“Sometimes my clients expect me to be psychologist, career counselor, therapist AND financial advisor!” one of my advisor coaching clients recently lamented. It’s a sentiment to which many of us can relate. When that happens, the key is to remember that asking the right questions is as important, takes as much skill and provides as much benefit as providing the right answers.
As financial advisors, a large part of the value proposition we bring to our clients is our knowledge and expertise. But we’ve all been in situations where a client lays at our feet an issue to which there is no financial solution. In fact, there are many issues that our clients – indeed all of us – face every day to which there are no external answers. No one can tell you if leaving your spouse, quitting your job or moving to Paris to follow your dream is the right thing to do. Each of us has to find those answers within ourselves. There’s nothing in Financial Advisor 101 that prepares us to help clients with these issues. And yet, as trusted and respected advisors, clients often look to us for guidance. Successfully handling those situations requires us to recognize two things: First, our role changes, and second, a different skill set is required to preserve and strengthen the client relationship.
Because of our expertise, most of us are very comfortable in the role of expert solution provider. It’s very easy (some would say particularly for men…) to slip into the role of overall problem solver. As long as the problems remain within the financial arena, we’re good to go. But when the problem involves personal or emotional struggles, we suddenly find ourselves way outside of our comfort zone. We assume the client still expects an answer because that’s how we view our role. What we need to recognize is that in those situations, our role changes. Rather than being the trusted financial advisor who has all the answers, your role now becomes that of the compassionate, empathetic and trusted personal advisor who asks all the right questions. We need to resist the impulse to offer solutions, and instead ask insightful, thought-provoking questions that allow the client to view the problem from a different angle and find the answers for themselves.
But as Robert Half once said, “Asking the right questions takes as much skill as providing the right answers.” How can we learn to ask the right questions? One of the best places may be the life coaching industry. Now I’m not suggesting that we all run out and become life coaches, but when it comes to asking thoughtful questions that spark insight and build relationships (without stepping into the world of therapy or counseling) they have a few techniques from which we might be able to learn.
Marcia Bench, founder of the Career Coach Institute, teaches her students to utilize three distinct “levels” of questions that illicit three different levels of responses. Level one - the level at which most financial advisors interview – are the most basic ‘what-oriented’ questions that focus primarily on identifying specific problems. These include questions like ‘When do you want to retire?’ or “How much income will you need?’ Level two questions are the ‘why-oriented’ questions that delve into the underlying beliefs and motivators that drive behavior. These include questions such as ‘What’s important to you about retiring at that age?’ or ‘What do you value most about x?’ (being retired, your job, your free time, your spouse, etc.)
Level three questions are those that cause the client to examine or begin to change his or her deepest – and sometimes most limiting - beliefs about themselves. These include questions like ‘If you did x, what would that say about you? If you did not do x, what would that say about you? Do you really believe either of those to be true?’
Especially in an environment when clients are resetting their retirement expectations and reassessing their priorities, theses kinds of questions help clients clarify their goals and create stronger commitment to any particular course of action. In the meantime, they also position you as the enlightened and astute personal advisor, resulting in stronger relationships and increased loyalty.
Will our profession soon require training in counseling or therapy? It’s doubtful. But I am reminded of the old stereotype that psychologists do nothing more than turn your questions to them back around to you. If you think about it, there might just be a reason for it.
Keith J. Weber, CFP®, CPRC, is a speaker, author and founder of Weber Consulting Group, LLC, a financial advisor training, coaching and practice management consulting firm focused on providing life planning skills to advisors. Through the website Retirement2020.com, Keith provides tools to advisors and clients to help build stronger client relationships. Keith maintains the CFP® designation and is also a Certified Professional Retirement Coach. His latest book, Rethinking Retirement, was released in July, 2010. For more information visit www.kjweber.com, www.Retirement2020.com or follow Keith on LinkedIn at Keith J Weber or on Twitter at @KeithJWeber.