Melanie Katzman Melanie Katzman

Certainly everybody needs help and guidance getting through the coronavirus pandemic — even the one-and-only New York Yankees: The franchise recently called in business psychologist Melanie Katzman to consult in a private virtual meeting on how to cope, plan and deal with disappointed fans.

“It was terrific — and very well facilitated. I kept getting questions even after the event,” she reports.

In an interview, the New York City-based Ph.D. tells ThinkAdvisor more about her session with the Yankees and how financial advisors can best connect psychologically with clients and prospects in virtual meetings. Being “forced to claim each other’s humanity” during this unprecedented time can promote that connection, she says.

The advisor to business, government agencies and nonprofits also offers practical advice on how to improve the way one comes across on Zoom and other conferencing platforms. For example, she nixes pre-fab backgrounds; compose your own, she urges.

Author of Wall Street Journal bestseller “Connect First” (McGraw-Hill Education, October 2019), Katzman, in the interview, advises FAs to allow clients who are fearful and worried about their investments to express those emotions.

Advisors need to be compassionate, share hope and, if appropriate, take action but refrain from being “artificially Pollyannaish” because that will “lose the client’s trust,” she says.

Founder of Katzman Consulting in 1999, the clinical psychologist held faculty posts in psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical Center and the University of London, and was a senior fellow at Wharton School’s Center for Leadership and Change Management.

Her wide-ranging client list includes Bain Consulting, Goldman Sachs, MTV, UBS and Viacom, and she has given keynote addresses for AIG, Barclays Investment Banking, Deutsche Bank and Stanford University, among numerous others.

ThinkAdvisor recently held a phone interview with Katzman, a founding partner of the social enterprise Leaders’ Quest. Among her “do’s” are keeping virtual meetings to a “short, crisp” 45 minutes in length. She explains why.

Here are highlights of our conversation:

THINKADVISOR: First things first: Tell me about your virtual meeting with the New York Yankees organization.

MELANIE KATZMAN: They’re iconic, but as a group they’re dealing with the same things that everybody else is: How do you cope, plan and excel during this time of unpredictability and great tension?

What did they ask you about specifically?

There were concerns about their season and season ticket holders but also a universality of questions like, how to engage and energize a dispersed workforce and about customers who are going to be disappointed.

Speaking of customers, let’s talk about how financial advisors can ingratiate themselves and connect with prospective clients when their first meeting is virtual. Your thoughts?

As with an in-person meeting, you don’t want to jump into sales mode. You want to figure out what matters to the [prospect]. You’re looking for points of similarity. This is the human piece. The burden is on you to educate yourself about them. So do your homework.

What types of things should you look for?

Take advantage of all the information that’s available online. Be prepared with everything you can find out about that individual — not in a creepy way; but do your detective work so you have a sense of what they’re about. Maybe they make public comments about the arts or are involved in nonprofits. Try to determine what’s important to them.

Does the fact that the prospect is at home give the advisor an advantage?

There are lots of things — cues — you can observe that can give advisors insight to help build relationships. If you’re meeting someone for a pitch in a conference room, you won’t get as much data.

Seems that virtual is a more casual way to meet; but in another way, it’s also more structured and formal. How do you view this?

Corporate culture tries to maintain the difference between the personal and the professional, and there are boundaries. But we are whoever we are wherever we go. And that transparency helps us.

In a prospecting meeting, you’ll be buttoned-up because you’re the one who’s initiating the meeting and doing the sell. But you can be very professional and casual at the same time — just don’t confuse the two.

How do you mean?

Maintain the appropriate tension between professional and casual. Sometimes people get sloppy when they think they’re being casual. But being too buttoned-up in this setting isn’t [helpful] either.

What if a member of the advisor’s family suddenly pops in and can be seen by the prospect? How should the FA handle that?

Sheltering at home, it’s possible that a child will run in or a dog will jump on your lap. Don’t pretend it’s not happening. Go with it. Relax and don’t become flustered. Even more so during this period, in many ways we’re forced to claim our humanity — and each other’s humanity. Still, in a business meeting, you don’t want to go into Fido’s latest adventure.

How long should a meeting run?

You need to be focused without being fatigued. Zoom meetings are good because you can see someone responding and read certain cues. But recognize that virtual meetings are also very exhausting; there’s an intensity to them. I encourage people to have short, crisp, well-prepared meetings. Forty-five minutes is the new 60.

