Independent financial advisors are in a business that greatly impacts the lives of their clients. Effective communication between the advisor and the client is fundamental to the financial advising process. Great advisors have developed a process to assess their client’s big financial picture, including income, debt, and short-term and long-term goals. Not so great advisors tend to be more product-driven and approach client conversations as an opportunity to promote and persuade a client to buy a particular product or service.
Successful advisors tend to have two distinct traits: they have very good people skills and they listen. They ask qualifying questions and take an interest in their clients’ lives and situations. When it’s their turn to talk, they are very effective at explaining how their process will help the client achieve meaningful goals and results.
Meeting with new and established clients is a process of interviewing and learning. Information gathering is the most important aspect of any client interview, but it’s the type of information you get and how you go about gathering it that counts. Talking to your client and not at them will help establish a more meaningful relationship. Go into each interview already knowing the basic information. Then, get to know them on a personal basis. Avoid yes/no answers. Instead, ask open-ended questions. For example, ask about the type of business the client is in or what retirement looks like to him/her. Ask about his/her family, listen to their story and ask about their short- and long-term financial goals. Find out where their comfort zones are and see how far you can push them out of the comfort boundary. Don’t be afraid to ask the client to explain further or to clarify answers. Doing so further engages conversation, allowing the client to provide additional information you may not have otherwise captured.
By listening you can learn a great deal about the client – how they think, what drives them, their opinions on risk, etc. All of this fact finding will help you in recommending the right products and service for their needs and comfort level.
Listening and asking the right questions is only part of an effective interview. As the financial advisor, your client needs to trust you with their financial matters. It’s important that they know the information shared is confidential. Unless confidentiality is understood, chances are you will not get all the information you really need.
In the Journal of Financial Planning, Dennis T. Jaffe, Ph.D. and James Grubman, Ph.D. wrote: “When clients show natural hesitation as you start to delve into personal issues or periodically along the way, ‘talking about talking’ can clear the air, handle any hidden or lingering concerns, and pave the way into new areas or deeper levels of the client’s life, which deepens your relationship with the client. There are two skills that go hand-in-hand in a multitude of situations: explaining the process of financial advising and then asking the client if he or she feels OK with proceeding:
Explaining the process involves providing a description about what you either would like to do in the interview or are about to do. This gives a heads-up to the client about what can come next, rather than surprising the client. It also can reflect your desire to draw an area to a close and move on. For example, ‘You said one of your major concerns is about your son’s overspending. I’d like to ask you in more depth about that so I can understand how we may deal with that in your estate and financial planning.’ If the area you would like to pursue feels like it may be personal or private for the client, you can add recognition of this aspect by saying, ‘I realize this may feel somewhat private to talk about.’
When explaining the process, you need to add a companion skill that is so fundamental and obvious, yet so often neglected that damage can be done when it is omitted. This is the skill of asking permission of the client to go into private areas before you plunge in. Rather than making an independent decision to move into a delicate or personal area, you stop and ask, ‘Would that be OK with you?’ or ‘Would you be comfortable with that?’ This gives clients a genuine opportunity to grant permission to proceed to the next area of the interview or to decline if they so wish. It demonstrates respect for the clients’ privacy, for their decision-making, and for their participation as equal and collaborative partners in the relationship with you. Although the situation may certainly call for the area of inquiry, you show respect by asking permission from the person being interviewed.
When clients know you will give advance notice about difficult areas of conversation and they will have a chance to accept or decline, the relationship feels safe yet has mechanisms for going deeper. And remember, just because the client declines to go into an area once doesn’t mean you never broach it again. In 20 minutes or two years, the issues may be appropriate to raise again and, with greater trust or a change in heart for the client, he or she may now be more willing to go there with you. Timing can be everything.”