Admitting my mistakes to clients made me a better planner

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Several years ago, my wife and I made the seemingly reasonable decision to postpone obtaining a life insurance policy until we started to have a family.

A few months later, just five days before sitting for the CFP exam, the unthinkable happened: I was diagnosed with cancer. Quite naïve at the time, I did not understand the repercussions of that diagnosis in the context of our life insurance postponement decision.

After I had finished treatment and been declared cancer-free, I consulted again with several insurers. I learned to my dismay that I was deemed uninsurable, for multiple years, by all but a couple of insurers, who quoted appallingly unaffordable policies.

I pieced together various alternatives including group term policies offered by my employer, professional associations, and merchant/corporate memberships. But I could only minimally plug the insurance gap. Ultimately, my wife and I had little choice but to ride it out with a less than ideal amount of coverage.
As an advisor, I first shied away from telling this cautionary tale, fearful it would paint me in an unfavorable light. But the more I’ve embraced the narrative, the more I’ve bared witness to its trust-building power.

People love stories, and any compelling story involves struggle. Without fail, this particular story produces an “aha” moment when something clicks, and suddenly I have my listener’s undivided attention.

I can usually spot when it happens: the eyes widen, the arms unfold, and the head leans forward. Then the questions start coming.

The questions are genuine inquisitions, not thinly veiled judgments. The client, or prospect, appreciates me sharing and wants to know more. What I have to say is much more important because I’ve humanized myself: I’m now a vulnerable, self-aware person. Someone who has learned from his own financial miscalculations and uses those hard-won lessons to benefit others.

My mistakes — and admission of those mistakes — makes me a better planner. And the trust I establish early on can be a solid foundation for the planner/client relationship.

Believe me, I know: It’s scary to share. If planners share everything, they might come across as incompetent and unprofessional.

But under-sharing is dangerous too. If planners share little or nothing, they may come across as pompous, out-of-touch, and unsympathetic. And just re-telling other people’s stories isn’t very effective because it fails to connect the planner to all the appealing aspects of a personal narrative: humility, perseverance, introspection, and growth.

What’s the best way to make that connection?

Focus on two behaviors: listen generously, and then share generously. Care about what your clients say to you, and care about what you say to clients. This requires authenticity. Listen with purpose, identify the conflict/problem, connect it to your conflict/problem, and then speak with purpose.

Treat both stories with the utmost respect. Stay true to your clients and to yourself, and you will have a great chance of establishing an authentic bond. All financial planners have had setbacks and missteps in their financial lives, but not all financial planners will cop to it. They should.

Clients and prospects alike don’t want to hear a long list of your qualifications and successes; they read about that on your website a long time ago.

Instead, they want to hear about the conflicts you’ve navigated, the problems you’ve solved, and the failures you’ve survived.

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