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Building Rapport with Partnered Clients: How to Bring Both into the Retirement Planning Conversation

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If you’re like most advisors, couples account for the majority of your clients. Even in this day and age, however, men can often dominate the retirement planning conversation. Even though women live longer, face greater lifetime costs and may have differing goals, they tend to plan under the same circumstances as men, and many default to the same retirement timelines as their husbands.

But that’s all changing.

“Historically, the male has taken on much more interaction with the advisor, but with millennials and even some boomers, that role is shifting,” says Michelle Herd, senior client advisor with TFC Financial. “Many more women are getting involved, and it’s tied to who has more time and who’s the breadwinner.”

In either case, an advisor’s goal should be the same: Involve both spouses in the conversation. While one often controls the family finances, the others’ goals and expectations should carry just as much weight. If either the wife or husband hasn’t been coming to meetings and making their voice heard, it’s to your benefit and theirs that you build some rapport and pull them into the conversation.

Who controls the money?

According to the UBS Investor Watch Survey “Couples and Money,” men shoulder the financial responsibilities in 40 percent of couples and women in 16 percent; 28 share their decisions and 16 percent separate them. As for specific responsibilities, men tend to handle investments, insurance and long-term planning; women focus on bills, day-to-day expenses and charitable donations; and couples share responsibility for estate planning, college funding and large purchase, including real estate.

Couples may also have different investment approaches. A bare majority of men, but only 39 percent of women, aim to beat or track the market, while 28 percent of men and 32 percent of women are content with small but guaranteed rates of return. Furthermore, 21 percent of men and 29 percent of women are focused primarily on their personal financial goals and refrain from comparing their portfolios to the market.

Likewise, partners in 57 percent of male-led households have different risk tolerances, with the male typically favoring a more aggressive approach. Yet 70 percent of these households default to the man’s risk tolerances, rather than meeting in the middle.

“In a typical situation where the man has the more robust career, he’s looking at when he can retire,” says Herd. “The woman is thinking, ‘How can we not outlive our assets?’”

The crux of the issue is that, while men often control the family finances, shared decisions tend to produce the greatest confidence and satisfaction among women. Sixty-two percent of working women and 71 percent of retired women in shared-decision couples said they feel “very good” about their financial situations – higher than women in couples led by either spouse alone. Shared-decision couples also reported greater confidence in their ability to achieve their long-term financial goals.

The benefits of inclusion

Aside from greater financial confidence, there are plenty of reasons advisors should draw the less-involved spouse into conversations – even if they’re currently happy sitting on the sidelines.

“There are big advantages [of including both partners] from the perspective of the client, but also the advisor,” says Herd. “There’s a lot of give-and-take between couples, and if you don’t get that dialogue going, you might be missing something that drastically impacts the plan.” From moving and travelling to investing for children and grandchildren, it always pays to get the cards on the table from the get-go.

Buy-in is another major issue, particularly when just one spouse wants to sacrifice and save — or make a risky investment.

“What I see with couples is that if one isn’t fully involved in the plan, they might not be comfortable taking a risk, or they might not want to cut back on monthly spending,” says Marilyn Timbers, advisor with Voya Financial. “When the couple plans together, they can come up with compromises they’re both bought into, and that’s how a plan succeeds.”

Finally, advisors would be remiss not to consider the possibilities of widowhood and divorce.

“You’ll lose the client relationship if you haven’t communicated with the wife, particularly if she feels left out of decisions,” says Timbers. In fact, 70 percent of widows fire their financial advisors within one year of a spouse’s death, according to Fidelity. Pull those wives into meetings now to prepare them for manage their financial affairs in the future and secure your relationship – both with them and their heirs.

Clarifying goals

After understanding the why, how should advisors build rapport with the less-involved spouse while planning for the needs of both?

“The couple might have different goals, and oftentimes they don’t take time to have these discussions themselves,” says Timbers. “They may be surprised to find their goals for retirement aren’t aligned”

Where to live, what purchases to make, even how long to keep working – couples may not have found common ground on the most important issues, and you can build trust with both husband and wife by helping them find happy mediums.

With greater longevity, there are also a few considerations that specifically require the woman’s input.

“With any kind of long-term care protection, it’s usually the wife who feels more strongly about what the couple purchases,” says Timbers. The same is often true for life insurance policies, annuities and even pension elections – anything that may provide income or reimbursement well after the husband has passed on.

Building comfort

To earn the trust necessary to create a viable plan, advisors must build comfort with both members of a couple.

“Some advisors struggle with this, focusing too much on the technical aspects and not enough on relationship-building,” says Timbers. “Women, in general, aren’t going to relate as well to that as they are to goal-setting — and the security they get from knowing they have a plan in place.”

First meetings with a couple, then, should focus on high-level topics – hopes, concerns and confidence heading into retirement.

“This builds comfort and keeps anyone from feeling like they don’t belong,” says Herd. Jumping straight into technical talk, on the other hand, can leave at least one party feeling like they’re out of the loop.

Moving past those first encounters, it’s important to establish a working relationship that fits the styles of both husband and wife.

“See what works for the group in terms of meetings, communication frequency and who handles what,” says Herd. It can be off-putting and overwhelming to set the expectation that both members be equally engaged in every detail.

But once those expectations and boundaries are in place, facts and figures do become more important.

“If you show them the numbers, they’ll be even more bought-in,” says Timbers. “Until then, it’s difficult to visualize the importance of certain savings and investments.”

Outreach and relationship-building

Rapport-building tactics and communication skills won’t help if you can’t get both clients into your office in the first place.

“One thing we do to kick off some of these relationships is offer to meet the couple in a less formal setting,” says Herd. Lunch, coffee or even meeting in a client’s home may be an option.

“Typically, women want to get to know you on a personal level before they really get into the nuts and bolts of a plan,” Timbers adds. Luncheons, meet-and-greets and events focusing on particular audiences – wives, mothers or grandparents, for instance – can be especially helpful.

Whichever outreach strategy you choose, the sooner you bring both clients into the conversation, the better.

 “The important thing is to get the rapport-building going as early as you can with both parties,” says Herd.


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