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How a personal crisis transformed what I ask clients

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There’s one crucial question I ask of clients before I start working with them. It often doesn’t take too long to answer, but it can determine if I accept these people as clients or not.

“What would make our relationship successful 12 months from now?”

It can elicit a range of answers, some of which are realistic, while others are not. This is a great way to see if our goals and methods are compatible, and helps us start a relationship off on the right foot. But there’s more to it.

When I get further into my planning process with a now-client and ask them, “What would have to happen to make your life successful?”, the answers are usually tangible — “Retire at 65, spend more time with my family, travel twice a year, etc.” But rarely do intangible things come up that are actually the foundation to these goals, such as maintaining good physical health, exploring faith, loving my spouse on a deeper level, etc. Yet that is a vital part of the planning process as well.

So why is it so hard to verbalize intangible success? Why do we anchor our happiness on results and not enjoy the process of getting there? Finding the answers is just as hard for advisors as it is for clients.

This topic has hit home recently. In 2016, my solo-RIA nearly collapsed and I undertook a rebrand. It forced me to be more realistic about my goals. I reverse engineered an income target that would be ideal for my family. I understood it may take a couple of years to achieve with all the changes I was making. However, things took a serendipitous turn and I earned that income objective within nine months. My gross income ended up doubling.

But what should have been a celebratory time professionally and personally didn’t feel that way. I started to feel anxious about whether I could replicate this income, as almost 50% had come from freelance writing and one-time financial planning fees. I thought that even though I didn’t need the income, I had to keep my prospect funnel full to maintain momentum. Even when my workload became lighter, I struggled with guilt about not constantly working on my business and found it difficult enjoy my downtime.

Just like some of my clients, I began to realize that my definition of success was misguided. I had focused on the result (my income) and not the process (growing a business). Once I reached my income goal, I had come to the end of my journey and now had no direction. My focus should have been less binary.

Why wasn’t I happy with my apparent success? Sure, it had been a challenge before, as I was running a failing company. But now, having turned things around, shouldn’t contentment be easier to find? My growing roster of clients were happy, my bank balances were growing, and my business stress was fading away.

Success gets harder to define when the timeframe gets longer.

In choosing to anchor success on a singular milestone, I had created an inevitable problem. Once I reached that one goal, I would have to adjust it or create new ones. Would life become a frustrating, never-ending process of chasing increasingly difficult milestones and never being happy?

I realized I was not enjoying this process. I started to reflect on my clients, their financial plans and their overall lives. How many were striving to achieve a certain investment balance because that would be the best time to retire, versus enjoying the process of life and work, right now? What did they need to change? And, did I have the confidence to ask them and help them explore their answers? If I was having these struggles, surely others were as well.

For advisors, as well as our clients, the focus should be the process and not solely the result(s). We should focus on improving our own lives and the impact we have on others. Reaching those goals should make our lives, and the lives of those around us, easier and more enjoyable. If it results in more income, excellent. If it means we don’t make as much money, but there is contentment, then we’ve also won.

If I was having these struggles, surely others were as well.

For our clients, we may need to reframe our conversations. Instead of asking them, “What does your successful financial plan look like?” maybe we should ask them “What would you like to improve in your life? What impact would you like to make, and to whom? What would you like to experience? What needs to happen in your day that when you lay your head down to sleep, you do so with a smile?”

Some advisors may do this already. However, for me, asking these questions will be a drastic change. Discovery will look a lot different and result in a lot of intangible and qualitative information on which to build financial plans.

Even the plans themselves might look different. I expect planning software will only be able to tell half the story of someone’s hopes for their future. It’s hard to quantify someone’s desire to, say, spend time immersed in a new language each year, mentor disabled children and cherish their spouse each day.

If I can refocus my definition of success on continual improvement and the positive impact on people’s lives, tangible milestones will become only part of the story. Earning money and prudently saving will become less of a focus, and the journey of life will become more fulfilling.

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