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The Power of Words

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Writer Dorothy Parker cracked that the two most beautiful words in the English language were “check enclosed.” The three most beautiful words for winning financial advisory clients are “I get it!”

That crisp little sentence helps create a bond toward building trust by communicating that not only are you listening to what clients say but that you understand their needs, desires and goals.

In today’s tough business climate and with the breakdown of trust as a result of the financial crisis and scandals, clients are super-sensitive to the words and phrases FAs use. Yet many advisors fail to realize the power of words — how the wrong ones turn off clients but how the right ones can win and keep them.

“Advisors may be the experts in technical financial jargon, but they still aren’t the experts in working with and managing clients on a human level. In today’s fierce competition, you won’t differentiate through technical knowledge. That’s done through the relationships you build,” says Harvard-trained communications specialist Raphael Lapin, founder of Lapin Negotiation Strategies. He consults and trains for Fortune 500 companies, like AT&T and Yahoo, and governments globally (and has been a contributor to Research).

The specific words you use, as well as your look, body language and tone of voice combine to create a perception as someone clients can or cannot trust. Moreover, a choice of words can and often does make the difference between landing or losing an account.

Concise, positive, client-focused words are central to making folks feel at ease and to establishing rapport.

“No worries!” is a great phrase for advisors to use when meeting with a client for the first time. So says communications consultant and political advisor Frank Luntz, whom Businessweek calls one of the four “Top Research Minds.” His newest book is Win: The Key Principles to Take Your Business from Ordinary to Extraordinary (Hyperion).

“Imagine is the most powerful word,” says Luntz, whose Alexandria, Va.-based Luntz Global clients include Merrill Lynch and General Electric. “You’re asking clients to imagine success and then to imagine you guiding them there. The first thing I’d tell a would-be client is, ‘Imagine life as perfection. Where are you, and what are you doing? Because the goal is: I want to help you get there. I want imagine to become reality.’”

Michael Maslansky, CEO of Maslansky Luntz & Partners (Luntz left to form his own firm), advising, among others, brokerages such as UBS and Wells Fargo, on language strategy, notes that “long-term” and “strategic” are positive words that resonate with investors.

“People who work with financial advisors are more likely to be focused on long-term investing. Therefore, it’s important to be explicit with clients that this is where your focus is,” Washington, D.C.-based Maslansky says. “‘Strategic’ suggests that there’s a goal and an ongoing process that you’ve put thought into.” Maslansky is author — with Scott West, Gary DeMoss and David Saylor — of The Language of Trust: Selling Ideas in a World of Skeptics (Prentice-Hall).

Listen Closely

When it comes to client-winning words, the main idea is to forget about being in pitch mode. Instead, be in listen-and-react mode, Luntz counsels.

“Financial advisors are all about the pitch, but they should be listening. Pick up on something the client says or their body language. It’s as much the process as it is the language,” he says. “I’ve had sessions in which advisors pitched 30 investors in a room and who, using a hand dial, would react on a second-by-second basis to what they were hearing. Inevitably, the first guys got trashed. They thought they were [showing] confidence, but what they were exhibiting was arrogance and lack of listening.”

Luntz continues: “They’d get angry and [retort], ‘You don’t know what’s good for you!’ Some got embarrassed, but it showed the [firms] to teach their people to think about what they’re saying and to slow it down. Financial advisors tend to be Type A personalities — so they push information, numbers and solutions. Rather, you want to pull, not push.”

UBS advisor Thomas Livaccari, who with partner Kenneth Shapiro in New York City manages assets of about $1 billion, sought Michael Maslansky’s help during the financial crisis.

“A lot of what we discussed focused on crystallizing our [approach] of not selling and doing more advising so that clients were able to make decisions without feeling pressured,” Livacarri says. “High-net-worth people don’t want to be sold to.”

Marcia Mantell, founder of Mantell Retirement Consulting, in Needham, Mass., who specializes in developing retirement-business strategies (and is profiled in this issue), recommends using “positive action words and phrases that demonstrate partnership, like ‘Let’s create a custom plan.’ That addresses the real needs of consumers in a positive light. Don’t say, ‘Oh my God, you didn’t save enough for retirement!’ Spin it positively.”

Words that win clients indeed help foster trust — a quality, however, that must be earned. The way to develop trust, according to the experts, is to first connect on an emotional level. Show your human side as opposed to just the numbers side. One way is by telling a story or anecdote about yourself that is relevant to the discussion.

“This helps to enhance credibility when it comes time to make an investment recommendation,” Maslansky says. Moreover, try to encourage the client to tell personal stories as well.

Self-disclosure on the part of advisors works well to encourage clients to elaborate on personal issues they might otherwise be reluctant to talk about.

For instance, advises Los Angeles-based Lapin, author of Working with Difficult People (DK Publishing), “you might say to them, ‘As I put [myself] in your shoes, I can only believe a concern of mine would certainly be [whatever]. Is that a concern of yours too?’ Once you put it out there and make it a safe environment to talk about by saying the issue is important to you, they’re much more likely to speak about it.”

But what if a prospect blatantly declares: “I don’t trust financial advisors — why should I trust you!”? A diplomatic, effective response would be, “‘I don’t expect you to trust me. That’s earned over time,’” Luntz says. “Then you demonstrate that you’re in this together. ‘Alignment’ is a word that often works.”

