More than 25 years ago I was invited to ride in a friend’s helicopter, which he had to collect from a maintenance service and fly home. I had imagined that like driving a car, we would pitch up, get in, and fly back. What I had not expected was how much planning was involved by Roland. First, he plotted and charted a route home, marking landmarks, roads, railways, and other visual clues so that he would be “on track.” Second, he calculated the distance, the fuel, and the time points expected at each of the landmarks.

Before leaving the airfield he handed in his plan to the air traffic control tower so that it would have the route, the landmarks, and the timescale he had planned. This would allow the authorities to track our journey and know our anticipated timescales. Third, he spent a long time checking every possible mechanical aspect of the helicopter to ensure that we would have a safe trip back. Finally, he investigated weather forecasts to ensure that we would have a clear and safe journey. When I asked what would happen if bad weather was forecast, he was quite clear that we would need visual navigation and he would postpone the trip.

Eventually, we set off in a machine that he had checked and cross-checked and then recorded all of these checks on the log. We set off on a flight plan that he had created, with checkpoints to ensure that we would stay on route, according to our plan.

Once airborne, I had not planned that he would practice a routine called autorotation, in which the pilot turns the engine off, tilts the helicopter toward the ground, and hopes that the gravitational plummet will jump-start the engine. Neither did I know his plan consisted of “hedge hopping,” in which we careered across fields and then seemingly at the last minute “hopped” up and down over hedges, much as a hurdling racehorse would do. However, with my adrenalin racing and my breakfast somewhat nervous, I was becoming very impressed with Roland’s skills, and his confidence was inspiring to me.

All of a sudden, his big grin turned to a serious frown and the boisterous commentary stopped. Our visibility disappeared as we were shrouded in fog. There was no radar or autopilot; Roland’s only tool was his vision, and this had just been taken from him.

He said that he had to find his way around the fog. I asked if we could climb above it, but I think there were issues about the height he could fly, and if we went high, we might have encountered light aircraft, so this was not possible.

Roland measured on his altimeter how high we were, as we had lost all bearings and sense of direction, and he kept moving to what he thought and hoped would be the side of the fog. My memory is blurred as to how long we were in this unknown, unexpected, disoriented state. But seemingly, as soon as we were enveloped, we had our vision restored.

Roland did not panic; he took action and he stayed calm. He was much more serious and considered the now.

“What happens now?” I asked. “We have to find another route to get home,” he said. All his best-laid plans and expectations had been taken from him. We couldn’t exactly pull into the nearest fuel station and ask for directions.

We saw some road signs and worked out bearings and headed south, which was our plan. Roland decided to keep flying south until we came across the River Thames, which flows west to east through London. It is also one of the world’s busiest flight paths for Heathrow traffic, which is heavily regulated and monitored by air traffic controllers. We would have to fly low to stay below the aircraft-approved flight paths.

This to me was a wonderful journey-to see so many London landmarks from such a close bird’s-eye view. At that point in time we both lived near Greenwich, which is alongside the river (home to the meridian line and starting point of all time measurements). It was exciting to see our houses and local identifiable places.

Our journey was completed at Redhill Aerodrome. We had used a different route, with a different plan, and had arrived at a different time.

Roland and I both worked in sales within the financial services profession. This experience brought into sharp awareness some of the similarities with our job and the flight.

o There has to be a starting point, with an intention, a goal, or a target.

o There is a known destination. (This could be for a single meeting, a day’s intentions, a week, a month, or perhaps an annual target.) If our plan hits “fog,” can we navigate around it and stay calm in adversity and remain resolved to do whatever it takes to get to our destination?

o There is a timescale. How many months should we have in our annual target? If we haven’t achieved our targets toward the end of our year, is it okay to put the year back a little?

o Proper preparation prevents poor performance. Check the machinery of our business. These may be (a) our advisor skills, (b) the courses we attend to remain on top of our game, (c) our knowledge and readings to ensure that we remain current within our profession, (d) our IT equipment to ensure that we are maximizing the use of technology, and (e) defining that we have a process to check and record.

o Share the plan. Give the plan details to someone you trust, such as a fellow MDRT member, who will encourage you and not be a threat to you. This will make us accountable and give us the chance to check off milestones to ensure that we are on track.

