How to Incorporate Behavioral Factors into Planning Discussions
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 have been talking, writing and speaking about the behavioral aspect of advisory and planning work for decades. Without understanding people – how they think and act, and what they believe – you can’t effectively help them, no matter how good you are at planning or asset allocation.
I was reminded this week in meeting with my advisors about the importance of this. We are often behaviorally disconnected and, as a client, it makes me less confident and comfortable to raise issues and ask questions.
For this week’s column, I will remind you who work with clients every day about the fact that you can put together the most impressive presentation, have the best process and truly care about your clients, but if you aren’t selling and providing a client experience that includes behavioral aspects, you aren’t doing “right” by your clients.
What does this mean? Let’s look at a few elements to including behavioral elements in your prospect and client experience:
1. Research tells us only about 7% of communication is attributable to the words we use. The rest is body language, listening to tone, following pace and noticing the style in which you deliver a message. If you are looking away, seem rushed or too slow, hesitate or appear unsure or roll over your prospect or client with your answers, you don’t give the person a chance to truly understand you. We spend a great deal of time working on the words – what we are going to say, who on our team will present it, how we will wordsmith our presentations and so on. Don’t focus only on the information (data), but present it in a way that is meaningful to your audience.
2. On style – some people like bullet points, some like deep and detailed information with all of the data, some like to “think about it” and some want to make a decision right then and there. Wondering how your prospect or client likes to consume information? Ask them! Most people will tell you how they learn, how they make decisions and what tempo works for them.
3. Be aware of your own biases and tendencies. I teach a lot on emotional intelligence (EQ), and this is a key part of it. We, as humans, tend to put filters on all the communication and exchanges we have with others. “If I was sitting that way with my arms crossed, it would mean I was mad! Why is the prospect upset with us?” Then you find out the real information: the client was cold and was crossing their arms to warm themselves a bit! Projecting and assuming are dangerous, especially when your goal is to help someone. If you aren’t sure what you are “reading” from someone (yes, I am going to say it again…) ask them. Never put a person on the defensive – “Why are you crossing your arms like that?” But you can stop and observe, “Sometimes when we are going through this information, people become concerned or don’t want us to continue. Let me check with you. What is your perspective on all we’ve discussed?”
4. Learn the art of open-ended questions. It’s truly stunning how many advisors and planners ask leading questions so they will get the answers they are hoping for. Or they ask questions that help them do what they wanted to do, but not exactly what the client might need. For example, you might ask about income needs – do a cash-flow projection – but not ask the “why?” questions about spending, or the “what if?” questions about spending and saving. Simply gathering data without understanding what’s underneath and what it means to the client isn’t going to help them. Anyone who understands financial data and knows how to work software can run projections based on a cash-flow analysis. But it takes a caring, interested planner to learn why the numbers matter and how the client views and considers them.
5. Understand the client’s background and biases. Even if we won’t admit it, we’re all (financial) products of where we come from. If you grew up worried about money, you might have a different perspective on what’s enough than if you came from a wealthy family that had everything. If you think your kids should make it on their own because you had to, the word “legacy” will mean something different than to someone who believes their working life has been about making a better life for their kids and they want this to continue into estate planning. It’s common to apply an overall planning lens – the “should do” – to every client. Yet the client’s perspective on money, beliefs about money and background with money will influence how they perceive certain words. Do your best to get into their seat – listen with true empathy to understand what’s underneath what they say and what they mean.
6. Be a therapist. Yes, you trained for financial, investment, product and planning reasons, most likely. But think about someone’s life. Health and family are the most important aspects of life for most people, with money a close third. Often, money is even higher because it means a person can afford the best health care and take care of their family too! Money is associated with prestige, ego and a person’s sense of self-worth. It’s safety and security, and people believe it is going to protect them from danger. This runs deep! Do what good therapists do: refrain from talking and telling people who to do and the choices to make. Instead, ask good questions and listen – a lot. And with couples, since we know opposites attract, you are likely to encounter two people with different styles and belief systems. Spend time with each one. Don’t let the driver or the quiet person be the one to make all the decisions. Learn facilitation skills so you can help them to talk about differences in opinion and viewpoints.
7. All of life’s transitions involve finances, and all are emotional. Leave a job. Retire. Get divorced. Have children. Lose parents. Lose a spouse. Get a new job. Start a business. The list goes on. It doesn’t matter whether the transition is happy or challenging and sad. Emotions will rule, and if you don’t explore how the person thinks and feels about what’s happening, you will miss an opportunity to help. Care about the person and what’s happening to them. Be curious and interested. Someone’s life is changing – maybe dramatically. Realize this and don’t go into your head about the plans they need; focus on the impact they will be experiencing.
8. And speaking of life’s transitions, remember the big ones – selling a business, entering retirement and death of a family member are truly life changing. Everything that was one way is going to be different. For the person who has changed, the next morning they wake up in a different life. It could be exhilarating, threatening, or a bit of both, but it will be important. Talk about this with your clients. Help them not only make the necessary financial decisions but “see” what tomorrow could look like in its entirety.
9. Care about the whole family. I’ve observed situations where nothing matters more to a client than their children. Yet the advisor never asks how they are doing or financially what guidance and/or support they need. Unless they are estranged, those who have aging parents or in-laws, children or extended family, happiness and support of the whole family unit matters. If you know it doesn’t matter, skip it. But if you aren’t sure, explore it to ensure you are helping in the most holistic way.
10. Engage with prospects and clients in interesting ways. Tell stories. Learn their stories. Share ideas and insights about things you have learned in your professional and personal journey (to the degree it is appropriate, of course). Be real with your clients and prospects. Get to know who they are and what makes them tick. Share a bit about this for you. You are dealing with the aspect of their lives that underpins every other aspect. It’s powerful. Own that, and respect it.
If you want to learn more about how to understand others, and remove your own filters and biases please check out my book on this topic, Understanding Other People: The Five Secrets to Human Behavior. If you want to learn more about EQ, read up on Daniel Goleman’s work in this area. And if you want to get better at being a caring, interested behavioral planner and advisor, get out of your own head and into the exchange with your prospects and clients. It will benefit both you and them.
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. The firm has won the Wealthbriefing WealthTech award for Best Training Solution for 2022 and 2023. Beverly is currently an adjunct professor at Suffolk University teaching undergraduate and graduate students Entrepreneurship and Leading Teams. She 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.