What else makes virtual meetings draining?

People aren’t commuting between them — they’re going from meeting to meeting, not even walking down the hall to gather their thoughts. As a result, people often space out or check their email during the meeting. So you need to get and keep their attention.

People smile when they greet each other, especially when meeting for the first time. Is smiling more critical in a virtual meeting?

I call smiling “the neural hack.” You can’t help but smile back when someone smiles at you. It’s important when trying to create a connection with a new client that you do everything possible to make sure they engage with you and that you continually maintain that engagement. Be present. Maintain eye contact.

Is humor appropriate?

Humor is very personal [subjective]; so you’ve got to “read the room.” A joke can bomb [with one group], but a different group may guffaw.

Suppose somebody comes across very well in person but not on-screen. How can they improve?

Try to make the meeting [have the look of] a video. I’ve been coaching someone on how to be more compelling in virtual meetings. His face was in shadow because he was sitting in front of crooked blinds with light coming through them, and you could see an old air conditioning vent in the background. That’s not exactly awe-inspiring!

How did you help him?

We composed a picture: I suggested that he place a plant against a white wall and that he wear a green shirt to match. I don’t [care for] those virtual backgrounds that Zoom has. They don’t give the intimacy you need when you’re creating a relationship.

Suppose the advisor is meeting virtually with an existing client that’s upset because assets in their portfolio have declined in value. What should the FA keep in mind?

It’s really important to allow people to have emotion. If I see a drop in my portfolio, I’m nervous. I don’t want someone telling me it doesn’t matter. Right now, it matters! You don’t want to be falsely optimistic, but you don’t want to deny someone’s reaction. Some [advisors] think that if they don’t fix [things] with a ready answer, they’ll lose the confidence of the client. So they cut off the concern. I suggest giving voice to the concern, listen, then offer an appropriate level of compassion.

What if the advisor is intent on finding a solution?

There are certain things out of our control that we may not be able to fix. But if there are some action points that can be taken, talk about how that can make things better. If you have reason to be optimistic about something — a certain stock, say — of course share hope. But you’ll lose the client’s trust if you’re artificially Pollyannaish.

If a client blames their advisor for a portfolio decline and is seeking a new FA, should you, the potential new advisor, criticize the existing FA by saying they don’t hold a candle to you?

No. That’s not a good relationship-builder. You want your relationships to be based on the trust you generate from your actions, not because you’re [devaluing] someone else’s reputation. That’s never a good strategy. Stand tall on your own accomplishments.

Should you ask the prospect why they want to change FAs?

Of course. I often ask [new clients]: What is it that worked for you in other engagements, and what things have disappointed you? That’s always a good indicator. But don’t listen to the answers with the goal of trying to undermine the relationship that [the prospect] had with someone else.

Female advisors are often excellent listeners and have a facility for drawing people out. So is meeting virtually advantageous to them?

I interviewed female advisors on the radio show I co-hosted, “Women@Work.” They have great skills of empathy and collaboration with clients. That can drive the relationship to their [functioning] even as a financial therapist. Virtual meetings allow women to find more space in their day because they can be condensed into a shorter period. It’s a great opportunity if managed well.

Sounds like virtual is, broadly, a big plus for women, right?

I hope that if there’s a move toward working virtually [post-pandemic], women will be able to [have] parity with respect to domestic responsibilities. All the studies [of couples working from home during the pandemic] seem to say that women are shouldering more of the domestic burden because men aren’t contributing equally.

What’s the best way to bring a virtual meeting with a prospect or client to a close?

When you start the meeting, it’s very helpful for [the parties] to be aware of how long it will run. Even if invites were sent out, ask, “How are you for time? Let’s be sure we balance that aspect.” This also helps when people want to schmooze a little. That can be really great, but you can run into a super time-crunch if someone feels your schmooze is invading their critical time. So negotiate time ahead.

Folks typically shake hands at the end of an in-person meeting. Is there a substitute for that in a virtual one?

I’ll often say, “Catch my germ-free virtual handshake!” and put my hand out as if I want to shake the person’s hand. They usually giggle at that. What you’re communicating is: Yes, we’re ending — there’s a boundary. It also conveys recognition that “We’re in this together.”

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