When Advisors are Bad Listeners
Beverly Flaxington is a practice management consultant. She answers questions from advisors facing human resource issues. To submit yours, email us here.
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I’m having a hard time training one of our newer advisors, “Amy”, on how to be a good listener. You have written on this topic. But this situation is different. She not only doesn’t listen, but she offers her own interpretation of what was said for the team to follow up on for the client. I have to be careful because I don’t want my full team to recognize this letter. But I’ll give a very high-level overview of what just happened and what I mean. Forgive me for not offering a lot of specifics, but I am balancing confidentiality.
In a recent meeting, a client wanted to address an issue around taking money out of a certain type of investment account in order to help their grandchild with a divorce settlement. The divorce is very contentious and messy, and this client wanted to do something to help. But she was concerned for a variety of reasons about where to get the money. There are several other complications and family dynamics and the client in question is extremely well off. We agreed to investigate some options, including the one the client presented to us, and come back to review pros and cons.
Amy is now adamant the client wants to dissolve this investment account and use the proceeds both for the granddaughter as well as other things. She gets into provocations in meetings with my other two team members when we start the conversation about what the client is trying to do and how to address it. This experience has caused dissension with team members. But more importantly we do not have a way to go back to the client and discuss our “confusion,” which to me and the others is not confusion. Amy firmly believes a decision was made by the client and we are executing; the rest of us believe it is incumbent on us to provide options and honor the client’s request to figure out a way to meet her needs. We don’t get anywhere when we meet to discuss this because of the opposing internal views on what exactly we are doing.
I share this example because it is symptomatic of a bigger issue. Amy will often leave a meeting and get back to a client only to have us receive a call or email from the client saying the answer or information wasn’t exactly what they were looking for. In meetings, other team members have seen her make up information when she is asked something even when she has been told the correct information. My colleagues say she doesn’t actively listen or focus well enough to be effective.
She is new to our firm, and I don’t think we can judge her listening skills. It could be that she is over-zealous, or maybe she interprets things differently. I don’t want to rush to judgment and accuse her. But the pressure from my team members is significant. What would be the proper approach to learn why she has such a vastly different interpretation of what is happening and how she proceeds without confirmation?
Have you previously addressed the situations where a client called or wrote and said the information they received from Amy was not in alignment with what they had asked about? Have you been able to show her a pattern of behavior to illustrate this isn’t a one-off disagreement but rather a consistent experience with clients? Have you asked her what happened between the client request and her follow up that was not acceptable to the client? It would be best for you to have a coaching conversation if you have been bringing the issues to Amy’s attention throughout the time she has been here. This is another step in the process, and shouldn’t come from the team where she might become defensive.
Let’s address this from a coaching perspective. I’ll assume you’ve not brought up the client responses because you don’t mention it in your note to me:
- Always use a Socratic approach rather than a punitive one. Don’t assume it is listening, misunderstanding, or different perceptions; assume there is something you need to learn about Amy’s approach and behavior. Start by asking her open-ended questions: What’s working well for you in the role and with the team? What obstacles are you facing with clients? How did you interpret some past client inquiries? What is your process for hearing what the client needs and then responding? Don’t interrogate her! But do ask her so you can learn what she perceives and believes. This will help you in addressing an issue with her because you will understand from her perspective instead of outside viewpoints.
- When you meet with Amy, refrain from bringing up what other team members have to say. Instead convey your observations and be as fact-based as possible. People react negatively – as they should – to the “he said/she said” approach. The team may or may not have an accurate depiction of Amy’s approach. But you have some specific experiences and information from client interactions. Focus your comments when you share your concerns on that and not on what others had to say about her.
- Ask Amy if she finds herself at times thinking and doing things that don’t work as well for her as she’d like them to. Sometimes we get ourselves in situations where we are in over our heads or without the tools we need, but it’s hard to address it and admit weakness out of fear for our jobs, or that people will judge us. If you approach her with respect and understanding, she might be willing to share that she isn’t sure where she goes awry, or maybe you will find she has a hearing problem or some other condition. I’ve been regularly surprised at the new information my managers and leaders I’ve coached will share when they use this approach with their colleagues. They often come back shocked at something they have learned they would not have otherwise known without being willing to suspend judgment and simply ask the person about their experience.
- Let Amy know you are willing to partner with her to consult on what clients are asking for and then work with her to ensure the right problems are being solved. She might believe she is on her own to work things out. In a case like the most recent client, pull Amy aside and ask her to consider other people’s opinions and to work with them in a collaborative way. In other words, become a facilitator and negotiator rather than the “boss” or the outsider viewing what is happening. Play a more active role to help Amy navigate the situations effectively.
- In the case of this client, have someone on the team (it could be you or someone else) call the client and say you are working on her request but you have some differences of interpretation and you want to clarify the expected outcome she has for what you’ll present to her. I don’t see a downside to clarifying – most people would be happy you care enough about providing the right solutions. This would be better than going back with something that isn’t what the client expects and having another situation where a client might be frustrated by the outcome.
Beverly Flaxington co-founded The Collaborative, a consulting firm devoted to business building for the financial services industry, in 1995. The firm also founded and manages the Advisors Sales Academy. She is currently an adjunct professor at Suffolk University teaching undergraduate and graduate students Entrepreneurship and Leading Teams. Beverly is a Certified Professional Behavioral Analyst (CPBA) and Certified Professional Values Analyst (CPVA).
She has spent over 25 years in the investment industry and has been featured in Selling Power Magazine and quoted in hundreds of media outlets, including The Wall Street Journal, MSNBC.com, Investment News and Solutions Magazine for the FPA. She speaks frequently at investment industry conferences and is a speaker for the CFA Institute.