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Getting Clients to Follow Your Advice: The Passive Spouse

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As all advisors know, it’s one thing to provide clients with appropriate advice and another thing to actually get them to follow that advice. 

In this series of reports, Investment Advisor columnist and psychotherapist Olivia Mellan and financial behavior specialist Kol Birke of Commonwealth Financial Network address some common scenarios that advisors face in getting their clients to follow through on their advice. This advice for advisors flowed out of a web seminar hosted by Investment Advisor and ThinkAdvisor editor Jamie Green late last year. 

Scenario 5: Engaging a Passive Spouse

Jamie Green: Olivia, you often talk about the importance of getting a third-party involved within families to “blow air into the system,” because as we all know, families and couples can easily fall into very strict, very codified routines in how they work with each other.

One of our audience members asked this question: “In my experience, if one spouse is engaged and the other is passive, and the advisor tries to insist on meeting the passive spouse, this does not usually work and can create resentment. A difficult problem with no great resolution.” Are there steps you can take to help break up this active-passive dynamic? 

Olivia Mellan: Ironically, after a speech I recently gave to an industry association, a company president came up to me and said, “My wife is in charge of all the money.” I said, “Do you meet with her regularly to know what’s happening?” He said, “Not really,” and I could tell he felt ashamed. I said, very nicely, “Monthly meetings where you really get a lot more involved, so you’re not in the child position, would be highly recommended.” I think he must have been ready to do something about it, or he wouldn’t have confessed it to me. And maybe my comment was all he needed to take that first step.

If the husband is the engaged spouse, it’s really important to say to him, “If we wait until you’re gone to educate your wife, it will be terrible for her and she will not be able to learn. She really needs to partner with you now, and you have to lovingly find a way to get her involved.”

I think it’s absolutely necessary to find some creative way to reach out and get the uninvolved spouse on board. Maybe there should be a reward if she or he does this, because it’s hard. During the talks I’m giving for Wells Fargo Women Advisors, I’m often asked about this. We brainstorm ideas about how to get a passive spouse more involved, such as inviting her for coffee in a restaurant to break the ice before urging her to come to your office for an appointment. 

Kol Birke: I definitely agree. And I would go back to that “positions vs. interests” idea. As a financial advisor, your position is that you want to get that other spouse involved in the planning. There are a variety of interests driving that: to help the spouse become financially savvy, to make it more likely that she’ll stay your client long after the other spouse passes away, to ensure that she’ll be okay no matter what happens in her life.

The other thing you have to think about is “What is the most achievable goal that is still meaningful?” That may mean you start by just forming a relationship with the passive spouse, maybe even not talking about finances at all but simply going for a walk together. You can find out what this passive spouse is interested in and what they are comfortable with. Once you have a better relationship, you can ideally tiptoe from there into “What would make you want to come to these meetings?” 

OM: Mary Malgoire invites whole families once a year to visionary dinners where they hear very interesting lectures and meet other clients. The lectures are not always about money; they may be about technology, healthcare or other cutting-edge things that are happening. They’re always wonderful, and people look forward to being there and getting involved. And I think they make less involved spouses feel less intimidated around financial issues.

Sidebar: Overcoming Clients’ Reluctance to Get Going 

The hardest part of motivating a client is often getting them to take the first few steps toward a goal. As financial behavior specialist Kol Birke noted in our webinar, reframing a plan can make a big difference in whether clients follow through on it or not. He describes a study done at a car wash that was giving away loyalty cards. If customers bought eight car washes and had the card punched each time, they’d get a car wash free.

“As an experiment, they gave away two different versions of this punch card,” he said. “In the normal version, the card had eight spots to punch. Roughly 19% of people who received this card made it all the way through to get the free car wash. The other card had 10 punch spots, but the first two were already punched out when they handed it to the customer. So as soon as you bought the first car wash, you had three holes already punched.” Many more of the people who were given this second punch card made it all the way through—34%, according to Birke.

Both groups had to buy eight car washes to get a free one. “But because the hardest part of any job is getting started, the group that felt they already had a head start on it followed through more often,“ he explained.

Birke suggested that you can use this strategy with your clients. Whether you’re discussing mentoring their kids, saving for retirement or anything else, rather than saying, “Let’s get started,” reframe the conversation to show them what they’ve already done. “Well, you’ve already started coaching your kids on how to throw a baseball. It’s not that different.” Focus the conversation on “You’ve already begun doing this; let’s continue it.”

Read the original Investment Advisor column and the entire series of scenarios.