While most of us financial advisers want to do the best for our clients, we often struggle at the task.
The main problem, as I recently wrote: We don't know our clients well enough. We may say that a client’s values and goals are important, but most of us don’t adequately explore these more personal (a.k.a. "touchy-feely") parts of a client’s life.
Why is this?
One reason we avoid deeper discovery with clients: No matter how we're paid—whether by commissions or fees—most of us don’t get compensated until the financial planning process has neared its end.
Let's use the six-step Certified Financial Planner model as an example. The information-gathering stage, when we have the chance to really understand who our clients are, is the second step. But most advisers don't get paid until step five, when clients implement our recommendations.
Advisers, therefore, have an inherent economic bias to get to step five as soon as possible.
The second reason we don't dig deep: Having in-depth conversations with clients can be uncomfortable—mostly for us. We, as advisers, may feel underqualified or inadequately trained to delve into the beliefs, feelings and emotions that drive their financial decisions.
I get it. About seven years ago, I decided that I needed to give and get more out of client interactions, not merely through questions at opportunistic times, but by a deliberate process.
On the day I decided to implement this new strategy, I saw I had a data-gathering meeting on my schedule. Perfect. I was ready to jump right in.
I had met the woman in this husband-and-wife household before—she was a human resources executive at a large company—but not the man. And he turned out to be a “man’s man.” His shoulders were so broad that he had to turn sideways to get through the doorway to my conference room. Scowling, he extended a bear-sized arm and squeezed my hand hard enough to send the clear message that he’d rather be anyplace but there.
“Really?” I asked myself. "I’m going to ask this guy about his values and goals? About his history with money and about the feelings and emotions evoked by his personal financial dealings?"
After I could delay no longer, we got down to it. My assumption that this guy would recoil from an introspective conversation was completely wrong. In fact, my nonfinancial questions clearly set this visibly hesitant client at ease.
The truth is that we’re all capable of communicating more meaningfully with our clients. We do it with our family and close friends all the time. Aren’t we capable of simply getting to know someone?
To claim lack of expertise is a cop-out. There is plenty of help out there for gathering information about intangibles. Here are three resources I've found extremely useful:
- George Kinder: Kinder is a Harvard-educated financial planner who is often dubbed the “Father of Life Planning.” Personally, I find the term “life planning” problematic. It seems to brand intangible data-gathering as something apart from good financial planning, which lets the rest of us off the hook. Kinder’s work, however, should not be discounted. Kinder's book, The Seven Stages of Money Maturity, effectively started a movement that continues to grow as new generations of planners look for more personally rewarding practices. Another of his books, Lighting the Torch, provides planners with a practical methodology to incorporate into their process.
- Rick Kahler, Ted Klonz, and Brad Klontz: Kahler, a financial planner in South Dakota, teamed up with psychotherapists Ted and Brad Klontz on two projects that have immeasurable value to the financial planning community. The Financial Wisdom of Ebenezer Scrooge is a short, easy-to-read volume that will help both advisers and their clients examine the motives behind our financial decisions, successes and failures. I had the privilege of studying with Ted and Rick immediately following the release of their second collaboration, Facilitating Financial Health. Written for the serious practitioner, it’s one of the most highlighted books in my library.
- Carol Anderson and Amy Mullen: Last, but in my opinion the most important, is what I believe to be the ideal resource for financial advisers who truly want to institute more meaningful conversations with their clients. With Money Quotient, Anderson and Mullen have created something very special: a nonprofit devoted to providing advisers with tangible tools designed to elicit intangible information from clients. Various degrees of licensing allow advisers to merely dabble with some of Money Quotient’s tools or transform their entire practice in a way that puts client values and goals at the center of their process.
Acknowledging that personal finance is more personal than it is finance is a great beginning. But the light-bulb moment is only valuable if it leads to the application of the associated theories and concepts.
Financial planner, speaker, and author Tim Maurer, is a wealth adviser at Buckingham Asset Management and the director of personal finance for the BAM Alliance. A certified financial planner practitioner working with individuals, families and organizations, he also educates at private events and via TV, radio, print, and online media. "Personal finance is more personal than it is finance" is the central theme that drives his writing and speaking.