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The Value of Creating Personalized Financial Services Experiences With Valarie Vest

Valarie Vest

Valarie Vest is the Executive Vice President and Chief Experience Officer of Cambridge Investment Research, an internally-controlled financial solutions firm dedicated to serving independent financial advisors and their clients. The company offers a range of flexible solutions, including advising, growth, technology, independence, and more. 

Valarie has over 20 years of experience in the financial services industry. Additionally, she's a corporate innovator and leadership coach who works directly with financial professionals and associates to identify emerging trends and translate insights into actionable strategies.

Here’s a glimpse of what you’ll learn:

  • Valarie Vest talks about Cambridge Investment Research and how it helps people

  • The foundational tools for driving customer experience

  • How Cambridge tailors to the different personas of their clients

  • What is journey mapping? 

  • Valarie discusses how to design better experiences as a financial advisor

  • Technology tips to enhance customer interaction

  • Valarie shares her thoughts on AI tools, critical thinking, and leadership

In this episode…

Building a successful practice as an independent financial advisor can be daunting. It's no longer enough to offer sound financial advice — clients expect more from their advisors. They want personalized service and seamless experiences. 

Valarie Vest, an expert in the field, says that the key to success as a financial advisor is creating exceptional customer experiences. Through this, advisors can attract more clients, retain existing ones, and establish a base of loyal, satisfied customers. Unfortunately, not all financial advisors possess the expertise to create these lasting impressions. She recommends partnering with firms that offer advice, technology, and growth strategies to enable advisors to serve their clients better. 

In this episode of The Customer Wins, Richard Walker sits down with Valarie Vest, Executive Vice President and Chief Experience Officer of Cambridge Investment Research, to discuss how financial advisors can thrive through better customer experiences. Valarie talks about how Cambridge, the foundational tools for connecting with customers, and how to design better experiences as a financial advisor.

Resources mentioned in this episode:

Sponsor for this episode...

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Meanwhile, our mission is to help the top firms in the financial industry raise their bottom line by streamlining the customer experience with automated, convenient solutions.

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Episode Transcript:

Intro 0:02 

Welcome to The Customer Wins podcast where business leaders discuss their secrets and techniques for helping their customers succeed and in turn grow their business.

Richard Walker 0:16 

Hi, I'm Rich Walker, the host of The Customer Wins where I talk to business leaders about how they help their customers win and how their focus on customer experience leads to growth. Some of our past guests have included Cody Foster of Advisors Excel, and Geoff Moore of Valmark Financial Group. Today I get to speak with Valarie Vest chief experience officer with Cambridge investment research. And today's episode is brought to you by Quik! the leader in enterprise forms processing. When your business relies upon processing forms, don't waste our team's valuable time reviewing the forms, instead get Quik! using our Form Xtract API, simply submit your completed forms and get back clean, context rich data that is 99.9% accurate. Visit to get started. Now before I introduce today's guest, I want to give a big thank you to Chip Kispert of Beacon Strategies for introducing me to Valarie at a recent roundtable go check out Beacon's website at to find out when the next roundtables are going to start. Now we're really excited to talk with today's guest, Valarie Vest. She is the Senior Vice President and Chief Experience Officer for Cambridge Investment Research and has over 20 years of experience in the financial services industry. In her role, she works with teams across the firm to further align and drive key business strategies and outcomes designed to deliver world class financial, professional and associate experiences. She also works directly with financial professionals and Associates as well as cameras, executive and leadership teams to facilitate ongoing journey mapping consumer and Associate Research and other feedback methods. Valarie earned her bachelor's degree in economics from the University of Washington and holds the FINRA series 724 and 66 Licenses. Val, welcome to The Customer Wins.

Valarie Vest 2:03 

Well, thank you Rich, I am super excited to be here. And I just have to give a shout out when I hear my alma mater mentioned, Go Dogs, they're in the top four.

Richard Walker 2:14 

That's awesome. Now I'm the worst person who comments on that because I know nothing about sports. So if you haven't heard this podcast before, I talked with business leaders about what they're doing to help their customers win, how they built deliver a great customer experience and the challenges to growing their own company. Val, I want to understand your role a little bit better. How do you help people?