The approach Lapin recommends is to step to the client’s side and respond with the question, “What standard or criteria would be important to you in choosing one service provider over another?”

“The more information you get from them, the more you’re equipped to craft a response that addresses their concerns,” he says. “‘I don’t trust you’ is a volatile phrase. So I rephrase it and say, ‘I’m hearing that you have a concern.’ That way, I’m decontaminating the issue.  ‘A concern’ is something we can solve; ‘not trusting’ we cannot.”

Next, says Lapin, show how you’re different from other advisors by putting into play further effective questioning. “You’re far more in control of any conversation when you’re asking a good question than promoting yourself.”

Limit the Jargon

Perhaps the biggest challenge that advisors must overcome is overuse of financial jargon. Many don’t even realize they’re talking in jargon. The industry understands this shorthand; most clients don’t.

Just because someone keeps nodding their head as you speak, doesn’t mean they know what you’re talking about.

Luntz believes that financial jargon “sounds put on.” Instead, “what you are looking for is to come across as authentic.”

Likewise, notes Lapin: “Paradoxically, using jargon doesn’t come over as very sophisticated. It [appears] almost as if you’re hiding behind it.”

Maslansky suggests that if there’s no choice but to use jargon, a clear explanation or definition should be provided as well.  For example, “Never just say, ‘These investments aren’t correlated to each other.’ Say, ‘It helps to diversify your portfolio by investing in different types of assets that don’t move in the same direction at the same time. We call that [negative] correlation.’”

The right words help you engage with the client and start to forge that all-important relationship. Recommended are words that acknowledge and understand the person’s perspective. That’s where ‘I get it!’ comes in.

Other phrases that Luntz advocates are the call to action “Let’s make it happen!” and “peace of mind.” “In the current environment,” he says, “if you can remove fear from clients’ day-to-day experience and address their financial well-being, you’re 90 percent of the way there.”

Another word — and concept — that wins is “choices.” In discussing fees, talk about “transparency,” “clarity” and “value.” “Making sure clients understand what they’re paying for” is important, Maslansky stresses. In this context, the idea of client-advisor “alignment” is very helpful, he suggests.

In no situation is using the right words more critical than in dealing with an irate client.

“You need to do some very good active listening and acknowledge what they’re upset about — but without agreeing with them,” says Lapin. “Understand and empathize: stand over to their side and walk along with them so there are limits to how much they can continue pushing. Don’t speak condescendingly. Ask clarifying questions. Eventually, the negative energy will dissipate, and you can bring the discussion back to problem-solving.”

Much the same approach can be used when a client is intent on making what an advisor knows would be a terrible investment. “Question them about why it appeals,” Lapin says. “Then indicate that there’s a range of options [that can achieve what they seek]. Introduce some of those, engaging them in the process. Again, step to their side … then you can lead them over.”

To be sure, the wrong words can create defensiveness or nervousness. When people become defensive, they push back or shut down — sometimes both.

A couple of words to lose: “Never” and “always.” And don’t even think about saying “Trust me!” to a client.

Notes Lapin: “As soon as someone has to tell me to trust them, I become suspicious. It [seems] they have to tell me because they can’t demonstrate it.”

 Beware of language that belittles an issue or dismisses concerns.

“When the client is really concerned about a particular piece of the puzzle, don’t sweep it under the rug,” Mantell says. “The advisor who wins the business will address the issue and say, ‘I absolutely understand what you’re saying, and I want to explain two scenarios to you.’ Look the person in the eye, acknowledge that you’ve heard and understand, and then provide … choices.”

Above all, be sure to listen attentively and don’t monopolize the conversation.

Advice from the author of Tell to Win: Connect, Persuade and Triumph with the Hidden Power of Story, Peter Guber, film producer and UCLA professor (see sidebar): “Let the clients lead the parade. You have to leave room for them to participate. This is crucial: it’s not a monologue — it’s a dialogue.”

Storied Career

You’ve seen his movies: Rain Man, Batman, The Color Purple and more. Now see what Hollywood film producer Peter Guber, thought leader, long-time UCLA professor and co-owner of the NBA’s Golden State Warriors, has to say about the power of using the right words.

In an interview with Research, the former head of Columbia Pictures, Polygram Entertainment and Sony Pictures, and author of Tell to Win: Connect, Persuade and Triumph with the Hidden Power of Story (Crown Business), talks about building trust by creating an emotional bond.

“It precedes the financial or intellectual bond — you get to the numbers through a person’s heart,” says Guber, CEO-chair of Mandalay Entertainment Group, who teaches thought leadership at UCLA’s business school. “Before you spit out the first number, your authenticity must shine through. Because if integrity isn’t on your face, they’ll be looking for the monkey — ‘I know there’s a monkey here somewhere!’ — and then you’d better be careful.”

Guber adds: “When you present, the person at the other end is always taking your measure.”

As for storytelling, probe for client stories; better yet, if possible, do advance research before meetings to learn folks’ backstories.

 “Once you know what makes them tick,” Guber says, “develop your [overall] story that taps into that — say, overcoming adversity to become successful. You’re looking for an emotional connection — the soft stuff — that the numbers, facts and figures can sit on and be given meaning. When the chips are down and the going gets tough, what counts? The soft stuff.”

— J.W.R.