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Don't think product! Identify needs and sell solutions

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Creating client satisfaction by finding solutions based directly on needs – not specific products – will go a long way in building a productive relationship. Here’s how close consultation and conversation will uncover real needs, and put you in a better position to address them.

“A client of mine, in her middle 40s, after getting divorced, wanted to go to nursing school full-time,” recalls Steve Mazda of Mazda Capital Management LLC in New Hope, Pa. “I was able to reconfigure her portfolio so she did not need to work while in school.”

It was Mazda’s client-first approach that helped his client to realize a dream, something of which he’s well aware. Needs pre-exist solutions. Presenting solutions is the way to address needs. Senior advisors cannot create the need as much as discover it and point out a way to satisfy that need or solve that problem based on their knowledge.

For Mazda, client meetings are the heart and soul of his practice and pay dividends in more ways than one. Clients appreciate the direct and active approach he takes to managing their financial futures, which are based on the penetrating questions he asks and illustrations he shows. In addition to strong client loyalty, he often earns business-building referrals in this manner.

Similarly, when Mazda had a senior client who needed growth of capital as well as income, he invited a bond specialist to review the portfolio. The two then devised an allocation that helped the client meet both objectives.

While the rules of the senior advisory business are seemingly always changing, at the end of the day, it’s actually more about being in the client-satisfaction industry than anything else. Since each client brings a unique set of requirements to the relationship, how does today’s senior advisor keep each one satisfied while growing his business in a steadily progressing industry where the ball is constantly in play?

The answer is to run a more efficient, solutions-based practice. Very likely one where the advisor spends more time with clients to better understand them and then offer the solutions that can help fill needs. While technology always promises to help us do more with less, there’s no substitute for spending time with a client and in the process, making a better client out of a current one by building on the existing relationship. This can be more efficient than trying to cultivate business from a new prospect. A client with a penchant for tax-free investing, for example, may appreciate being made aware of the benefits of a 529 plan, notes Jacqueline M. Pierre, an advisor in Plymouth, Mass. “He may have maxed out his 401(k) or IRA and has children or grandchildren. He can get additional tax advantages with a 529 plus help his children or grandchildren,” she says. But to succeed in this type of need-identification process, Pierre says an advisor often must make the client aware of his own needs. The obvious items of importance are frequently uncovered in basic client-information questionnaires. But the more subtle clues, the ones that can lead to deeper, longer lasting relationships and true problem solving, are often revealed in conversations. Finding ways to spend more time with clients is therefore critical to providing solutions that can growing business.

“Only fools rush in,” says advisor Steven Herweyer of William Tell Financial Services in Latham, N.Y., referencing the old Elvis Presley song to make his point. “Would you trust a doctor who handed out a prescription without conducting an examination? Neither would I,” he says, answering his own question. Herweyer says a presumptuous senior advisor is risking disaster. There’s no substitute for spending time with a client to better understand things like their risk tolerance before making product/solution recommendations. “Money is a very emotional topic,” he cautions. “Be sensitive and educate clients about how you can help before making recommendations.” Herweyer, who often recommends variable annuities, says an educational approach is critical when moving from “no” to “yes.”

“Annuities have gotten a bad rap. What’s worse is that most people don’t know about the new class of annuities and how these products are evolving on almost a daily basis. Pointing new features out to clients can make a world of difference in a discussion.”

Herweyer is a big believer in face-to-face marketing and in asking for referrals, which come easily after a job well done. “Actuarial tables have dramatically changed,” he says. “Ask to audit a client’s or prospect’s existing life policy. Chances are you can get them better coverage for less. This can free up additional funds which can then be invested for the client’s future, not to mention how grateful they’ll be for their improved coverage.”

Noting that they might be able to get a better rate and improved coverage is the type of problem-solving, solutions-oriented idea that can get a client’s attention. Keep examples simple and freely propose hypotheticals. Life expectancies have increased as medical science has advanced. In response, life coverage has also evolved. This is a logical argument. What may have provided your client with sufficient coverage at one stage of their life may no longer be suitable. The birth of a child, a change in marital or employment status or in one’s health or even advancing age often have insurability implications. They can also serve as reasons to get in touch with a client, review their current financial plan and point out solutions to issues on the horizon.

“When I meet with a client, I do not have any pre-conceived thoughts about what products they may or may not need,” says Tammy Mogilski, CFP, at Legacy Financial Planning in Rochester, N.Y. “My responsibility is to listen and then make recommendations based on what I hear. I ask about goals and objectives and what they’ve done to achieve them.” Later in the process, Mogilski assesses whether the client can reasonably meet their goals and if not, will develop a plan to help them do so.

Long term care planning is an area that lends itself relatively easily to solutions-based selling. While there are many misconceptions about LTC coverage, awareness of the need to care for the elderly is commonplace. “I work to help create a better understanding of how LTCI fits into their planning,” adds Mogilski, who notes that members of the “Sandwich Generation” – those facing the pressure of simultaneously caring for parents and children – make promising prospects. “These individuals do not want their children to face the same challenges [they did],” she says. “I work with them to create a plan that addresses this.”

“Ask what keeps them up at night,” suggests Suzanne L. Swafford, vice president at CBIZ Insurance Services Inc., in Denver. “What do they worry about? We often find clients love their business but not the business of business. They’d rather do what they do best than worry about taxes, insurance, etc.”

Lenann McGookey Gardner, a former leading sales representative at Xerox and the author of Got Sales? urges senior advisors to “remove pain” from clients’ lives. “The best cues make advisors aware that there’s pain somewhere in the prospect’s life,” notes Gardner. “A prospect is most likely to complain about his portfolio, his insurance or his current advisor in a one-on-one meeting. When you hear it, take time to learn more about what underlies the frustration, then offer your services.”

What kind of education can senior advisors furnish to make prospects want to meet with you or respond to your ad or direct mail piece? Chet Holmes, author of The Ultimate Sales Machine , says the most important point to successful selling is building rapport, not breaking it. “No one wants to be ?sold,’” he cautions. “When you educate, you build rapport. You increase your credibility when beginning meetings with data that is valuable to the prospect. Start each meeting by teaching your prospect something or by distributing data that shows that you’ve done your homework.”

Jerry Pawlowicz of AXA Advisors in Grand Rapids, Mich. agrees. “Insurance and financial professionals can attract far more prospects by offering education than they’ll ever get by offering product or service,” he says. The next step is to be comprehensive in your recommendations. “A good financial plan will address more than investments. It will look at financial objectives, risk tolerance, budgeting, saving, credit, taxes, insurance, retirement planning, estate planning, disability risks and more.”

While there are numerous ways to address client problems, by giving clients a chance to tell you what they want and by being thoughtful and open minded in your approach, solutions as well as sales should follow.

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