Valarie Vest 2:33 

Yeah, how do I help people? Well, I just I'd say personally, that's just part of who and what I hope to do, personally and professionally. But I've spent my entire professional career being client facing and being out and about with people. So I'm always thinking about and I've spent a lot of time thinking about, how do I create value to your point? How do I help people? How do I serve people, whether that is the end client or my team? And what does that mean? And it's interesting, when I first got into this business over 20 years ago, there really wasn't a name for customer experience or CX that I suppose it probably if you look back in history, it existed but it didn't exist the way it does today, we're actually have a title with that, which is kind of cool. But I really feel like I've been looking to serve people and help people. And you do that by understanding them by understanding what they need, and then working to take action and deliver on that.

Richard Walker 3:39 

Yeah, so let's give some more context to our listeners. I know Cambridge Investment Research, because they were one of our very, very first customers back in 2003, when they were about 300 advisors. And here we are today still working together, which I'm super proud of but give everybody and understanding what does Cambridge Investment Research do? And how is it helping its people?

Valarie Vest 3:58 

Yeah, absolutely. So Cambridge Investment Research, we are a financial solutions organization. And so what that means is we help financial advisors help their clients. So anyone who works with a financial advisor, if your financial advisors with Cambridge, we're helping support them. So we're helping support them with technology and with investment solutions and with service so that they can both best meet their clients’ needs.

Richard Walker 4:28 

And your company. Like I said, I've known you guys a long time, but you're over 3800 financial professionals today, right?

Valarie Vest 4:34 

Yeah, exactly. So we're over 3800 financial professionals, you know, some of the numbers, you know, we have over 150 billion in assets under advisement. So we're, I would say a unique in that we are still internally controlled as well in our industry. And so what does that mean for people? I've worked at different companies over my career, but we still very much based on how we're organized, make decisions every single day in the best interest of our financial advisors as well as obviously, what serves our customers and we have this, I always say, this space to make those decisions. So we're not trying to hit an earnings call or have, an outside investor that we have to answer to we answer to our financial advisors.

Richard Walker 5:26 

But I think that's demonstrated because you guys have one broker dealer of the year countless times, I believe.

Valarie Vest 5:32 

Right, right. Yeah, the thing that is with that is really, truly being a financial solutions organization. So obviously, being a broker dealer is the, our history of where we've came from. But if you just think about where the industry is moving, and where it's going into the future, it really is about solutions. What does that mean? Whether it's broker dealer, and RIA, financial planning, FinTech technology, how do we leverage all those things? And so, we really look across the board, and even at the industry as a whole, for those that maybe aren't in the financial services industry and thinking about that, we really have demographic, how do we get younger people into this business? What does that look like? And all those aspects of that are part of how we deliver serve our financial advisors, but also, again, the end customer and the industry as a whole.

Richard Walker 6:33 

Yeah. So something you said, when I first asked you the question about how you help people is understanding, I was really lucky, because I was introduced to the book, 7 Habits of Highly Effective People when I was 17 years old. And one of the key techniques is to seek to understand before being understood, and I've really honored that. So I'm curious what techniques you use to really try to understand and therefore come up with better solutions.

Valarie Vest 6:58 

Yeah, I will, before I answer the question, I will say that it's, like you said, empathy, and big part of this role is understanding to your point is that empathy, which is the emotion that's tied to it, and we can get into some of that, but the other thing I've been focusing on is compassion. And in my mind, compassion is action. So it's one thing to understand and to listen. And that is a huge part of what my day in and day out work is. But then also, how do we have compassion and take action with what we learned, but how do we? Yeah, and it rhymes, compassion is action. So I've been really focusing on what that looks like. And so I think your original question, though, as I went off topic, there is, how do we seek to understand, how do we listen, and a lot of that is really just foundational tools in the CX world, in the customer experience world. And knowing who our clients are, knowing what the personas are having those, not just segmentations, but surely understanding the different personas that we serve. And then creating those journey maps. So those, again, is nothing specific to our industry. But with that journey, I always joke around, am I the chief experience officer or the chief feelings officer? We applying empathy map on top of that. So what is that persona? What is that customer? What are they thinking? What are they feeling? And what are they doing in each of those moments across that journey, and really understanding that and in basis, and from there, that helps us know where best and where to prioritize and take action, because if you really want to be compassionate, and take action, we can spread ourselves out too thin. And there's always someplace that we can go and do things, but how do we truly focus in and know we're going to make an impact and help people. And we use that as one of our tools.

