As you're dispensing advice, your client interrupts, "Yes, but..." You clarify, and he says: "Yes, but..." You remind him your advice will help him reach his financial goals. You warn of the consequences of inaction. He might agree, yet returns two months later stating he's done nothing. You start to wonder why this guy came to see you in the first place.
At some point, most clients will resist your advice. Whether you're suggesting a budget, saving more, funding retirement plans, buying insurance or writing a will, you will actually create client resistance if you are doing your job because you will be advising a client to do something he or she may not be ready to do. Even if you stick to the subject that brought your client into your office, you may see resistance.
Decades of research on helping people change self-destructive behaviors, such as smoking or drug use, have shown that only 20% of us are in the "action phase" around any particular issue. The rest of us are in various stages of ambivalence toward change.
Resistance is an automatic response to feeling misunderstood, prodded or pushed. Your client may agree, but with no intention of following up. If you continue to push, you actually increase the chance your client won't act.
In studies on treating substance abuse, relapse rates could be predicted by one characteristic of counseling sessions-the number of confrontational statements made by a counselor during a session, such as, "You said you were going to interview for that job, but you didn't. How come?" The more a counselor attacked a client's resistance to change, the more likely and the more severe a client's relapse.
Planners usually respond to resistance in the same way as most helpers: They do more of the same, or turn up the heat, presenting more facts and figures or warnings. But when a client is ambivalent and you stake your claim on one side of the argument, it may be natural for a client to think about all the opposing arguments.
The key to helping clients change is getting them to talk about the benefits of change. As a financial advisor, your job is to give advice. When clients resist, it's your turn to change.
In addition to the "Yes, but..." game and outright arguing, your client may sigh, yawn or change the subject. When you notice a sign of resistance, it's important to stop doing whatever you were doing. Stop talking. Put down the pie charts and graphs. Avoid the temptation to argue or persuade. When you speak again, mirror the client.
Clients will make their own decisions, no matter how worthy your advice seems, so help them along. One of the most effective techniques for overcoming resistance is to make it visible. Your client says, "I know we agreed for me to start tracking my spending, but I have just been so busy and I haven't had time to start." You might be tempted to talk about time management or helpful software. However, your client may respond by making excuses or feeling ashamed, which doesn't help. Instead, say something like, "What I hear you saying is that while you recognize it is important to track your spending and set up a budget, you are really just too busy to start."
Yes, use words similar to his. Don't worry about sounding like a parrot. While you may feel awkward, simple repetition may prompt him to begin talking about the reasons he should make time.
Dan Danford, CEO of the Family Investment Center in St. Joseph, Mo., uses simple reflections regularly. "Things that seem rational inside our head can sound absurd when said aloud," he says. "I've had clients laugh when I just repeated what they said in total seriousness a few moments earlier. It's simple, but it really works."
Robert Bolen, CFA, CFP and president of Bolen Dodson & Associates in Brentwood, Tenn., recently updated a financial plan for a 55-year-old woman who'd just sold her business. Although she had about $2 million in investments, she was spending too much given her life expectancy.
After laying out the specifics, Bolen essentially said: "Your spending now gives you certain comforts and a particular lifestyle, which you clearly enjoy. At this spending rate, it will most likely force you to dramatically cut back when you are in your mid-eighties, or risk running out of money. Is that okay? What kind of life do you see for yourself when you are 85 or 90? Tell me about the lifestyle you want for yourself then." That approach helped her see the impact of her current spending; she agreed to cut back.
If simple reflection doesn't work, you can try exaggerating a resistant client's statement. You might say, "What I think you are saying is that you are so busy it is practically impossible for you to devote any time to tracking your spending or setting up a budget."
Remember: You are not trying to sound sarcastic or unsympathetic. Your tone of voice should be neutral and sincere. Often, an amplification of a client's resistance will result in him correcting you and stating how and why it is possible to take action.
Saundra Davis, a financial coach who runs Sage Financial Solutions in San Francisco, uses amplified reflection when clients have talked themselves into non-action. She shared the following example in which she upped the ante :
Client: "I set up a budget but it didn't work. There just isn't enough money to cover everything I have to pay."
Davis: "If the budget didn't help you, maybe there just isn't enough money. Would a second job help?"
Client: "I really should be able to make it work. I do make enough, I just can't seem to control spending. I really don't want a second job-I'm already too busy."
Davis: "Okay, so maybe there is enough, and creating a workable budget seems like a better idea than increasing your income. Let's start to help you manage your spending better."
Another strategy is to reflect both sides of the client's ambivalence, showing the pluses and minuses of change. This time, you'd say, "On the one hand, your financial health is one of your primary goals right now, but on the other hand, what is keeping you stuck is that you have no time to work on a spending plan."
Of course, you're not a psychotherapist and your client is not a patient. Your instinct may be to be straightforward. You don't have time for this. What it sounds like you're saying is that you're so busy it's practically impossible for you to devote any time to battling client resistance, even though your clients' financial health-and your own-depend upon it.
ARGUING AGAINST CHANGE
As a last-ditch effort when you are convinced a client is not willing to change, you can offer reasons why the client shouldn't change. "Maybe now isn't the right time for you to start making changes in your financial life." Used correctly, this technique frequently results in the client reselling themselves on the reasons they came to you initially.
Client resistance is an inevitable part of the financial planning process. It's a sign you are doing your job. It's also a signal that a client is not ready to take action-and an opportunity for you to change tactics.
Brad Klontz is a clinical psychologist and associate research professor at Kansas State University's Institute of Personal Financial Planning. He is the co-author of Mind Over Money: Overcoming the Money Disorders that Threaten our Financial Health.