From the February 2011 issue of Research Magazine • Subscribe!

February 1, 2011

The Advisor as Coach

Help your clients discover new insights and potential untapped solutions as opposed to just imposing ideas on them.

Anyone who has ever been in a role of advisor, mentor, consultant or counselor understands the pressures of feeling they need to know all the answers. In perceiving their role as the omnipotent oracle, not only do they impose unrealistic expectations upon themselves, but they also disempower those whom they are trying to help. Paradoxically, by disempowering others, one erodes trust, rapport and relationships. On the other hand, when we empower our clients, not only does it build stronger relationships, but often they will come up with original and useful information, ideas and solutions on their own that we, as advisors, may not necessarily have considered.

A good advisor-client relationship, as in any relationship, is a partnership that combines the strengths of both — the expertise, competence and experience of the advisor, together with the knowledge, self-awareness, needs, history and situation of the client. To best empower our clients, we need to see our role, in addition to all other roles the advisor plays, as that of a coach as well.

For the purpose of this column, we can define coaching as: partnering with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximize their financial goals and objectives. We use coaching skills and techniques from the very first contact with a potential client, through the sales cycle and throughout the duration of the professional relationship as we manage and maintain the client relationship. Herewith some guidelines to help develop your role as coach. This will augment your already sharpened advisor skills and make you an even more effective and competitive professional.

A Paradigm Shift

As advisors, we tend to see ourselves as the ultimate experts and as such need to inform our clients as to what we think their best strategy and solution is. To incorporate a measure of coaching into our practice we need to shift our values from strictly unadulterated advisor to include characteristics of a coach as well. The following table identifies the two different approaches:

Incorporating Coaching Skills into Your Practice

Following are three elements out of several that coaches typically use that you will find highly valuableto incorporate into your own practice.

1. Connecting

For initial trust to be established, the client needs to feel a connection. Many sales seminars advocate looking around the client’s office to observe interests, hobbies, family ties and so forth and use those to build connection and rapport. This is usually artificial, superficial and transparent. For an authentic connection to be built, clients need to feel that you have a sincere interest in helping them meet their objectives and goals. The coaching profession achieves this by asking thought-provoking, powerful questions and listening very attentively to the information that the questions are generating. Some examples of such questions might be:

  • “What are your top three financial objectives?”
  •  “What have you done so far towards that end?” and “how did that work for you?”
  • “What have been the most frustrating obstacles?”
  • “What do you hope to do with the proceeds of your financial investments?”
  • “What can we do to build a stronger connection between us?”

When you are listening, be sure to be paying full attention and focus on learning as much as you can. Do not be distracted by voices and ideas percolating in your own mind. Listen for tone, word choice and degree of passion. Also listen for unspoken messages; for example, are they showing signs of lack of interest or disengagement? If so, you will want to explore that with them too by saying something like: “I am noticing that you appear to be not as engaged as I might have expected; would you care to talk to me more about that?”

This combination of powerful questions and attentive listening will generate healthy dialogue in addition to building an authentic connection, trust and rapport. You will also learn a great deal of new and valuable information to better serve your client.

2. Focusing

Clients are often overwhelmed with information, regulations, tax issues, objectives, tasks, strategies and priorities. Effective coaches will help their clients break complex issues down into manageable segments. Coaches do this also, by way of carefully crafted questions designed to help the client unscramble the issues for themselves rather than to lecture them on what they, as advisors, think. This empowers the client and builds a trusting partner relationship. Examples of questions to ask in the focusing phase are:

  • “Where would you like to start?”
  • “What causes you most anxiety and concern right now?”
  • “Are you feeling overwhelmed? Why?”
  • “How would you put some of the things we have discussed so far into an agenda to deal with in a systematic and organized way?”

Rather than spoon-feeding your clients, you empower them to assume ownership. You also send the message that Mike Krzyzewski, the Duke University basketball coach, calls the four most important words in life: “I believe in you!”

3. Discovering

A further approach that coaches use is to help their clients discover new insights and potential untapped solutions as opposed to imposing ideas on them. This is in accord with the empowerment theme that builds deeper and stronger client relationships and more effective service levels. Once again, they use their hallmark tool of trade of powerful questioning to accomplish this. Questions to ask in the discovery stage might be:

  • “What are some ideas that you would like to explore further?”
  • “What do you find appealing about those ideas?”
  • “Given your priorities, what general strategy do you think you should adopt? Why?”
  • What other resources may exist that may be underutilized?”
  • “Who else do you think would be helpful to consult in these matters?”

By introducing these coaching elements to your advisor role, you will transform the way you relate to your clients and more importantly the way they relate to you. You will find that your client relationships are deeper, stronger and also more meaningful and fulfilling. You will be serving your clients with a greater quality of service and be recognized and acknowledged as a consummate professional in financial advising.  

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