Advice as Art

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Art is the tree of life. Science is the tree of death. – William Blake

Giving advice to clients is a delicate art, like creating a beautiful symphony from a group of musical instruments. So how can advisors offer advice to clients that transcends mere projections or proposals, and becomes something more? What are some ways to transform our advisory relationships into greater than they currently are, thereby giving them new life?

Giving advice is both a privilege and a responsibility, and interpersonal dynamics have a significant effect on how a recommendation is given and received.  Good relational dynamics between an advisor and client require three things – integrity, communication and trust.


Integrity in a client-advisor relationship demands complete and undivided honesty, open exchange, and thorough and frank discussion of goals.  The veracity of information exchanged between an advisor and client should be tested – by both of them – through on-going questioning.  Integrity is both the seed and root system of a good advisory relationship. 

Get to know your clients through a repeatable process.  Follow a basic template that forces you to discover vital information by using the same series of questions for all clients.  Ask and ask again – be sure to update information and responses annually.  Discovery is an on-going process, so incorporate an annual review template that includes important questions. 

Two connected, yet distinct, types of questions must be asked: quantitative, or numbers-based, questions and qualitative, or emotions-based, questions.  Another way to remember this is to ask first “what,” then “why.”

Among the “what” questions are basic demographic information, a compilation of your client’s assets and liabilities, and questions about risk tolerance that can become part of an Investment Policy Statement (IPS).  The “why” questions are those that go the “extra mile” that few are willing to walk.  Helping a client understand and articulate their views and feelings about money and their relationship to it provides enormous value. 

Ask open-ended questions: “What is an impressionable memory you have about money from childhood?”  “Did your parents talk about money?”  “What do you want your children to learn about money?”  “What keeps you up thinking at night?”  Be sure to ask for clarification or examples.  When clients articulate their feelings more concretely because of your questioning, a fuller mutual understanding results.

I always restate what I hear the client say verbally and in a follow-up letter to give them the opportunity to set the record straight if I misunderstand them.