Since that day I have flown on many airplane trips for holidays and business. I enjoy the metaphor of a flight and our MDRT success, and many analogies are interlinked reminders for us. So what follows are various reflections that I have made.

Our clients’ “journeys” are their own financial goals, aspirations, and dreams.

Mostly, from making a reservation to check-in to the flight to leaving a plane, it is a predictable experience. We know what we should expect from our selected airline. New things and changes in procedure and format may become very unsettling.

o Do we have all our work organized into processes?

o Do our clients know what to expect?

o Do we deliver a consistent and predictable client experience?

How are we judged and measured by our clients?

My father used to judge a restaurant by walking straight to the toilets, and if they were not clean, he would leave.

If we board a plane and our seating area is dirty and unclean, what message do we get? They have skipped their attention to detail, or their process has broken down. If the ground crew has skipped cleaning the inside–the place I can see, experience, and have a view on-I wonder whether this has happened to the mechanical servicing, which I can’t check. Should I be worried?

o When a client visits your office, or receives any communication from you, is it correct, and have you paid attention to the details?

o If a client is aware of errors on things that they do know, how are you looking after them with the stuff that they don’t know? Will this give them less confidence in you?

Dan Sullivan refers to this as “front stage” and “back stage.” Front stage is everything that the client experiences, and back stage is everything that needs to happen to produce an impressive front stage performance.

Always check your work, which represents you. Everything counts! A carpet fitter measures twice and cuts once; he can’t afford mistakes and neither can MDRT members.

No matter how crowded it is at the airport, there is plenty of room up in the sky.

There are millions of advisors scratching around on the ground and not knowing how to take off in their careers. The higher we fly, the more space there seems to be–and there doesn’t seem to be competition up there! MDRT members have stopped scratching on the ground and have learned to soar with eagles.

Sometimes the weather conditions on the ground at the airport are not nice, and we don’t want to start our journey. Sometimes we don’t want to make the calls and see the people, and our business feels covered in clouds. No matter how cloudy the weather is on the ground, once you break through the clouds and climb high enough, it is always sunny high up.

Do our perceptions of local weather ever limit our thinking and our desire to take off, or do we believe that the ceiling of clouds is just our imagination? As successful MDRT members, we believe in ourselves and focus on the sunshine that is beyond the clouds!

Small planes take small journeys, and the flight may not be so pleasant.

Small journeys can be undertaken on our own, but this can be a lot of responsibility and energy sapping and it takes us longer to achieve our goals.

If you want a big journey, then fly higher and farther and get a crew! Bigger journeys need co-pilots and support crew to take care of all the routine stuff. The pilot maintains responsibility, but he doesn’t fuel the plane, load the bags, and distribute the food and drinks; he just sits up front-and he has tools and instruments and copilots to help out.

o What could we delegate to others while we focus on safety and navigation toward our journey and at the same time provide an enjoyable client experience?

o Do we need to do everything in our business?

o Do we introduce all our support crew to our passengers?

o What routine aspects of our business could we “autopilot” and that do not require 100% hands-on by us?

There are strict aviation rules over pilots’ health. They have regular physicals, they have eye tests, they are not allowed to have any alcohol for eight hours prior to a flight, and they are granted rest after a flight. They are fit for their role!

o Do we always pitch up fresh, rested, concentrating, with our flight plans prepared? Or have we ever “winged it”?

Prior to every departure we receive a safety briefing from the airline’s crew. Even if we think we have heard it before, we are always reminded of the safety and emergency procedures for that flight.

o Do we always keep the risks that our clients take at the forefront of our presentations and ensure that they are understood?

o Do we explain all the risks each time: for example, the inflation risk, the investment risk of not diversifying appropriately, the currency risk, the risk of running out of money, the institutional risk?

This is what could happen, and this is what you need to do about it!