Richard Walker 9:14 

So I really love that you bring empathy into this and feeling and emotion because, I mean, the best business is driven off emotion. I mean, that's what branding is all about. It's creating a predisposition towards a certain brand and emotional disposition that you have. And the Cambridge brand is obviously rooted in this. So one of the things I think about is I started my business because I actually hated filling out paperwork. And I figured nobody likes filling out paperwork. But over time, we've had to realize what are people going through? And what therefore what problems can we solve? Let's go into something else you said, the word persona is really meant to describe a type of person, right a behavior set. What kind of personas are you looking at?

Valarie Vest 9:54 

So we start simple because you can overcomplicate things you can really get detailed on what those personas are. But so we started simple, and just who are the different types of people that we need to serve. And so that can be, there's your financial advisor that's a solo financial advisor. And so they work by themselves, they may or may not have a staff, so we can look at some of that segmentation. But they also might have a team. So how does their staff need to interact with us? And how is that different than maybe that financial advisor? And then again, a customer, what is that? So those are kind of just the very basic, but from there building that out? Are they someone who specializes in financial planning? Or are they someone who is, maybe their client is earlier on in their career, or they're a digital native. And so the experience is that each of these different personas are going to want a need. And where they come into this industry is going to be different. And so we start simple. And then over time, we're slowly how do we continued to use data to inform us and create more sophisticated personas as we go. And that allows us to create more personalized experiences over time.

Richard Walker 11:19 

Okay. And then you use the word journey mapping. So what does that actually mean? And how does that translate to what you're trying to accomplish?

Valarie Vest 11:26 

That journey mapping is really documenting at the very beginning, what I'd experienced might be from an outside in view, so we'll talk about forms, I'm not tracking how the form moves the process of how a form maybe moves through, but what are the actual steps that the human being takes to move through that experience. And then the empathy map is another tool that we use is laying on top than those thoughts, feelings on top of those actions.

Richard Walker 12:04 

So if somebody's listening to this, and they want to do this themselves, is it simply a list of steps? Is that a flowchart? How would you help them do it?

Valarie Vest 12:12 

Yeah, I would say I would do one that's outside of your industry first. And one, you can just Google it, because it's not something specific, or just that Cambridge does. It's a CX tool that we use, but take how you get to work in the morning, you know, the first thing you do is, maybe you you're driving to work, simplify, drive to work. So you get ready, you get make sure you have your car keys, your coffee. And so you just document all those things that you do to get to work, you go to your desk, you flip on the light, you charge up your computer, the interesting thing is, is if you were mapping out how you get to work, how you get to work, Rich is going to be different than how I get to work which again, kind of leads to those personas. And then across that, then we'll start to look for are their pain points? Are there ways in places where we can increase value that we can improve the experience when you look at that in the end?

Richard Walker 13:13 

Yeah, my commute to work is from the bedroom across the kitchen, through the my office door. And instead of horns honking I hear babies knocking. Right?

Valarie Vest 13:22 

Yeah, so a pain point for you might be babies knocking. And that's not really a pain point. But something that could involve that experience.

Richard Walker 13:32 

I actually put really thick weather stripping at the bottom of my door to reduce the noise level, and at one point, I had an on air light that would come on, whenever meetings came on to inform my boys outside, hey, I'm in a meeting Don't interrupt. Right, we have a really good microphone now. That's awesome. One of my favorite stories, I remember back from college was UPS going to this journey mapping idea. They mapped out how the driver should approach their vehicle, and what hand to put the key in and how to angle the key to be more efficient to get it into the ignition. And for them, it was a lot about efficiency. So I want to lead this to what you're looking at when you talk about doing all of this journey mapping and creating a better experience. Is it also about efficiency in your mind?

