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Practice Management > Building Your Business

A Skill No Robo Can Emulate, But Few Humans Master

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Ellen Uzelac’s cover story (“The New Culture of Advisory Success”) is replete with examples of cultural practices that some advisors may find appealing, and others off-putting.

That’s the thing about culture—it is inherently particularistic. Good, bad or indifferent, each of these practices has its fans and detractors.

That said, serious advisors would do well to adopt good practices, or best practices as they’re called in the trade, because they promote good client outcomes. (And need we add—good client outcomes lead to good advisor outcomes.)

An example of such an advisor practice that is probably more advised than practiced is active listening.

Cheryl Holland of Abacus Planning Group of Columbia, South Carolina, demonstrates her seriousness about adoption of the practice by carving out five minutes for active listening role-playing at team meetings; crucially, the item is first on her firm’s “debrief” checklist after actual client meetings.

That the silence of listening is not mere passivity is attested to by Holland’s remarks in the article:

“Just count to nine. It’s amazing what comes. Usually it’s a worry: ‘I haven’t told you but our youngest child was diagnosed with MS’ or, after talking about their portfolio, ‘I really didn’t understand what you just said to me.’ That’s great feedback. The richness of the relationship has gotten so much better, giving them the space to process,” she says.

The obvious implication is that an improved financial plan might not have occurred and an enhanced professional relationship might not have ensued but for those nine seconds of silence.

At a time when many advisors fear competition from robo-advisors that are quickly amassing significant assets, active listening is a perfect of example of a human-advisor skill that can never be coded into even the most sophisticated financial planning software.

A robo-advisor can remain silent unto eternity, but that does not constitute listening. To listen, at least at a high level, means investing one’s faculties, energy, thoughts and emotions in what your communication partner is seeking to express.

Lending your ears in this way is a form of giving, which is why the process promotes a deeper advisor-client relationship. Two hearts, or two minds—depending on the nature of the discussion—have connected.

But listening like this is hardly easy—especially for a professional financial advisor who’s brimming with answers, sometimes before even hearing the questions.

Therein lies the wisdom of practicing listening at every team meeting. “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” goes the old joke. “Practice, practice, practice.” A good listener is no less accomplished, or rare, than a skilled musician.

If it makes you and your clients happy to have bean bags, or bottles of Merlot, strategically placed around the office, by all means offer them.

But if achieving greatness as a financial advisor is one of your goals, then the discipline needed to offer strategic silence in meetings with clients is a skill you must work to acquire.


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