Letting Financial Planning Clients Take the Lead

by | Dec 29, 2023 | News Room Media


Letting Financial Planning Clients Take the Lead

By Rick Kahler, posted on emoneyadvisor.com

December 11, 2023

No two people are the same, so it makes sense that no two financial plans will be the same. Helping a client negotiate their financial and emotional relationship with money and then finding the solutions to their financial challenges requires an advisor adept at personalizing the client experience.

To get to the heart of a client’s uniqueness and uncover what they hope to gain from financial planning requires some deeply intimate conversations as they share their fears, hopes, and dreams with you. Yet we all know that these deep conversations—especially about money—are not easy, for the client or the advisor.

Helping your clients to open up about what they want out of the planning experience usually necessitates having an awareness about what they want out of life. This is where the conversation often goes beyond the plan into hopes and dreams that have little to do with dollars and cents. For these meaningful conversations to happen, the planner needs to step back from their agenda and allow the client to take the lead in the process. It all starts with getting curious, having a beginner’s mind, and deeply listening to their responses.

Building a Safe Space

Most importantly, you need to create a container of safety for the client. In psychotherapy, the term “safe container” is used to refer to an environment where individuals or group members can feel safe to be themselves and speak freely. You want to establish this same feeling in your financial clients.

To be open and vulnerable with you, the client needs to develop a deep trust that you are their advocate and have their best interests at heart. They must know that the thoughts and feelings they share with you will be treated with respect—that sharing this information with you is necessary to the process of successfully planning for their future.

To begin, ask them what they need to feel safe when it comes to speaking with you about their lives and their money. In most cases, the answers are consistent. Clients generally indicate that they want the following:

  • To be deeply listened to and have a felt sense of being heard
  • To be treated as a peer and not condescended to
  • To be assured that what they disclose will remain confidential
  • To not be judged
  • An appropriate level of empathy and vulnerability from you
  • No unrequested advice

Sometimes, often when you ask for information needed for planning purposes or suggest a recommendation, there is some resistance from the client. This is a sign you are moving too fast. Stop and gently explore what’s happening for them. How is it for them to be having this conversation, to be in your office? It could be that they have some fears about the process or they are triggered in some way by a past experience. It could simply be that something happened on their drive to your office. The key is to slow down and provide a safe space to help them be able to talk about it.

Also, a crucial part of creating a safe space is to meet the client’s level of vulnerability with your own. Doing this requires you to build skills and experiences of going deep within yourself. You can only take a client as deep as you have taken yourself.

It’s also important to note that this sense of safety should apply beyond your words and actions to encompass the physical environment you create as well. Our offices at Kahler Financial Group, for example, have been designed with client privacy and comfort in mind.

Throw Out Your Agenda

When I talk to financial professionals about slowing down the conversation, setting your agenda aside, and following the client’s agenda, I tend to see a look of shock on their faces. Providing an agenda for client meetings—often in advance—is considered crucial to financial planning.

How can you meet your fiduciary responsibilities without an agenda? I suggest asking instead, how can you meet the needs of the client by primarily following your agenda? What I’m really getting at here is to let the client set the course for the meeting. What this looks like may depend on whether the meeting was requested by the client or you reached out to them.

Either way, begin the conversation simply by asking what’s at the top of their agenda that they want to be sure to discuss today. What were they thinking or talking about just before getting on the Zoom call or while driving to the meeting? Even if you were the one who requested the meeting, it’s a way to be transparent and establish that you are genuinely interested in how they are doing and what’s going on with them. You don’t want them to feel constrained by putting in front of them a list of the items you want to talk about.

Don’t be surprised if the client jumps to something that is not on your agenda or may seem trivial to you, or vents to you about something that is frustrating them. Sometimes where they go may appear to have nothing directly to do with their finances, but if something is bothering them, they won’t be able to be completely present for what you do want them to focus on until they get it off their mind. Sometimes what the client wants to discuss may consume the entire meeting.

It’s also common that you will have some important planning items that do need to be discussed. I will often open the meeting with, “I’ll need about 10 minutes at the end of our time today to talk about a couple of things, but first I want to hear what’s on the top of your agenda.” Sometimes the client will want to defer to your agenda out of a sense of wanting to please you. Assure them that you will get to your agenda, “I really want to be sure we get to what is on your mind first.”

Depending on where the conversation leads, follow-up may be needed to address their concerns or items on your agenda that were not covered. Circle back at the end and ask if they got the clarity they needed. Ask, “How was this for you? Is there anything else on your mind that you didn’t get a chance to discuss?”

It could be that you schedule another time to get together, or there could be items that can be resolved via phone or email. All of these further opportunities to connect will help to deepen your relationship with them.

By dropping your financial planning agenda, you are able to come into the engagement without making assumptions. As planners, we will almost always have some timely items that we need to cover with clients, but this method allows for the client’s agenda to come first.

Am I Getting You?

How do you know if you have really heard the client, that you are getting them? That you are getting to the heart of what they need?

It’s relatively simple. Ask them. Don’t make assumptions about what they are saying or mean. Again, it comes down to asking and listening attentively to their responses.

Keep the Conversations Going

You won’t always get to the underlying issues with a client at the first meeting. Continuing to be curious, dropping your agenda, and asking questions are fundamental to financial planning.

Asking gentle, open-ended questions has nuance to it. The types of questions needed to gather the client’s financial information are essential, but don’t plow forward with the technical aspects of the process without slowing down and taking the time to deeply listen to the client. Building a meaningful and trusting relationship takes time. In reality, the relationship is the primary reason they are with you. Any planner can spout out numbers. Few take the time to hear, understand, and relate to the client.

As the relationship progresses and you have subsequent meetings, continue to allow the client to lead with their agenda before getting to yours. Financial plans are never “one-and-done.” They are dynamic, ever-evolving, and require continual modifications. Allow the client space to share what is of deep importance to them. In the end, the work you do for them will resonate so much more because you will truly be meeting their needs to establish the financial life they were seeking when they first came to you.

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