"It's not what you say that that matters; it's what your listeners hear," according to Michael Maslansky, an author and CEO of Maslansky + Partners.
The featured speaker at the 2013 annual meeting of the Million Dollar Round Table, being held this week in Philadelphia, Maslansky spoke at a special program on June 9, "The Language of Trust," hosted for MDRT's elite Court of the Table and Top of the Table members — the organization's top-producing life insurance professionals.
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Too many advisors, Maslansky said, communicate ineffectively because they don't know their audience and because they fail to anticipate how listeners will receive their messages. Using specific terminology to portray one's practice, the client's financial condition or how the planning engagement will proceed, he noted, can create negative impressions, prompting the client to bolt.
Example: Describe a planning recommendation as a "financial solution" as opposed to a "financial strategy." The first, he said, suggests the client has a financial problem — possibly one of his or her own making — in need of fixing; the second has a positive connotation, invoking more neutrally an opportunity to achieve a particular objective.
Maslansky said that clients are more skeptical today than in years past because they live in a "post-trust" era — a situation that that can be attributed in part to promises made, but not kept, by government institutions, businesses and people in positions of authority. A second contributing factor: Clients are more sophisticated financially than in the past because they enjoy easy access to product information and financial advice online.
Because clients and prospects are less trusting of financial professionals, Maslansky said, advisors no longer enjoy "the benefit of the doubt" when pitching a product or financial plan.
"Three things happen when you lose the benefit of a doubt," Maslansky said. "Clients question your motives; they challenge your facts, and they react emotionally, rather than rationally, to whatever you say. Fact-based arguments are no longer effective."
To overcome barriers to rapport-building, he added, advisors must use "the language of trust" — which is based on an understanding of the client's "beliefs and truths;" and that speaks to these truths by adhering to four communications principals:
- The personal principal;
- Make the message plainspoken:
- Be positive; and
- Establish reasonable expectations.
The first of these, the "the personal principal," frames the advisor's value proposition not in terms of their expertise, but in an ability to customize that expertise to the client's needs and wants.
Rather than telling clients that you intend to put them through a cookie-cutter planning process, which suggest their financial situation is little different than that of others, communicate that you intend to apply your process to their unique situation.
Similarly, don't tell clients that you'll call them X number of times per year to review their plan, which, again, suggests a aboiler-plate approach to the engagement. Instead, ask them by what method, and how often, they wish to be communicated with.
The second principal, "make the message plainspoken," requires dispensing with terms and jargon the client should not be assumed to understand, such as "risk-adjusted returns," or "longevity risk." Also to be avoided are clutter words, such as proprietary, world-class, best-in-class," state-of-the-art, etc. that clients won't necessarily interpret as effective or applicable to their situation.
When discussing fees with prospects, he added, advisors should specify precisely what they charge; if the fee varies, indicate the range, rather than factors (e.g., plan complexity), that will determine compensation.
If certain information is sufficiently important, he added, it should be repeated — and often.
"Just because you say something once, doesn't mean they've absorbed it," he said.
The third principal underpinning the language of trust, Maslansky said, is to be positive.
"By more than two-to-one, people prefer that recommendations be framed in terms of opportunities instead of risk alone, which is fundamentally a negative conversation and produces negative responses" he said. "Instead, talk about risk plus return."
The fourth principal, to be plausible in one's communications, means establishing reasonable expectations and outcomes. Saying that a financial plan will provide a comfortable retirement will carry more credibility with clients than one that promises to maintain their current lifestyle or that promises a "dream retirement."
"We have to be plausible in our communications," Maslansky said. "Nothing else matters if people don't believe you. "Don't make promises that people don't believe they can achieve.
"When appropriate, acknowledge your flaws or mistakes" he added. "People understand that no one is perfect and will appreciate your honesty."