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Financial Planning > Behavioral Finance

Ex-FBI Agent Shares 6 Steps for Building Client Trust

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Robin Dreeke, former special agent of the FBI who rose to head its Counterintelligence Behavioral Analysis Program, knows a thing or two about routing out trickery: In New York City, he unearthed Russian spies; after 9/11, he was pivotal in averting a face-off between two nuclear-armed countries.

Now, in an interview with ThinkAdvisor, he shares the 6-step system he devised to identify people you can trust and those whom you cannot.

Financial advisors would do well to exhibit Dreeke’s six trustworthy traits — whether in person or, because of the coronavirus pandemic, working with clients and prospects in virtual meetings on Skype, Zoom, FaceTime or other platforms.

A frequent industry speaker, Dreeke is the founder of People Formula, a Fredericksburg, Virginia-based training consultancy, most of whose clients are financial services firms, including Capital One, MD Financial Management and Merrill Lynch.

In the interview, the former U.S. Marine Corps officer highlights an important sign of trustworthiness that’s clearly of interest to financial advisors: “Vesting,” which, when evinced, indicates that the FA’s success is vested in the client’s success.

At this anxiety-ridden moment necessitating virtual client meetings, one of Dreeke’s good ideas for FAs is to hold what he dubs “Friday Wine Skyping Nights,” complete with a hobby show-and-tell and, perhaps, a tour of the advisor’s home. Such online “client events” serve to intensify the advisor-client relationship and promote bonding, he says.

The bestselling author of “It’s Not All About Me,” among other tomes, released a new book this past January: “Sizing People Up: A Veteran FBI Agent’s User Manual for Behavior Prediction,” written with Cameron Stauth (Portfolio/Penguin).

It focuses on Dreeke’s six-step method for behavior prediction but has plenty of colorful stories about his two-decade FBI career. These include risky experiences before and after 9/11, when, he writes, he was “working Russia, mostly in New York” and “spent [his] days helling around Manhattan like a … bloodhound, sniffing out spies, and finding spies of [his] own.”

ThinkAdvisor recently held a phone interview with Dreeke, followed by an email exchange. He unpacked his 6-step system, in random order, and at one point, he explained why a client’s simply “liking” a particular FA is no way to accurately predict that they can be trusted to invest their money.

Here are highlights of our interview:

THINKADVISOR: Please discuss your 6-step system. You describe the trait of “Stability” (No. 1 here) as “Transcending conflict with emotional accord.”

ROBIN DREEKE: This is the bedrock of it all. Maintaining emotional stability now is so critical and will most likely become even more challenging as “cabin fever” increases. When the market is going bananas and clients are calling and freaking out, you need to maintain your stability: Think cognitively, calm down clients and make sure they feel safe: “We’ve got your back. You’re going to be OK.“

But advisors are feeling pretty upset, too.

Now is not the time go off the rails because of all the anxiety, frustration and uncertainty. Advisors need to be thinking rationally to understand their clients and giving guidance — but not getting emotionally attached to what they hear from them.

An advisor may have a likeable on-screen “virtual” personality. But should that replace their actions as the basis of assessing whether to move ahead with them? 

No, because then the client is rolling the dice. If they like you, that’s a bonus. If you do a great job building rapport and trust because you’ve demonstrated that you have similar morals and backgrounds as the client, you’re going to be liked. But that doesn’t mean the client can trust you or predict your behavior. It just means they enjoy your company. The client needs to assess trustworthiness for the process of investing their money.

Another important sign of trustworthiness, No. 2 in this discussion, is “Vesting,” which you define as “Creating symbiotic linkage of mutual success.”

Advisors should demonstrate they’re vested in the client’s success as much as in their own. Therefore, you need to make sure you understand the client’s values and exactly what they want to accomplish. One sign of vesting is to show willingness to adjust your schedule to meet the client’s needs. You have to go above and beyond to be a resource for the client’s success.

