When asked many years ago how he won an important game, then-Indiana University basketball coach Bobby Knight famously (or infamously) told the intrepid reporter, “We scored more points than they did.” When the reporter wouldn’t accept that most basic – and, ultimately, true – answer, Knight went into detail about the reasons his team won the contest.

Most coaches, either out of respect for the reporters and fans or due to their understanding of the intricacies of the game, won’t give the Bobby Knight answer to the question of how they won the game. Basketball coaches will talk about their team’s smothering defense in the first half, or about the team’s second-half free-throw shooting, or about the difference in turnovers. Baseball coaches will highlight how their pitcher got out of a bases-loaded jam in the fifth inning, or a sacrifice bunt that advanced a runner to third base who was then brought home on a sacrifice fly. Golfers will talk about a save from the sand on the front nine, or about a streak of four one-putt holes, or about hitting 12 of 14 fairways with their drives.

Coaches and athletes talk about the importance of the things that earned them the win. The player who hit the three-point shot at the buzzer will make the highlight reel, but his coach understands it was the player who blocked a shot three minutes earlier, and the player who dove to save the ball from going out of bounds, and the player who set the screen to get the shooter open who paved the way for the game winner. The final shot, home run, goal, touchdown or putt doesn’t happen in a vacuum; it usually is the natural extension of the things that preceded it.

The same holds true for financial advisors and planners. When asked how they managed to close a certain client, many advisors can give the SportsCenter version, talking about a home run script they use to close the sale. Others, however, will give the coach’s version; they’ll talk about a great opening, about the fact-finding they did in the first meeting, about the tax break they found the prospect simply by asking questions no other advisor had asked. These advisors will say the close isn’t about the close at all. The close, they’ll say, is a natural extension of a relationship-building process, something that can’t be rushed and should never be faked. Ultimately, such a process can render the word “close” pass? because advisors won’t have to think about it like that – it’ll just happen.

In the beginning…

Baseball pitchers can make millions of dollars if they can throw hard and get batters out – they’re the closers. But they don’t even get in the game if the starting pitcher and the relief pitchers – not to mention the batters – don’t get ahead and stay ahead of the other team. The first inning is as important as the ninth.

“It begins with the opening and continues all the way to the end,” Wayne Peterson says. “It should never be about rushing to the close.”

Peterson, IAR, CSA, and president of W.B. Peterson Associates (www.wbpetersonassociates.com) in Charlottesville, Va., doesn’t like the word “close.” He prefers to fill a need as opposed to closing a prospect. “You have to find out what the person wants, what his needs are. [The opening] is about getting to know the person, looking at him as a human being.”

Creating a connection is how Peterson and other advisors describe the first part of the process.

“It is important to bond with the client,” says Dr. Harry Olson, president and CEO of Owings Mills, Md.-based Maximum Potential Inc., a company that specializes in executive coaching and training in peak performance (www.harryolson.com). “It’s about creating an emotional connection.” And that connection is built by asking affirmative questions and listening to the responses.

Listening for the sake of getting a step closer to a close is not going to cut it. Advisors need to be able to repeat things prospects and clients say. They need to be able to follow up on certain points if it will help them better understand what the client wants out of life and from their money. If they can say things like, “It seems your grandchildren’s college education is important to you,” or, “Giving back appears to be a big goal of yours,” or, “Building up your collection of classic cars looks to be a top priority,” the person across the table knows the advisor is listening.

“The more you can get clients to say, ‘That’s right,’ the deeper the connection you are building,” Olson says.

A great way for advisors to ensure they are asking the right questions is by doing their homework. Pre-appointment planning can be the difference between creating the connection and walking away from the appointment wondering how it went. According to Bill Brooks, CEO and founder of The Brooks Group (www.thebrooksgroup.com) in Greensboro, N.C., advisors should “have some idea of what they are getting into. They should get as much information as possible ahead of time.”

The more prepared an advisor is when heading into an initial meeting, the more attuned he can be to the prospect’s answers. Being prepared aids in listening, which furthers the emotional connection.

