Think about a normal experience in a financial service business: your insurance agent offering a special product, a stock broker taking buy and sell orders over the phone, your investment advisor explaining what all the colors on your pie chart mean for your portfolio. Most conversations identify a risk or need you have and the professional offers a solution to mitigate the risk or meet the need. You then sign the paperwork, get your monthly or quarterly statements, and maybe get a check-in call or review to see how that product or investment has performed as of late. This is the expectation that many potential clients have as they walk through our door, often with their guard up, unsure if we can help them, and weary of having their issue explained away by some product or plan.
When you start with surface level questions and answers you will typically get a solution that addresses surface level issues. We have found that our clients are searching for something greater from their financial advisor relationship, even though they don’t know exactly what it is or if it is even available.
With past experiences setting the tone, prospective clients want to get straight into the numbers and can be surprised when we direct the conversation elsewhere. The question I love to ask is, “what is most important to you?” At first, prospects may wonder why I asked this question and how that will help them get their money invested and growing. But after refocusing, they relax and appreciate that I am taking the time to ask about what is important in their lives.
In many cases the answers involve family, church, traveling, knowing they can retire, providing for aging parents, sending kids to college, purchasing a home, or saving for retirement. These are all wonderful things to care about and typically come relatively quickly to mind. Of course they do, they are IMPORTANT to you!
To understand them more I need to get under the surface and ask a deeper question: “Why is that significant for you?” Typically it takes a moment or two of reflection before they dive in, sharing that their church has helped them through difficult challenges over the years, they want to provide for their kids in ways their parents did or couldn’t do for them, they see others not able to stop working and want to enjoy an active retirement before they get too old, or they know others who have given to an organization that helped them and they want to be charitable as well. With each answer there is a story of how something impacted them over their life. As they begin to share at a deeper level, they recognize this is a different financial services experience. They often have no expectation that a financial advisor would ever ask them that question or take the time to understand their deeper needs and values.
My desired outcome for working with clients is to be their trusted advisor. As that trusted advisor, I want them to know that I know and understand what really motivates their financial decisions. At this stage of our first meeting, I push just a little more and pose to them, “If you were living the life that you just described, what would that provide you?” Stumped, they often ask me to repeat the question so they can focus their thoughts. Then they lean back in their chair, look up or at each other and start to ponder. The next few moments are silent, sometimes uncomfortable, but always immensely productive. The responses I have heard usually follow one of the following themes – freedom, community, peace of mind, meaningful life, joy or purpose. As you can see, the deeper we go the answers move from thoughts to feelings. The feelings you identify and desire to experience are the foundation we ultimately focus on when building your financial plan.
The numbers and data are important. Investment philosophy and estate documents are important. I remind each client that what is equally, if not more important, is measuring whether we are arranging your financial life in a way that meets your deepest desires. So we discuss what measurements we should have in place to hold them accountable for living the life they truly desire. If we fail to do this, they have saved and spent on the wrong things and their life looks no closer to what their heart expressed was significant to them.
Having an advisor relationship focused on heart level conversations has many great advantages for both clients and advisors. Clients can experience a deeper, more trusting relationship with their advisors that ultimately may lead to having conversations about things that truly matter to them, and less about pie charts and economic indicators. When focused on these things they experience a natural, internal motivation to carry out the plan that they put together with the advisor. As an advisor I gain a great appreciation for the client. My clients are motivated out of their own desires and my role is to help hold them accountable to themselves. With a clear purpose that we can use as a guide, it is easier to make financial decisions that align with your life of significance.