From the September 2004 issue of Investment Advisor • Subscribe!

The Right Questions

Mitch Anthony, the author and president of the Financial Life Planning Institute, tells a story about a friend of his from Chicago, a "classic high-net-worth client." A financial planner walks into the guy's office, makes some small talk about golf and kids, and then asks the client, "So, where do you want to be five years from today?"

Anthony recalls that "every emotional cell in my being shut down" when he heard this tale. "It was what he was trained to ask," he adds, but his goal was to use the question "as a launching pad to sell a product or service" instead of a start toward a deeper and more fruitful relationship.

Many client interviews sound more like this example than a lot of advisors will admit. Instead of asking probing questions that will help the client talk about his or her goals, dreams, and even failings, too many advisors focus on closing the sale. Perhaps it's a financial plan. Or maybe it's a portfolio of funds or annuities. Whatever the case, too little effort goes into finding out about the client. Perhaps this is born out of the no-holds-barred sales training that many advisors went through when they began their careers at wirehouses or insurers. But this may be a critical mistake.

Fortunately, there is a way out of this mindset. An increasing number of coaches and consultants are offering advisors the training programs and tools they need to ask the kind of questions that will help them elicit better quality information from their clients (see table below; IA columnist Steve Moeller also addresses a related issue this month on page 157).

The questions you ask could be very specific: Advisor Benjamin Tobias of Plantation, Florida, for example, gives talks in which he describes the federal 1040 income tax form as the "greatest data gathering tool" for discovering planning opportunities (see page 92). The questions may also be extremely broad: Carol Anderson, Anthony's former business partner and now president of Money Quotient Inc. in Poulsbo, Washington, for example, specializes in developing questionnaires and workbooks that ask about issues such as spiritual growth and personal fears. In completing one of Anderson's exercises, a client may be asked to complete this statement: "As a child, my biggest concern about money was...." The open-ended answer, of course, is designed to lead to even more questions and, eventually may bring the client to discuss problems and hopes she probably had given little or no thought to in the past.

Whatever your interviewing style, the first step is to master the art of asking "appreciative questions." This art, says Madison, Wisconsin-based psychologist and coach Edward Jacobson, comprises "any question that inquires about positive, life-affirming experiences, beliefs, or visions." An example of such a question, Jacobson says, is "What's the best financial decision you've made in the last five years?" When posed this way, rather than, "How did you do on that real estate you bought back in 1999?" the advisor can "get data to get somewhere," Jacobson says. "You mobilize incredible energy for developing financial plans and mid-course corrections."

As they strive to build enduring relationships with clients, Jacobson suggests that advisors steer clear of making queries about personal deficits, shortfalls, weaknesses, limits, or obstacles. Don't ask, he says, questions such as:

"What problems do you want to talk about?"

"What's causing your problems?"

"What problems do you have in saving money?"

"What differences do you and your spouse have over money?"

Instead, Jacobson suggests refashioning the negative questions with a more positive spin:

"What shall we celebrate?"

"What's contributing to your success?"

"How are you saving money?

"Where do you and your spouse agree over money?"

Help on the Web

While Jacobson conducts seminars and workshops on appreciative questioning--he had several hundred advisors asking such questions of each others at this year's FPA Retreat--planners can also get a start in this area for free on the Web. For example, Appreciative Inquiry Commons, a Web site run by the Weatherhead School of Management at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland (appreciativeinquiry.cwru.edu), has an extensive library of articles that can be downloaded. Many of the articles offer specific suggestions for posing questions designed to build relationships.

Those seeking an approach to the questioning process that is more focused on financial planning can avail themselves of a variety of coaches who not only teach advisors, but also produce quizzes and workbooks for advisors to hand out as homework for their clients.

At Money Quotient, for instance, Anderson, who holds degrees in early childhood education and consumer economics, has produced a "financial satisfaction survey" that many advisors use to help get their relationships with clients off the starting blocks. A multiple-choice quiz that allows clients to rank their answers on a five-point scale from "not satisfied" to "very satisfied," the survey asks whether clients are happy with such issues as their level of debt, their ability to meet financial obligations, their progress in building a retirement nest egg, and their existing relationships with bankers, brokers, planners, accountants, or insurance agents. Along with the survey come more detailed questionnaires that attempt to generate open-ended written responses to such questions as "How do you define your working life?" or "How do you hope to be remembered someday?"

"What we strive to do is to create a life-centered process," says Anderson. "Even the best communicators have days when they're not at their top form. It's useful to have tools to facilitate discussion, and these tools help advisors develop the confidence to ask additional questions."

But advisors say that asking questions in this fashion can also bring clients to realizations they had never expected. "The level of satisfaction I receive in getting clients to those 'Aha!' moments is so rewarding," says Stephen Shagrin, an attorney and CFP from Youngstown, Ohio (www.planningforlife.info), who offers Web-based training seminars based on Money Quotient materials.

Better Living Through Questions

Author and lecturer Anthony agrees that the name of the game in planning now is to develop closer ties through intelligent questioning. "This industry seems to have a focus on telling its story through numbers," he maintains. "Fifty to seventy percent of advisors don't resonate with clients." To rectify the situation, Anthony argues, "we need to get the story of our clients: Where they have been and where they are going. The primary role of an advisor is as a biographer. When you begin to ask the right questions, this magic thing called empathy begins to enter into the relationship."

Through the Financial Life Planning Institute, which currently serves around 500 advisors, Anthony and Institute Director Gene Lawrence offer several worksheets planners can use to ask about both clients' attitudes and goals, as well as to uncover upcoming transitions that may require planning assistance. The institute, based in Rochester, Minnesota, and Vestal, New York, also allows advisors to offer the worksheets through their Web sites, branded with their firm's name if they choose.

For example, the Institute's "Financial Life Report" asks both open-ended questions ("about my work career/path" or "first memory around money") as well as ones seeking to gauge a client's satisfaction with her financial affairs. The object is to produce not only a roster of potential problem areas, but also a to-do list of planning priorities. "Every single one of these answers is a conversation," Anthony says. "What we are teaching is wealthcare. We're like the clients' financial doctor who's doing their first checkup."

Watch What You Ask

Advisors who use worksheets such as those published by Money Quotient or Financial Life Planning Institute say they are generally well accepted and even appreciated by clients. But before loading up clients with questions, open-ended or otherwise, advisors need to be mindful of their subjects' sensibilities. "What you don't want to do is barrage your clients with a series of questions," says Andrea White, senior coach with Financial Conversations in Tempe, Arizona. "It's not an inquisition. You want to engage clients in the flow of conversation."

White adds that some advisors also have a false sense of confidence about their ability to ask evocative questions. These advisors feel strongly that because they know a lot about a client's family, for example, they know what is important to his financial future. Or, warns White, they pose questions too broadly, as if they were "using a chainsaw to prune a tree. You can kill it." Instead, White counsels, advisors should use their questioning skills to facilitate further dialogue. Asking a client a question like, "Describe what retirement looks like to you," she says, should result in a more conversation-producing answer than "How much money do you need to retire?"

Mastering the art of asking better questions is more than just a way of gaining a more complete picture of a client's life. Increasingly, it will help set advisors apart from their competition. With the Internet making it easy for consumers to crunch their own data, those same consumers are looking for more than just numbers in their relationships with advisors. Advisors who proclaim themselves to be "'just a numbers person. It's not my job to go deeper,'" warns White, "their days may be numbered." Maybe it's time for you to start asking some questions of yourself. If you don't like the conversations they yield, perhaps it's time to get some help from the pros.

Editorial Director William Glasgall can be reached at bglasgall@ia-mag.com.

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