As a fundamental part of our transformation to a wealth management firm, my company recently began to offer financial planning services. From numerous conversations with clients, we had learned that most acknowledge financial planning is important, but very few have done it in any meaningful capacity. Something had prevented them from doing it: the fear of unpleasant discovery, the shame of copping to one’s procrastination, the embarrassment of discussing taboo topics, or a combination of these and other reasons. Whatever the cause, their resistance to do it was palpable.
Most people who have done substantial financial planning did so principally in response to a crisis. They encountered something scary that required immediate attention. Perhaps a spouse had become gravely ill, and the couple had not yet done sufficient estate planning. Or maybe a single parent had learned that his teenager was accepted to a prestigious university, and the parent had no idea how to finance four very expensive years of education.
The reactive nature of people presents a fundamental challenge for the financial advisor/planner. A critical part of my job is to help clients untangle their web of concerns so that they can see them clearly in terms of their level of importance and urgency. This requires me to be very forward-thinking, looking not just at the present but also months, years, even decades down the road.
But what is an advisor to do when clients refuse to do any financial planning unless the work is viewed as both important and urgent? How do we encourage clients to abandon their myopic ways and adopt more long-term strategic thinking and behavior?
A Future ‘Crisis’ Today
Although I would never knowingly manufacture a crisis for clients, I do see the benefit in identifying one or two key elements of a client’s life to reframe as an inevitable financial challenge as a “problem” to be solved by financial planning. Too often clients with young children put off a conversation about financing higher education because the matter seems too far in the future. It’s not considered a problem; affording diapers and day care is. That short-sighted thinking is a mistake. New parents need the cold, hard facts about education costs so that they will address the problem and become early adopters of a workable solution: a very long runway of intentional saving, investment, patience, and faith (in the power of compounding).
Clients and prospects alike are often skeptical of the monetary benefit of financial planning. One way to overcome their doubt is to perform a simple cost-cutting exercise. A short conversation about an individual’s spending habits may reveal obvious opportunities to cut expenses, “low-hanging fruit” savings that can be diverted to financing something the individual has long desired — perhaps a modest vacation or luxury item. If a skeptic receives a tangible reward for a relatively painless modification in spending behavior, she may be more likely to entertain a review of her comprehensive financial picture.
A Gift to Loved Ones
I like to tell clients that they should view financial planning as a gift to loved ones. Why? Clients will act much more quickly when financial planning is presented in the context of the financial health and stability of dependents and other loved ones. Sharing my own experiences has also helped tremendously. I will often cite my father’s passing and my cancer diagnosis, spinning those narratives in such a way to include the perspectives of my mother and wife so that clients understand that my planning decisions were never made in a vacuum — they were specifically structured to benefit my loved ones, not just me. A message of care is sure to resonate with clients and get them thinking more proactively about financial planning.
The Future Is Brighter
Perhaps the most difficult clients to win over are the carefree ones, those who love to live in the moment. These clients tend to be spendthrifts, and their loose spending behavior only makes their need for financial planning that much greater. The good news is these clients are often idealists, and advisors can use their optimism to argue the merits of financial planning. Bigger and better is just around the corner … if these clients will incorporate a little planning, delayed consumption, and simple risk management into their everyday lives.
The goal is to do this as seamlessly and non-obtrusively as possible. These clients won’t bite if they think their adventurous lives will be disrupted by a written document. Advisors/planners can utilize simple, “behind-the-scenes” financial tools like automated retirement contributions, cash-back credit cards, and insurance policy reward provisions that, over the long term, will return great value to clients even though they may not be fully aware of the accruing benefits.
As financial advisors, we need to encourage clients to address important issues before they become urgent. Reframing topics as solvable problems, presenting easy cost-cutting wins, addressing the needs of loved ones, and adjusting our methods to suit challenging personality types can be powerful techniques to move reluctant clients in a more prosperous direction.
Joel M. Roberts, CFP, RICP, is the chief operating officer of J.P. Marvel Wealth Management Inc., a wealth management firm based in Boston.