An interesting aspect of the safety brief is to take care of yourself before helping others. Can we hold ourselves up as perfect clients, before we invite our prospects and clients to entrust their lives to us? It is difficult to sell to others a greater value than we hold for ourselves, so why not plan to be your own best client?

o Are our own houses/cabins in perfect order?

o Do we have a will?

o Do we have sufficient life cover?

o Do we have disability cover?

o Do we have income protection?

o Are we saving short term and for retirement?

A further aspect of safety is peer review. Doors to manual and cross-check.

o Could any of our reports, plans, and thinking be improved further and enable us to remove potential error if a colleague did a cross-check for us before we tried it out on our clients?

o Have we forgotten anything, or taken anything for granted?

Many travellers are fearful of flying.

Many clients find our subjects of money, insurance, investments, and retirement planning very scary. What is normal to us fills many with dread, perhaps what it feels like to go to the dentist.

o What are we doing to provide an environment of confidence, reassurance, and perhaps even fun?

o Are we acknowledging their fear and working on our soft skills-our emotional intelligence-to minimize this perception?

o Learn about behavioral finance. Confront a fear and it goes away. Avoid a fear and it reappears. Be the advisor that took their fear away!

It is possibly true that for many people, they want the destination, not the journey, so our role is to make their “flight” as easy for them as possible.

o How attentive are we to delivering a smooth and relaxed journey while selling the benefits of the arrivals destination?

o Can we minimize the administration that we involve them in?

o Can we streamline their underwriting?

o Can we reassure them that they are in good hands and will arrive at their destination if they trust us and follow our instructions?

The hardest part of a journey is to take off.

A Cessna plane needs a speed of 63 mph to take off. A 747 needs more runway and a speed of up to 180 mph to take off. What if a 747 drives down the runway at 170 mph? Will it take off? Will it run out of runway? Will it crash?

o Do we know how fast we need to be going to take off on our scheduled journeys?

o Are we focusing on working hard enough to get off the ground and airborne?

o Once airborne, how much thrust or power or energy is required to keep climbing?

Full power and use lots of fuel!

What happens if we ease off the throttle or power as soon as we have taken off? We could crash land! Do, we truly keep full effort in a focused, sustained concentration on our businesses as we grow them each year to make MDRT and perhaps Court of the Table and Top of the Table?

However, once we have climbed to “cruising altitude,” we can ease off the throttle, and much less energy and effort is required. Usually our altitude is determined by our attitude and our aptitude.

o How fast can we personally get to our own cruising altitudes?

o Do we have a positive and focused attitude, and is our ability as good as it possibly could be?

Apparently, the winds and weather ensure that for 95% of most flights a plane is off track.

Constant checks mean that we can easily make small adjustments to stay on track. What if the pilot hadn’t checked this every few hours-how far off track might we be?

o Should MDRT members measure their progress annually? half yearly? quarterly? monthly? weekly? daily?

o The more frequently we measure, the easier it will be to make adjustments and get back “on track” for our targets!

Most journeys experience some turbulence on route. This is not pleasant, but it is expected. The pilot pings us and minimizes the risk by instructing us to return to our seats and to have our seat belts buckled up. We are reducing any risk of injury and are being put in the safest possible place for this short-term adversity. We are reassured by the pilot’s leadership.

o When markets have challenging times, do we communicate that this is normal, it is part of the journey, and that the action we need to take is to “sit tight and buckle up” until we come out the other end?

o This is actually normal and it is expected. It is not pleasant but we do not need to panic.

Ongoing simulation training is required of commercial pilots. We don’t want them learning how to deal with a crisis when there is a full plane! So the airlines have them practice all the things that could go wrong and be trained so that they can cope confidently and professionally should there be a crisis.

o Are we having sales skills training and improving our emotional intelligence so that we can react respectfully, confidentially, and professionally no matter what circumstances we encounter?

o Are we practicing and rehearsing when it doesn’t matter so that we are in top form when it does?

Communication happens all the time, good and bad.

Pilot updates–can we understand them? Are they annoying? Are they useful?

