Who? What? When? Where? Why? How? Those six questions are the keys to getting to the bottom of any story.

Journalists live by them and make entire careers out of them. Six simple words with question marks after them. Children, much to the chagrin of parents across the globe, latch onto those words – right after mommy, daddy, mine and I want – as their way of learning about their world. All queries can be traced back to one of the six essential words at the beginning of this paragraph. Questions, in the hands of capable financial professionals, can be weapons of mass discovery, eliciting the answers that enable advisors to figure out what their clients need and build the plans to get them there. Asked poorly and at inappropriate times, questions can cause a meeting to implode in a cloud of mistrust and apathy.

Advisors can ask leading questions, or they can ask questions that lead to a solution. Doing the former leads to a predetermined solution and usually takes care of only part of a client’s issues. Doing the latter takes guts, because any notions the advisor may have had prior to the meeting can be shot down at any time based on the answers he receives. In the long run, however, doing the hard work of asking better, more involved questions and following up on the answers is what it takes to be an advisor who cultivates relationships with clients and creates individualized plans to meet their needs.

The secrets to asking better questions are really not secrets at all, but it takes commitment and practice – and maybe a dedication to listening many only pay lip service to. It can be done.

Know thy client

Not all seniors are the same. Sure, there are issues that worry large numbers of older Americans – running out of money, leaving a tax burden to heirs, loss of pension or Social Security income if one spouse dies – and some generalizations can be made about a segment of the population, but real solutions arise from knowing the person across the desk. And that takes time and effort.

“You have to find out how they feel and what they want, and help them to see the problems they face,” says Lew Nason, creator and co-founder of the Insurance Pro Shop ( www.insuranceproshop.com ) in Dallas, Ga. “The problem is, most advisors ask a couple of questions and think they understand the client and that the client understands the problems they face.”

Those are the advisors who are thinking one-dimensionally. They have an outcome in mind and are moving the conversation in that direction no matter what a prospect or client says. No matter how a person answers a question, that advisor is devising a way to make the answer fit a specific product. He has a transaction in mind, not a plan. Advisors who operate in the planning mode think beyond the quick and easy answer. They delve deeper, in a model Bill Brooks calls three-deep questioning.

In three-deep questioning, the advisor asks a question about a specific topic – “How well organized are your finances?” – and listens to the answer. When the prospect is finished, the advisor follows up with a question like, “Why do you say that?” After another round of intent listening, the advisor follows up by restating the prospect’s concerns and pointing out the positives.

“Some financial professionals are so concerned about the product they are selling that many don’t get to the first level,” says Brooks, founder of The Brooks Group ( www.thebrooksgroup.com ), a sales and sales management consulting firm, in Greensboro, N.C.

They also miss out on the soft facts, which are the nuggets of information critical to understanding client wants, needs, fears and dreams. Nason distinguishes hard facts from soft facts in this way: “Soft facts are how [seniors] feel about the hard facts.” Hard facts are found in the answers to questions like, “How much will your monthly Social Security income be?” “How much money do you have in defined-contribution plans? Defined-benefit plans?” The soft facts can be arrived at by following up on the hard facts, by inquiring further.

Follow-up questions are as important or more important than the original question, according to sales consultants and coaches, because two people who give the same answer may have two completely different reasons for giving that answer, and they may even mean two different things by it.

“Most people think they hear what they need to hear and they don’t ask for clarification,” Nason says. “But you really have to understand what they are telling you.”

That falls into something Michael Lovas, C.Ht., gets excited to talk about and teaches his clients.

Get excited

Lovas, a clinical hypnotherapist and co-founder of About People Inc. ( www.aboutpeople.com ), Colbert, Wash., says senior advisors have to be great listeners because only by listening will they discover what gets their clients and prospects excited. And therein lies to key to asking great follow-up questions.

“Advisors need to hear the excitement,” Lovas says. “If they don’t recognize it or address it, they’re making a big mistake.”

He says advisors have to write down values words, the words that indicate why a senior is pursuing a financial plan at all. Words like comfort, independence and legacy are values words, Lovas says. They indicate what is important to a senior. Make sure to underline those words that are uttered with excitement in their voices (and then be sure to address those words in every conversation), and ask questions that further explore the concept.

“Get them to explain what they mean by ?financial freedom’ or ?legacy’ or ?comfortable’,” Lovas says. “They’ll also tell you what they don’t want. Make sure to ask them to explain that, too.”

Without proper follow up, it is impossible to know what someone means by legacy. If an advisor hears that and assumes the person wants to leave money to grandchildren when what he really wants to do is create a scholarship at his alma mater, the advisor may pursue the wrong path inadvertently and harm the relationship. All it takes is a short follow-up question: “Can you tell me more?” “What do you mean by legacy?” “What do you have in mind?”

Well-timed and on-point follow-up queries have another effect, too.

“Clients love that,” Lovas says, “having advisors ask questions about what’s important to them. Ask follow-up questions based on what they say and it goes a long way to establishing trust.” And the only way to ask questions about what’s important to them is to listen and follow up. “It’s not easy because it takes practice. You have to clean the wax out of your ears and listen for things like values words. You have to listen actively.”

Once the advisor truly understands what a senior’s issues and concerns are, he is then able to initiate action – or at least get the senior to think about the consequences of not taking action.

Problem agitation

One problem many salespeople, including financial planners, face is the age-old bugaboo of getting people to chart the right course. Even after all the right questions have been asked and answered, some people are reluctant to change. And that is where asking even more questions comes in handy.

“People don’t do what they need to do,” Nason says. “They do what they want to do. [An advisor] needs to make them see the problems and the manifestations of those problems before they want to act.”

Advisors should show clients the cost of doing something – formulating and following a plan – and the cost of doing nothing. If that can be done through questions, all the better. Ask clients, “What are the consequences of not protecting certain assets if you live to age 90?” “What will happen in the event of a long term care incident, when the average cost of care in your area is $XX per month?” Pretty quickly, they will see that the cost of doing nothing is far higher than the cost of doing something, Nason says, especially if the advisor has stuck to the plan of selling a solution, not a product or products.

Brooks agrees. “Advisors need to make people see the consequences of not taking action. They want to agitate the problem.”

Only by agitating the problem can advisors see how amenable someone is to finding a solution. And once that solution is formulated and presented, advisors need to ask still more questions. Brooks recommends feedback questions: How does this look? Are we on target? What do you think? The questions themselves are standard, but the answers won’t be. Affirmative answers point toward the close; negative answers point back toward more problem agitation: What is the biggest problem with your financial planning? What areas are you most concerned with?

Once the feedback questions have been answered in the affirmative, it’s time to move on to the most important question, the one that leads to creating and implementing the plan: Would you like to get started?

Questions. We learn them as toddlers and use them to a sometimes maddening degree of repetition so we can understand our world a little better. Financial professionals can use them in the same way, as they get to know prospects and clients better. In either instance, they are methods of discovery, tools used to build solid financial futures for seniors.

When used most effectively, questions aren’t leading; the answers to them, however, should lead advisors and their clients to a happy and prosperous future.

*For further information or to contact this author, please use the forum below.