Valarie Vest 14:17 

It absolutely is efficiency. And I guess maybe it's a backup, in my mind, broadly doing this work, it's about creating better experiences for our financial advisors, in turn that creates our financial advisors want to stay at Cambridge, they want to refer friends to Cambridge. So we create that loyalty and that satisfaction, which helps Cambridge grow. And that's the business cycle. And so why we want to do that, efficiency is part of that, As we talk and I'm not talking to financial advisors, they're also looking to be more efficient, the number of financial advisors, all across the United States is shrinking. But the number of clients that are looking for someone to help them with their financial security is growing. And so, how do we give our financial advisors more time to do what that's most important to them, which is being face to face, with their clients?

Richard Walker 15:30 

So I do think in terms of efficiency, because I can't go from my office to the kitchen without carrying the empty glass with me, I have to think in those terms. But ultimately, I defined efficiency as stemming from good design. And what you're talking about an understanding who the person is, the journey they go through, the feelings they have, as you're really trying to understand, what is a better design in the process? So to me, efficiency is an outcome of that, but not necessarily the only goal of that. So I think it was when we were in the roundtable last spring, that I thought about this, which is the goal is to create something that's simple. I mean, I'm in software. So I'm always thinking, how do I make the product intuitive, easy to understand, less tricky, less support costs, therefore simple, but what I realized is simple is really, really hard. Because in order to make it simple, you have to understand how the person is looking at it, and how they're experiencing it.

Valarie Vest 16:27 

Yeah, when you say that, I always think, a big part of CX is getting feedback and surveys and all that. And that's all great and important. But if you think about it, I always quote Henry Ford, if I asked people what they wanted, they would have told me faster horses, if we think back and you take your smartphone I never envisioned before, I didn't have a smartphone when I graduated from college, I never envisioned that today, I would have a phone that took pictures and email and texting. And so I mean, like, just think about all that stuff. And so that's part of that anticipation, that smart design thinking about things differently and how can we best serve? How do we create value? What would help people that maybe hasn't been thought of? And that's, it's hard. That's hard work. But it's I guess, rewarding? It's fun work to think about?

Richard Walker 17:29 

Yeah, I love it. And I feel so dumb every time I look at my phone, and because I used to say, who needs a camera in your phone? Like, who's gonna take photos all the time? No, I take photos, my license plate number. I mean, just everything all the time. So one of the things I'm thinking about is your role of being in charge of experience. I mean, look, my mind is always tech, it's always thinking about how do we make better software? But where do you apply this in your business?

Valarie Vest 17:58 

Yeah, I think it's natural to go towards tech, even for me, because it's an enabler of the actual in my mind to actual experience, if we have make forms fewer and easier, or it's about data and not actually the form to your point, how do we make that easier, and that is about the relationship, then as a financial adviser, I'm not spending all my time putting sticky notes of where to sign and why this form is important. And all that kind of stuff. Instead, I'm sitting down with my client, and I'm having a conversation about their financial goals and how they can help them get there and what's going on in their family. Because that's really what that client wants. And so I see technology as an enabler. And I see a lot of what we're doing at Cambridge is in how do we enable across the board, financial advisors, again, to best meet the needs of their client.

Richard Walker 19:02 

Yeah, I really like to think of the technology as the tool to be applied to the process that you've designed. Therefore, you choose the right tool. Don't start with the tool. And I think that's a mistake a lot of people think of is they think, oh, I want to be better. So I need a tool, you may need a tool. But if you haven't designed your process, and if you haven't understood how your people can or cannot work within the process, it's adoption on those tools.

