MONEY Financial Planning

A Simple Tool for Getting Better Financial Advice

financial advisor with couple
Ned Frisk—Getty Images

If a financial adviser doesn't know what's going on in a client's life, the advice will suffer. Here's one easy way to fix that.

True story: Many years ago, I was meeting with a married couple for an initial data-gathering session. Halfway through the three-hour meeting — the first stage in developing a comprehensive financial plan — the husband excused himself for a bathroom break. As soon as the door shut, the wife turned to me and said, “I guess this is as good a time as any to let you know that I’m about to divorce him.”

That’s just one example of why exploring a client’s financial interior is a worthwhile investment for both the adviser and client. All the effort we had expended on their financial plan, for which they were paying me, was for naught.

So how can an adviser really understand what’s going on with his or her clients?

A great first step is to fully explore the simple question “How are you doing?” Not “How are your investments doing?” or “How is your business doing?” but “How are you doing?”

As financial planners, we are quick to put on our analytical hats. We will gladly examine numbers down to three decimal places, but we often fail to delve below the superficial on a relational level.

Here’s a tool that can help. I include it with permission from Money Quotient, a nonprofit that creates tools and techniques to aid financial advisers in exploring the interior elements of client interaction. It’s called the “Wheel of Life”:

Wheel of Life

The instructions are simple: you rate your satisfaction with each of the nine regions of life listed on the wheel. Your level of satisfaction can range from zero to 10—10 being the highest. Plot a dot corresponding to your rating along each spoke of the wheel. Then you connect the dots, unveiling a wheel that may — or may not — roll very well.

If you’re wondering what value this could bring to your client interaction, consider these five possibilities:

  • It’s an incredibly efficient way to effectively answer the question, “How are you doing?” In a matter of seconds, you know exactly where your client stands. You now have an opportunity to congratulate them in their successes and encourage them in their struggles.
  • It demonstrates that you care about more than just your client’s money. It shows that your cordial greeting was something more than just obligatory. It shows that you recognize the inherently comprehensive nature of financial planning.
  • It helps in gauging how much value you can add to a client’s overall situation. For example, if this is a new client, and all the numbers are nines and tens except for a two on the “Finances” spoke, then it stands to reason that good financial planning could have a powerfully positive impact on the client’s life. If, on the other hand, a prospective client’s wheel is cratering, you might conclude that his or her problems lie beyond the scope of your process. Your efforts may be in vain, and a referral to an external source may be in order.
  • It could tip you off to a major event in a client’s life that should trump your agenda for the day. Many advisers use this exercise as a personal checkup at annual client meetings, sending clients the “Wheel of Life” in advance. Doing so encourages clients to share if they have suffered one of life’s deeper pains, like the loss of a loved one. That’s likely your cue to recognize that now isn’t a time to talk about asset allocation. It’s simply time to be a friend and, as appropriate, address any inherent financial planning implications.
  • You’ll likely find it a beneficial practice for you, too! I don’t recommend putting a client through any introspective exercises that you haven’t completed yourself. So please, complete your own “Wheel of Life” exercise. You’re likely to see this tool in a new light and find valuable uses for it that I’ve not uncovered here.

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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.

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