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Leave Yourself Behind When Working With Clients

Financial planner advising clientI once attended a workshop in which an established adviser shared a story from a conversation he’d had with one of his clients. The client was a young, affluent widow who decided she wanted to fulfill a lifelong dream to buy a condominium in her favorite city in Europe. While she could well afford the $2 million price tag, something was keeping her from pulling the trigger.

The adviser asked, "What is it that is really bothering you about this purchase?" After some deeper probing, she finally shared her issue: "It's just that I keep hearing my mother's voice in my head." (Her mother had died many years ago).

"And what is your mother saying?" he asked.

"She is saying that I am being frivolous with my money."

When the adviser asked the group their thoughts on where the conversation needed to go from there, they quickly jumped in with recommendations like:

"You needed to show her why it was something she could easily afford."

"Your job is to help her enjoy her life and her money."

"Come on, given what you have told us about her other assets, this is silly. She needed to feel empowered by you to just do it!"

But is it really all so simple?

A number of years ago, I interviewed one of Connecticut's most sought-after doctors while doing research for The Charismatic Advisor, a book co-authored with Dr. Robert Brooks. The doctor was a general practitioner with a closed practice. When asked what the one thing was that makes her so effective and successful with her patients, she was confident, yet humble, as she reflected on the question. After several minutes of back-and-forth, she gave me an absolute jewel: "All I can tell you is that when I knock on the door of the examination room I leave myself behind."

Deeply struck by her answer, we spent quite some time exploring this notion. To paraphrase our ensuing conversation, what we concluded was that too many doctors and perhaps other professionals filter their advice through their own biases. Helping people meaningfully often means being completely empathic in one's approach – it’s essential. That is, to continuously attempt to see the world through their eyes, instead of your own. Mastering this skill, however, is much more easily said than done.

Returning to the story of the young widow, simply attempting to convince her she could have afforded the condominium is not addressing her underlying issue. Even if she goes ahead and buys it, her conscience might persist in troubling her, making her purchase a joyless one.

If in delivering advice, you go down the path of thinking: “This is what I would do if it were my money,” you are going down precisely the wrong path. The fundamental aspect of your role as an adviser, and indeed the underlying nuance of much of this business, rests in the fact that it is not your money. It’s the client's money, the client's life and, ultimately, the client's unique emotional baggage – or what Alan Parisse and I call "investment wiring" in Questions Great Financial Advisors Ask.

Once you consider “what I would do if it were my money,” all you are is another person with an opinion, not an adviser. Here are some questions you can pose to clients that can help you get to the underlying purpose and goals for your client’s money (as excerpted from Questions Great Financial Advisors Ask):

  • What do you want to do with your life?
  • Can you paint a picture of the way you want your future to look – a picture of your vision of your future? How would you feel if you achieved that vision? How would you feel if you didn’t?
  • When you visualize your possible future, does anything concern or scare you?
  • What are you hoping your money will accomplish for you? Depending on the answer, you might ask, “Are you sure money will accomplish that?”
  • What benefits do you expect from money?

Bottom line: Financial advisers are in the advice business, but that does not mean advising people based on your personal feelings. Can you "leave yourself behind?" If you can, you will be more effective and successful for your clients.

Don’t miss the opportunity to hear what David Richman and more of some of the most experienced minds in the profession have to say about building trust with your clients and transformative financial planning at the AICPA Personal Financial Planning Summit, which takes place January 23-25, 2017, in Rancho Palos Verdes, CA. The event for “leaders among leaders” features discussions, interactive sessions and fun networking opportunities to help deepen relationships with other like-minded professionals. The summit offers continuing education credits. Click here for more information. 

David Richman is the National Director of Eaton Vance Advisor Institute. David has been a student of the financial advisory experience for the better part of three decades. He has been a featured speaker at numerous industry conferences and has co-authored five books on the topic of financial planning.

Financial planner advising client courtesy of Shutterstock.

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