Valarie Vest 19:26 

Right. It's interesting you say that, is what part of our process, I'll say they're our intake. So if we see something that we want to improve on, we've decided, hey, we want to prioritize improving this part of the experience, the error that we can make to your point is you can go directly to okay, what technology is going to fix that versus saying, okay, is that an improvement in the process? Does that mean we need to stop doing something, have we had policies or procedures in place for maybe good reason, but they're a decade old and they don't resonate anymore. So can we stop doing things? Is there something that we can use technology that we already have? So, kind of talk about, we have, like, in this companies and Cambridge, we have some incredibly powerful technology partners that we've implemented, I think of them, like, they're like a race car or Ferrari in our garage. Have we leveraged everything within that, that that Ferrari can do? Have we got it out of their garage at top speed? So before you go, leveraging new things, or adding new technology have we made best use of what we have? And the other thing is, like bots and other things, like where can we automate human processes that aren't adding the most value? And it always comes back to value? How can technology how can bots and processes all those things, how can we use those to allow humans to do more valuable work and to do more human things?

Richard Walker 21:08 

Yeah. So I love how my COO Don Cron says it he says, let the computers do the left brain work, the mechanical repetitive stuff, let the humans do the right brain work, the creative, the innovative. Which leads me to another topic I want to bring up, which is artificial intelligence. And I think a lot of people think artificial intelligence is going to take over everything that we do, and I don't, but I'm curious what your perspective is, how do you think it's going to impact customer experience?

Valarie Vest 21:35 

Yeah, I'm excited about it. I'm naturally though an optimist. So I know, there's risks and things that we need to be aware of when it comes to artificial intelligence. But one of the things and just specifically where we're focused at Cambridge is how do we leverage it to really help our employees? Because, I've spent a lot of time talking about how we help financial advisors serve their clients, but how do we best give our employees resources and tools and processes and technology that allows them to best serve the financial advisors. And so there's so much with an example that could be just resources and knowledge, a call comes in, and you could use transcription, and then artificial intelligence machine learning to help find the answer to that question, which better allows the people answering the phone more confidence? They might already kind of know what the answer is, but it helps them get confidence, it can get us quicker answers. So again, with everything, I mean, you can say that with our phones and social media today, you can use it for good, but it can also be bad, it can disrupt and it can take away from that human connection. So I like to think about how do we use AI? How do we use machine learning to really enhance the human experience? And know that I have plenty of partners in this industry that will help think about what are the negative aspects of it. And I'm glad they're there, because it takes a diverse mindset to think about it.

Richard Walker 23:16 

When we started this calendar year, we're recording this in 2023, I gave my team a goal, I said, every person on this team needs to find an AI driven tool that can make their job easier, faster, better, higher quality, etc. And I've seen some amazing outcomes, one of which was I mean, you think about empowering your team, we decided to put a custom GPT. And that's actually the website into our API guide, we have a 360 page document that developers use to figure out answers to how to use our product better. And we put this GPT capability so they could go ask it questions. It's amazing. It is already lowering our cost of incoming queries from customers speeding up their response time, because they're getting it in real time. And my own team is now using it to answer the questions too. But helping a team be more efficient and faster.

Valarie Vest 24:06 

It's interesting. I'll give you example, so my daughter's in college. She's a chemical engineer, and she uses chat GPT to help with her figuring out complicated answers and things. And some people can think well, is she learning? And I'm like, in some ways, isn't that great? Because with chemistry and chemical engineering is solving problems. And so we're taking away the need to have to memorize and do things that are at our fingertips so that people as humans, we can really focus in on solving those big problems. And so I think about this generation that's coming out having something like a chatGPT in high school and college, and are they going to help us solve bigger problems than we ever have been able to solve before? You know what I mean, I hope so.

Richard Walker 24:57 

Do you remember? I don't know, I'm not going to ask what your age is, etc. But maybe you've seen the meme, the kid in high school back in the 80s and 90s, saying, why do I have to learn how to calculate all this? I'm gonna have a calculator and to teach you like, what do you think about a calculator in your pocket? Color iPhone? But isn't that like, what chatGPT is going to be? Because you can already do chatGPT on your phone, you already have it with you. 24/7 If you want it.

Valarie Vest 25:24 

Yeah, I think the real challenge is for those of us that isn't how we learned and native to it is how do we teach? How do we lead? How do we do business differently? Like, it's a challenge, I think is more for our generations on how do we embrace it?

Richard Walker 25:49 

I'm concerned about critical thinking. Concerned about developing critical thinking skills if you have all the answers in your pocket, how do you know to trust it? How do you know to challenge it? Right, some of the best innovations come from challenging status quo or the common belief. Right.

