with collaboration and creativity, propel a good business to become a Woww! business - realising their full potential and securing an amazing future."
But it’s all a learning curve, and you just have to keep practicing. You won’t get everything right, but you can only improve through trying and learning what works.
Going through this process and making these changes has definitely made us better at communicating with our clients, and we also work better as a team.
Rather than each of us boxing ourselves in, we collaborate a lot more across departments.
It’s been a rollercoaster ride, but then as a small team it means we can make changes pretty quickly, and we can be flexible if things aren’t working.
For me, I think the biggest thing I’ve learned over the last year or so is you’ve got to learn to listen.
Clearly, part of communication is about getting your point across, but it’s also about being willing to sit back and listen to everyone else.
The biggest change for us as a business has been realising it’s not about the management team telling the team and our clients what we want them to do.
Instead we’ve learned to open ourselves up to suggestions, listened and created more of a two-way dialogue. There’s still a lot for us to do, but we’re also a lot further forward than when we started.