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9 Smartest Things Heard at NAPFA

Planners gathered in Salt Lake City last week for NAPFA's annual spring conference, hearing the latest thinking on behavioral finance, student debt, practice management and more. Here are a few of the smartest things that Financial Planning's staff and contributors heard at the conference.

1. Planning to "die with your boots on" is unfair to your clients. -- Peggy Cabaniss, president with HC Financial Advisors in Lafayette, Calif. Cabaniss' former business partner and mentor kept about 10 clients after he had mainly retired. One day, during breakfast, he felt an attack of heartburn from and thought he had eaten too much. In fact, however, it was a heart attack. "He did die with his boots on, and he left all those clients in a mess," Cabaniss says.

2. It's a myth to think you can motivate clients to change. -- Rick Kahler, founder of the Kahler Financial Group of Rapid City, South Dakota. Many advisors believe they can use one of several strategies -- confrontation, explaining facts, crisis or fear -- to motivate change. In fact, he said, none work. The only thing that leads to change is the willingness of the other person. That said, Kahler added, advisors can help clients move along the trajectory toward that willingness. The stages that precede change, he said, include pre-contemplation, contemplation, preparation and action, so advisors can help clients get from preparation to action. Kahler advised listeners not to tell a client to do anything; instead, he said, offer suggestions. By simply suggesting, you leave the possibility of choice and freedom, he said -- and that can help trigger action. (Read more: 10 Client Beliefs That Affect Their Money Habits)

3. Selling a firm? Make sure you trust the buyer. -- William Bengen, an author and newly retired planner from Chula Vista, Calif. Remember that you are transferring trust as much as you are transferring a business, he said, so don't just hand your practice off to a buyer. Stick around and be active in the business during the transitional phase. Set aside time to explain to each one of your clients the rationale behind the sale. "You make a lot of decisions for your clients over the years. This was the last one you are going to make. And you don't want it coming back to you," Bengen says. (Read more: 23 Tips for Selling a Solo Practice)

4. Reexamine the "choice architecture" you establish for your clients. -- David Laibson, professor of economics at Harvard University. When companies began automatically enrolling employees into 401(k) programs -- forcing them to take steps on their own to opt out -- Americans began saving dramatically more money. That's because the companies made it very simple for their employees to choose a behavior that would benefit them later. They transformed a "passive choice environment" into "an active choice environment." He encouraged advisors to boil down 15-minute processes for clients into 15 seconds -- pre-filling out forms in advance or otherwise lessening the demands of accomplishing tasks. "Create active choice environments for them," Laibson said, to get much higher levels of beneficial behavior.

5. Today's 60-year-old clients suffer from a particular emotional pathology. -- Nick Murray, a planner in Southold, N.Y. Their parents grew up during the Great Depression, he said, and passed that emotional trauma down to their children, who are now mostly in their 60s. "Remember that those wounds never heal," Murray said. "They have nothing to do with education or fact. ... If you are to overcome it at all, it will be by using the right hemisphere of your brain, by communicating empathy and caring, not through better education. Don't ask them to believe you. Ask them to trust you."

6. Prospective buyers of your solo practice want to buy a business. -- Nancy Nelson, founder of a firm in Olympia, Wash. What they don't want is to buy a job, with one over-worked planner doing everything. To prepare to sell her business, Nelson said she began transforming her company from a one-person job to a business. She fired a client who she feared was a "lawsuit in the making," gave several low-revenue clients to another planner she trusted, raised her fees to market rates and promised her employees bonuses if they would stay with her firm's buyer for at least a year.

7. People weigh losses about twice as heavily as they do gains. -- Harvard professor Laibson. But research shows that taking risks with a good, if not perfect, chance of success is a good thing to do with regularity throughout a client's investing life, he pointed out. It's a rationale for sticking with the market through ups and downs.

8. Stop paying attention to the S&P 500. -- Craig Israelsen, an executive-in-residence in the Financial Planning Program at Utah Valley University in Orem, Utah (and a Financial Planning contributor). When people ask him how the market is doing, Israelsen doesn't answer. Instead he turns the question around and asks them: "Which market are you talking about?" Most people are inquiring into the performance of the S&P 500 when they ask that question, he argued -- and that over-focus on a single index doesn't help them understand the performance of their own portfolios. Portfolios need to be made up not only of large-cap U.S. stocks, but mid- and small-cap U.S. stocks, as well as international stocks, bonds, commodities, cash and real estate. It's the job of the advisor to help clients understand their portfolios -- not through a comparison to the S&P 500.

9. Every new retiree faces a binary question: Will we outlive the money or not? -- planner Nick Murray. This is the question that every planner needs to be prepared to explore and hopefully answer for their clients. "They don't know the answer, and that's why we were sent into the world," Murray told a room of other advisors. "There's nothing standing between them and the abyss but you and me."

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