Valarie Vest 26:04 

Right. Yeah. And it goes to you mentioned critical thinking. I also, we have in our generationally, and not just in our industry, but I just think in our business world, is we have not allowed failure being okay. And that critical thinking also goes to that testing that failure, that learning that beginner's mindset. And so there's something there, too, that I think is really interesting that the more we can open ourselves up to that.

Richard Walker 26:40 

Yeah. So you're leading down a path of another question I wanted to ask, which is, in your role, are you called in on new projects? Are you called in on existing projects? Are you called on failed projects? When do you apply your skills to the needs of your company?

Valarie Vest 26:56 

It is, one is at the just the very beginning because we are assessing that journey from end to end. And so we're helping prioritize and feed where we need to be going as an organization, what needs to be next. So it's a little bit of everything that you just shared. But it's really we are the voice of the financial advisor. And so how do we take that voice across the whole organization and make sure every single person who architect, software developer, person in legal compliance, they understand what it's like to walk in the shoes of a financial advisor?

Richard Walker 27:42 

Yeah. Do you ever think it's too late after you've implemented something to go back and figure it out and change it, modify it? Because you don't want to scrap it all?

Valarie Vest 27:50 

No, I think sometimes you need to scrap it all. But also, the best work is not to get to that point where it's that big bang. And that is implementing small improvements on a regular basis, and then learning from that, getting feedback from that. And it's really a cycle of a feedback loop and improvement over time.

Richard Walker 28:17 

It is. Well, I think we could talk about this all day. And I look forward to doing more with that. But we'll have to wrap this up. And before I ask you my very last question, how would you want people to find and connect with you?

Valarie Vest 28:29 

Best way to find me and connect with me would be on LinkedIn, Valarie Vest.

Richard Walker 28:34 

All right. Perfect. All right. Here's my last question. Who has had the biggest impact on your leadership style or how you approach your role?

Valarie Vest 28:43 

That's a tough one. There's a lot of people that have had an impact. Can I give you two?

Richard Walker 28:51 

Sure. Yeah, I would love hearing that.

Valarie Vest 28:52 

I'll give one named one not named one was not named, was a leader that helped me just see help build my own confidence and see the ability that I didn't have to have all the answers to lead and to do new and different things, and just gave me the confidence to try things. I've never been a chief experience officer before. And there's never been one at Cambridge before. So there's no precedents in that. And so what does that mean? And so he was someone I'll say mid in my career that really gave me that confidence that you can learn and grow and kind of set me on a personal path, which then leads me to someone who's really had an impact. We met in 2020. And we met during COVID. She's in a totally different industry. Molly Kurth. She is an executive in I'll say the food services organization. World and just her and I we meet we're like peer mentors. We meet you multiple times a month, sometimes three, four times a month, and we coach and mentor each other. And it just I have learned that leadership has no boundaries of industry, people. And so we challenge each other. And one of the things that she's made the biggest impact is just asking me those tough questions, because I believe we all have the answers inside, it's really easy to go out and want to ask other people for answers. But I know we all have the answers to what we want on the inside. And so she challenges me and ask those questions, so I can help find those answers within me.

Richard Walker 28:53 

What a brilliant idea. I mean, we all think, oh, I should have a mentor. And that's somebody way older than me way more experienced, but to have a peer mentor, and to work with each other. Man, I hope everybody can find that. That is awesome. Wow, thank you for sharing that. I want to say a big thank you to Val Vest, Chief Experience Officer of Cambridge Investment Research for being on this episode of The Customer Wins. Go check out their website, And don't forget to check out Quik! at where we make processing forums easier. I hope you enjoyed this discussion, we'll click the like button, share this with someone and subscribe to our channels for future episodes of The Customer Wins. Val, thank you so much for joining me today.

Valarie Vest 31:14 

Thank you Rich, I've had just a great time. So thank you very much.

Outro 31:19 

Thanks for listening to The Customer Wins podcast. We'll see you again next time and be sure to click Subscribe to get future episodes.


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