Another way to begin building that connection with clients-to-be is to surprise them. Do something other advisors overlook.

“One thing to do is bring things up nobody else has covered,” says Tom Gau, a retirement distribution specialist and a CPA with Million Dollar Producers in Ashland, Ore. Gau uses his expertise as an accountant to bring up tax issues other advisors may not be as comfortable addressing. But to get there, Gau institutes a process. He gathers all the data he can at the first meeting; then, Gau puts that information through a thorough analysis, picking it apart for ways to save money on taxes and make the money last longer.

Only then will he think about the close, but he doesn’t view it as a close. He gives advice based on the data and his analysis of it. If the prospect sees his advice as valid and decides to implement the plan, then Gau has closed that person, but it wasn’t due to any scripted finale – it’s simply Close No. 16 on the list of top 50 closes.

It takes time

Advisors expecting to create an emotional connection, ask the right questions, listen carefully, find out a prospect’s hopes and dreams, create a plan, and walk away with a new client all in one meeting likely will be surprised to learn it doesn’t occur that way.

Specific products applied across the spectrum of financial needs may be sold in one meeting, but detailed plans that create long-term client relationships take time. Product sales are closed. Financial plans – and the clients who sign on to them – are created in partnership.

“It’s not going to happen in one meeting,” Olson says. “But it is worthwhile because the process creates clients who stick around.”

Advisors who rush things, Peterson says, are “not looking for repeat business. Advisors who use pressure tactics need to put themselves in the senior’s shoes. Is that how you would want to be treated?”

Gau spends his first meeting with prospects getting them interested enough to commit to a second meeting. He wants to show them he knows what he’s doing.

“I want to have enough meaningful conversation to pique their interest,” Gau says, conversation beyond golf, fishing, grandchildren, etc. “I say, ‘I see a number of ways to reduce your taxes,’ and that leads to a second meeting. It makes them anxious to come back. They ask when to come back.”

An advisor who does secure a second meeting would do well to prepare the best financial plan he can for the prospect, but if he takes it one more step, he could find that his proposed plan is all he needs to close. Any third-party documents that back up what he is proposing can help an advisor, Brooks claims.

“[Consumers] are impressed by corroboration,” he says. “White papers, consumer reports, third-party endorsements … anything like that can help.”

Everyone’s different

The advisors interviewed here swear finding the right solution takes at least two meetings because of the intricacies involved, not only with setting up a proper retirement plan but also with creating a connection, because human beings and their needs are diverse. One-size-fits-all approaches won’t cut it, especially with the influx of boomers into the retirement market.

“No two financial plans or situations are alike,” Peterson says. “You may see some similarities between people’s situations, but because of a person’s own situation you have to have different products they need.”

Olson concurs with Peterson’s assessment of the need to recognize the uniqueness of each prospect and client.

“Money has meaning,” Olson says. “It creates options. Advisors need to ask, ‘Which options are important to you?’ They should tell [prospects], ‘The strategy we put together will be tailored to your hopes and dreams.’ Ask them, ‘What has gotten you to where you are today? What are the threads that run through your life?’”

Recognizing that each person is different and needs to be treated differently is integral to completing the process of defining a need and filling that need. It gets an advisor that much closer to thinking of the close not as a process unto itself but as the natural extension of a larger process. Brooks says it is “counterproductive to have color-by-numbers closes.” And it makes sense. There are no color-by-number hopes and dreams, and there are no color-by-number retirement plans.

Good financial plans aren’t built around scripted closes any more than solid game plans are built around the game-ending three-point shot. With proper execution, few turnovers, good free-throw shooting and contributions from the bench, the hot-shot shooter won’t have the opportunity to hit a highlight-reel game-winner, because the game will be decided before the final buzzer. And given a productive first meeting and concerted effort by the advisor before the second, the close is just a natural extension of the process, the logical next step in the prospect’s mind. There will be no need for late-game heroics.

That will be great for financial planners and financial planning in general, but it might make SportsCenter a little less interesting.