To be honest, I don’t much care how many thousands of feet high we are (as long as we above the ground), and I don’t care how cold the outside temperature is (as long as I am comfortable within the cabin), and I don’t really care what the names of the pilots and their dogs are, as I’ll never see or meet them. Pilots seem to be trained to make these announcements in muffled voices, just after you start watching a movie or fall asleep, and they irritate me.

o Is there anything that we communicate to clients that is not clear, that is done from habit, and that is done without being valuable?

o How can we enhance the quality of all our client communications?

Check in regularly with your own “air traffic control.”

Are we on schedule? Is there anything showing on the radar that we need advance notice of or to avoid?

Sometimes clouds can disorientate us and the external noise can confuse us. We need to trust our instruments and measurements and ask for external guidance. Is there anything out there that we don’t know about?

No matter how far the flight, the plane needs to land and be serviced and refueled before taking off for the next journey. It can’t fly forever; maintenance and rest are required.

o Are we scheduling down time for personal maintenance and refueling so that we’re ready for the next trip? We want to run efficiently, and if we burn out, we are no good to ourselves, our family, or our clients.

As we start to land, there is certainty of our reduction in altitude required and the point we touch the ground.

When planning clients’ retirement goals, many will know their date and so would want their assets to be de-risked on a measured basis as they come into their retirement landing.

o Are we reviewing assets and portfolios to reduce exposure to more volatile investments, and banking the profits so that there are no “bumpy landings” in their retirement?

What cabin are you selling?

Most people travel economy, or coach. This is generally cheap and pitches to the no-frills, price-sensitive mass market. This is a high volume and low margin customer, and generally this is how you get to feel when you travel at the back of the plane.

Discerning customers, who like to be treated well and who are not as price sensitive, appreciate the finer things.

o They like the calm and the facilities in the lounges.

o They like priority boarding.

o They like the big reclining seats.

o They like the size of the video screens.

o They like choice: choice of entertainment, choice of food, choice of drinks.

o They like the goody bags distributed.

o They like getting off the plane first and reducing waiting at passports or baggage claim–they can be on their way faster and refreshed and feeling a little smug that they have actually enjoyed, rather then endured, the flight.

As MDRT members, we have to examine our cabins and our offices, and see what image we are creating.

o Is parking easy for clients to come and go?

o Do we spoil them with additional goodies?

o Do they feel they get priority service and avoid waiting?

o Are they willing to pay you more for providing this?

Dan Sullivan says we can create value by providing these three elements: relationship, creativity, and leadership. Do we deliver value?

Court of the Table and Top of the Table members probably treat themselves and their clients first class and deliver a premium service to match.

Is loyalty acknowledged, is it appreciated, and is it rewarded?

The clients with the biggest dreams want to make the biggest journeys, and these can become our premium, long-haul passengers.

Our skill is to sell bigger dreams to our clients so that they aspire to travel with us on a greater number of trips, and we maximize a share of their wallet. The ideal is to achieve such brand loyalty that clients use you exclusively.

o I have traveled a lot with British Airways and positively booked flights with them to get my gold card.

o I have had great flights with Emirates and Air New Zealand. I shall seek them out.

o I have never enjoyed a flight with an American carrier such as United or Delta. I positively try not to use them.

Price is not a feature of the service and relationship.

o Do clients feel part of your special club?

o Do they get newsletters and cards?

o Do they get gifts?

o Are they invited to prestigious client appreciation events?

o Do they have an exclusive section on your website?

o Are there loyalty rewards and introduction gifts?

Ultimately, we are all selling the same thing, which is to travel from city A to city B. Any advisor around the world could do what we do. But how we present and deliver that experience and service will distinguish us from non-MDRT members.

Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) teaches us about anchoring, and this presentation will remind you of the subject every time you fly. I hope that the next time you take a flight, you reflect upon how you are being treated-what is good, what could be improved–and whether you would choose this experience again.

Our clients are doing this to us all the time. We need to be aware and keep on top of our game and be the best pilots we can possibly be. Thank you.

This is a published version of a focus session presented by Mark Hynes at the 2011 MDRT annual meeting in Atlanta. Hynes is a partner at St. James’s Place Wealth Management, Bletchingley Surrey, U.K.