Want to build great long-term relationships with clients, professional partners and centers of influence in your market niche? Here's a secret: Do a lot less talking and lot more listening.

One of the key determinants of whether we form successful and lasting relationships with others is the level of interest that we show in understanding people. Anyone can demonstrate a strong level of interest by asking good questions and then fully listening to the answers given.



Most people who have spent time with me have heard me say that in business and in life, we are all judged by the quality of the questions that we ask other people. This is true whether you are interacting with a prospect, a client, a current or potential strategic alliance partner, an employee-or even your spouse or significant other.

But asking good, thoughtful (and thought-provoking) questions is not something that many of us spend much time thinking about. Usually we focus on making sure that we are the ones doing the talking and getting our messages out there. Then, when others talk, we listen halfheartedly and respond not with follow-up questions but by offering more information about ourselves and our perspectives and experiences.

This problem (not surprisingly) is especially prevalent among financial advisors. They have been told throughout their careers to focus primarily on talking-about themselves, their big staffs, their cutting-edge investment strategies and topnotch product offerings and their many qualifications that make them great.

That approach is no longer a recipe for success-if it ever really was. The reason: We know that people don't want to be talked at all the time.

Take affluent investors. Industry research shows that they want their advisors to understand them on a deep level and to build strong interpersonal relationships with the people who help them with their financial lives. Affluent investors say that the care that an advisor takes to identify their needs is important when choosing an advisor. Advisors' attentiveness and desire to establish a relationship are other important factors in investors' selection process.

Building such relationships requires advisors not just to talk but to listen to what their clients are saying, identify what they are not saying that is important and ask the appropriate follow-up questions to get at the heart of what really matters to them. Without the ability or willingness to ask high-quality questions, you can't serve your clients as they want to be served-and you risk failing to get their business or losing it down the road.



What does it mean to ask effective questions that can have an impact on your business? Let's look at three areas of a wealth management business where high-quality questions can play a crucial role.

* Prospects and clients. Values have a profound impact on every important decision we make, from what we choose to do for a living to whom we marry to how we spend our free time. So one of the most important conversations you can ever have with clients and prospects is about their values. By asking them to identify their core values, you uncover exactly where your focus should be in assisting them, and you help them to clarify their direction and what they want to achieve in life.

As an advisor, a values-based discussion should always begin with the question that my good friend and consultant Bill Bachrach has shared with the industry: "What's important to you about money?" If the client answers, "Security," you would then ask, "What is important to you about security?" If the client responds, "Knowing that I can take care of my family," you would then ask, "What is important to you about taking care of your family?"

You would continue uncovering the client's values in this way until you think you have heard the final answer. Then you would ask: "Is there anything more important to you than (the last value mentioned)?" If the client says "Yes," then ask, "What is more important?" and continue with the questioning format.

Once the client answers, "No," you will have likely uncovered his or her single most important value. By tapping into your clients' deepest values, you'll truly know and understand them and consistently be able to make the on-target wealth management recommendations they need.

* Centers of influence (COI). Interviewing the "movers and shakers" in a niche market that you are pursuing is perhaps the best strategy for serving that target market well. But effective COI interviews require you to ask the types of questions that will elicit great insights from the COI that you can use in your niche marketing efforts.

Therefore, before going into any COI interview, you'll want to create three kinds of questions. The first uncovers the primary issues your niche faces (Example: What are the major financial challenges faced by members of the community today?). The second helps you market to the niche (What is the most compelling thing I could say to this person that would interest him or her in doing business with me?). The third identifies outlets that members of your niche belong to (Which social organizations do community members and their spouses belong to and what events do they attend? What activities do they generally enjoy?).

* Potential strategic alliance partners. Building formal relationships with outside professionals such as CPAs and attorneys requires you to understand the needs and concerns of these professionals as well as determine if a potential strategic alliance partner will be a good fit for your business and client base. That means getting detailed answers to questions such as: Where do you think the business for CPAs is going?; What are the key services your clients are asking you for today? What are your views on referring clients to a trusted financial advisor? What are your plans for marketing and growing your practice?



That said, it's important to recognize that asking great questions is only part one of a two-step process. You must also become adept at listening to the person in front of you on a deep and engaged level-that is, being fully present and processing the responses in a nonjudgmental way.

This type of deep, engaged process involving asking great questions and then listening intently is not always easy. But the benefits are extremely powerful. You'll be a more effective wealth manager. By listening deeply, you'll begin to uncover the full range of your clients' critical issues, challenges, goals and dreams. As a wealth manager, you can do your job at the highest level only when you know everything you can about your clients. The best way to accomplish that is to listen deeply.

In addition, you'll differentiate yourself from other advisors. That's because most financial advisors aren't really interested in their clients' deepest needs, and few are capable of-or even interested in-engaging in a substantive question-and-answer process with their clients.

So when new prospects sit down with you, it's likely that they are ready to speak but not be heard. They will have already prepared themselves for yet another financial advisor who isn't really going to listen. By asking them probing questions and then listening intently to their answers, you will show that you are different from the average advisor.

The end result, of course, is that you will build a close client bond and generate strong client loyalty. When you ask smart questions and then deeply listen, you create empathy and start to see the world as the other person sees it. You are no longer a stranger or someone who is primarily economically motivated; you become a comrade or partner.

Since most people rarely have this experience-especially with advisors-it creates a strong impression. Your clients will feel deeply bonded to you, and as long as you are otherwise reasonably competent, your clients will likely remain loyal to you for the long run.

The upshot: Think about the questions you should be asking the people who can help you build a stronger business and prepare yourself to engage in deep listening when you meet with them. By focusing on having meaningful dialogues instead of simply how to best "sell yourself," you'll put yourself in the best possible position to take your business to the next level. FP

John J. Bowen Jr. is founder and CEO of CEG Worldwide, a global training, research and consulting firm dedicated to helping advisors become more successful.