You’ve completed the fact finder with the prospect: You know their numbers and there seems to be a good personal match between you and them. You’ve spotted several areas where they need your help and you’re ready to move to the next stage. But they are subtly resisting. You look at your notes and wonder what you might have overlooked, but nothing jumps off the page at you.

Getting in front of qualified prospects is hard work and you want to ensure that they become clients. Understanding prospects involves more than collecting financial data, though. While successful advisors ask the quantitative questions, they go beyond the numbers and learn about their goals, hopes and fears, as well. By combining hard data with prospects’ “softer” concerns, they reach a deeper understanding of prospects’ past behavior and what motivates their financial decisions.

Getting personal
The first step to getting beyond the numbers is to show prospects that you’re genuinely interested in them and their situation. “Part of the process is my natural desire to like and get along with people, and I think part of it is really paying attention and learning about the psychologies of communications,” says Erika Safran, CFP, a principal with Financial Asset Management Corp. in New York City: “It’s not enough that the prospect is filling out the documentation and sending it back to me, because then I can be replaced by a computer program.”

There is a fuzzy boundary between professional interest and personal curiosity when probing clients, however, and Safran says it’s important to avoid crossing it. “I have been in situations when you probe because it’s your natural desire to gather information, but then you have to stop and ask yourself, ‘Is the question that I’m asking valuable to this situation, or is it satisfying a curiosity?’ If you’re going in a direction that does not benefit the client, then stop.”

Scott Bernhagen, LUTCF, a producer with MetLife in Itasca, Ill., takes prospects through a fact finder. Although he asks for comprehensive information, Bernhagen says the point of the questions is to bring issues to their attention. One method he uses is to share his personal experiences when illustrating a point. For example, when he discusses long term care expenses, he might cite his clients’ and family’s experiences. “The first thing I do is let them know that I have no applications with me,” he says. “I’m not going to attempt to sell them anything. I just want to discuss the issues because, based on the experiences I’ve had, these are things that need to be discussed. It’s my responsibility as a professional advisor to bring them to their attention.”

Climbing the family tree
Think of the last time someone asked about your family and its history. Whether that question elicited warm memories or a migraine, you probably gave a deeply felt response. Ellen Siegel, CFP, ChFC, CLU, owner of Ellen R. Siegel & Associates in Miami, Fla., uses responses to family history questions to learn about her prospects. She asks them to draw a family tree that includes each family member’s age, marital status, child status, health, financial health, location and how they get along with the client. That information naturally turns the conversation to family relationships and topics such as who would care for whom and how and so on.

Siegel first learned about the family tree approach at a previous job and she has continued to use it for the past five years at her own firm. She’s found it to be a natural method for shifting the focus away from collecting financial data, although the tree-building process elicits much of that information anyway. (Siegel also uses traditional fact-finding questionnaires whose length depends on the complexity of the clients’ finances.) She has not encountered any resistance to the family tree conversation from prospects and clients; her experience has been just the opposite, in fact. “People are enchanted telling you about their family,” she says. “It makes it very conversational and easy to raise the money questions because it fits in the conversation.”

Asking the big questions
“Imagine that you have enough money to take care of your needs, now and in the future. How would you live your life? Would you change anything?” Those are advisor George Kinder’s well-known three questions that guide the lifeplanning interview with clients. For Christopher Olsen, CFP, with Olsen and Associates in Lodi, Calif., his training to become a Registered Life Planner with the Kinder Institute of Life Planning plays an important role in understanding prospects. Most of Olsen’s new business comes from referrals, so the prospects are comfortable coming to the initial meeting with a completed detailed questionnaire and numerous financial documents. He also asks them to read the Ameriprise Dream Book he sends, which helps get the prospects thinking about their (possibly unstated) goals.

That questionnaire provides the quantitative background, but Olsen uses much of the meeting to focus on life-planning goals, which is a topic prospects might not have considered prior to the meeting. “When I ask people about their goals or what are they concerned about or what they want help with, they usually answer with a tactic or a strategy,” he says. “‘I really want a million dollars’ or ‘I really want to make this rate of return.’ To move them from that to ‘I want to spend time with my grandkids’ and ‘I want to travel’ and ‘I want to do charitable work,’ it used to take forever. Now with the Dream Book and life planning,
it moves to that much faster.”

Prospects have needs that usually can be quantified and addressed with a solution. But getting to the story behind the needs increases the likelihood that the prospect will become a satisfied long-term client.