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?”