March 28, 2013

6 Stages of Behavioral Change, Pt. 2: When Clients Don’t Follow Your Advice

Whose responsibility is it when clients fail to follow your advice?

The first part of our discussion focused on Dr. James Prochaska’s research on the six drivers of behavioral change. We’ll now examine whose fault it really is when clients fail to follow your advice, and whether or not it’s time for better training.

The key point of Prochaska’s research was that it illustrated how unproductive it is to blame the person for failing to implement an important change – even if it’s clearly in the person’s interests to do so (as is the case with demonstrably self-destructive behaviors like severe obesity, smoking, or alcoholism).

Instead, the research found that failure of many change programs, from ending smoking to improving exercise and dietary habits, was primarily due to a misunderstanding of how change occurs: specifically, the erroneous belief that change is just about drawing up the necessary action steps and putting them forward for people to implement. In fact, Prochaska finds that one of the greatest reasons why change fails is because people are pushed to the action stage before they’ve progressed through the earlier stages and truly become ready to make a change.

In a similar vein, Prochaska’s research suggests that when clients don’t implement a financial planner’s client-centric recommendations, the problem may actually lie not with the client, but with the planner failing to properly guide the client through the stages of change!

For instance, Prochaska has found that if clients are in the precontemplation stage, they may need assistance for an extended period of time in simply helping to make them aware of the need for change – raising their consciousness about the issue and providing education – before moving on to the later stages. Just explaining the problem once is virtually never enough, just as the country's obesity problem is not solved the first time "eat less and exercise more" is suggested as a solution. Once an individual recognizes the need for change, then – and usually, only then – does an emotional appeal help to move the client forward further; in fact, by this stage the decision-making process shifts from a focus on the pros of making a change, to the cons of not changing. And only then is it time to move beyond education and stirring motivations, to actually begin considering specific trade-offs and preparing action steps for implementation.

Is it time for better training?

To be fair, the standard training for financial planning does not include the study of behavior change and Prochaska’s research, but perhaps it should, as it maps so cleanly onto the core of what good financial planning is all about. In fact, arguably behavior change is the very essence of real financial planning, as there is little value in using expert knowledge to craft recommendations if the planner is not also trained in how to guide the client through the changes necessary to implement them. Or viewed another way, financial planning isn't just about telling clients what to do; it's also about motivating them to do it.

And despite this reality, it's notable that "effectiveness in helping clients to change their behaviors" is rarely tracked or measured in any way in most financial planning firms. Yet given the importance of outcomes, perhaps “time from recommendation until implementation” actually should be something tracked in a financial planner’s Client Relationship Management (CRM) software. After all, it’s hard to improve the results if they’re not being measured in the first place. Once you can measure that only 68% of clients fully implement recommendations, and that it takes them 7.4 months on average to fully complete all the recommendations, is it possible to work on solutions to really improve client outcomes.

Beyond the need for training and better measurement, the bottom line is simply this: perhaps it’s time that we as financial planners recognize that when clients don’t implement, it may not be because it’s a “bad” client, but because we need to get the training to do a better job of guiding clients through the change process in the first place. And if you want to learn how, Prochaska’s “Changing For Good” is a good place to start.

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Please check out the first part of this blog: 6 Stages of Behavioral Change: Pt. 1 on AdvisorOne.

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