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.
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.”