A third trait: “Reliability”: “Demonstrating competence and diligence.”

This is matching behavior to the words you say. Do you have the skills to complete the task you say you can perform and the diligence to follow through? Working remotely challenges the diligence in us all, so establishing deadlines and updates is important.

A fourth step in your system: “Language” — “Creating connections with masterful communication.”

Language and nonverbal behavior are the two things you can recognize and assess most quickly. Today more than ever, people need to feel connected and valued. They’re looking for someone who can communicate and affiliate with them — and recognize that they’re being valued.

How can FAs show that?

Empower the clients with choice. Every time you engage with them, you need to make sure you’re seeking their thoughts and opinions, talking in terms of what’s important to them — their priorities — and validating who they are, but without judging them. That doesn’t mean you agree with them; it just means you seek to understand them.

How do you induce clients to express their ideas and thoughts?

Instead of telling them something, make it a question by asking what they think about [the matter] instead. That way, you’re not telling them — you’re asking them discovery questions about their needs, wants, dreams and aspirations both long- and short-term. Then you should be validating, not challenging or arguing, but seeking to understand why they hold those beliefs and values.

You write about the importance of having the trait “stempathy.” Please define.

To make that great human connection and understand people, you need to show “stempathy.” This quality combines pure cognitive thought — stoicism — with empathy, which focuses on a deep level of understanding of how others feel. Regarding [investments], it’s about their dreams and aspirations.

What else is key for advisors in communicating with clients online or face-to-face?

Give options and choices [in sync with] the priorities the client has expressed. You can do that with a cost-benefit analysis. I once worked for a Marine Corps colonel who said, “Never tell me no. Always tell me yes — but tell me what it will cost.” He wanted to know all the options and benefits [as well as costs] of what I offered him. That’s what a good financial advisor should be providing for clients.

A fifth sign manifests as concrete “Actions” — “Displaying consistent patterns of positive behaviors.” 

OK, you’re saying all the right words — but your actions need to support the words you’re saying. More than anything, it’s your actions that define you, much more obviously and accurately than what it is that you say. Actions are viable deal-breakers.

And sixth: “Longevity” — “Believing your bond will last.”

Establish a tradition of meeting one-on-one with the client specifically to learn about their values, ethics and morals so you can invest for them [according to their beliefs] and deepen the relationship. While in normal times, this would be in person, there are plenty of ways to demonstrate longevity online, such as scheduling “Friday Wine Skyping Nights” or monthly Zoom calls.

Friday night wine Skyping sounds good!

This could be very effective since everyone will be in a personal setting. You could possibly even have a tour of your house or show hobbies that you and/or the client have. That depth of experience with each other intensifies the relationship. Once you establish what the clients’ interests are, you can set some Google Alerts to notify you when anything relating to those topics pop up — then forward that [content] to the client.

Is it possible to accelerate client relationships merely by interacting online?

Yes, because there’s proximity via Skype and Zoom, and of course phone and email, and lastly texting. As mentioned, a virtual wine night with a hobby [show-and-tell] or home tour beats a five-minute phone meeting. Before ending, empower clients with choice by asking if they need more time.

What do you suggest, once stay-at-home orders are lifted, about getting together in person?

Meet with clients face-to-face every quarter, perhaps, so you can learn about each other on a deeper level. These meetings — that become a tradition — should be more than just a quick coffee at Starbucks but conversations at a favorite restaurant that last a couple of hours.

What effect will this tradition have on relationship-building?

You’re establishing a pattern of behavior that transcends just the quid pro quo of a financial transaction. Such meetings are relationship intensifiers because in really getting to know the client, you [grow to] care about them, making it easier to become vested in their success.

Any other behavioral predictors that advisors should be aware of?

Someone can be assessed pretty quickly by looking at the behaviors we just discussed. But the real teller is going to be time: Are you doing all these things on a consistent basis?

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