Attentive Advisors Create A Comfortable Space For Clients To Share

Attentive Advisors Create A Comfortable Space For Clients To Share

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Like psychologists, advisors can find themselves in intimate conversations with clients. To do their job, they need to listen raptly and gather highly personal information.


Some clients speak freely about the most sensitive issues. Others prefer to avoid certain topics altogether.

By building trust and not passing judgment, advisors learn more from even the most reluctant clients. The key is making individuals feel comfortable opening up and revealing their innermost secrets.

“Advisors need to create a safe atmosphere,” said Lynn Dunston, a certified financial planner in Denver, Colo. “We’re letting them know we want to interact on a human level.”

When leading these get-to-know-you meetings, Dunston begins by making three points. He assures them of confidentiality, emphasizes he won’t judge what they say and thanks them in advance for sharing.

“They usually respond with a sigh of relief and say, ‘That’s good to know,’ ” he said.

His third point — thanking them for confiding in him — wields a special power. Many clients appreciate a sincere expression of gratitude and feel less guarded as a result.

“I want them to know that I’m honored to hear their stories,” Dunston said. “And when they share their stories, I thank them again. It shows I don’t take that for granted. And that brings us closer.”

Dunston has learned that by remaining quiet, clients are more apt to talk. Even if they veer off-topic, he stays silent and does not interrupt.

Set The Stage

Because financial planners spend much of their day dishing out advice, it’s natural to want to offer guidance to clients grappling with difficulty. But if they feel hesitant opening up, it’s often best to restrain the urge to advise.

Clients may need time to weigh whether to broach a painful subject, such as their troubled marriage or a family tragedy. Advisors who strike an attentive pose signal that they are ready to listen.

“I learned early in my career to match and mirror clients’ body posture,” Dunston said. “If they lean forward, I lean forward. It signals, ‘I hear you. I’m with you. I want to hear more.’ “

The setting also plays a role. If clients feel relaxed in your environment, they’re less likely to withhold sensitive information.

Shelly Terzolo, an advisor in Syracuse, N.Y., meets with clients around a table rather than from behind a desk. She offers them a beverage and lets them steer the conversation.

“I don’t start off by opening a folder with a long questionnaire,” she said. “I just have a notepad and a pen, and I’ll move it aside to set the stage for them to feel comfortable in the space.”

She has found that some clients are less inclined to open up if they see her writing notes as they speak. By maintaining friendly eye contact, she strengthens her bond with them.

Watch Body Language

Part of the challenge for advisors is prompting clients to flesh out their thoughts and feelings on a delicate matter. In many cases, individuals will not tackle a tender subject head-on; instead, they will hem and haw until they feel ready to address the core issue.

With a compassionate nod of the head, Terzolo shows her sympathy while allowing clients to elaborate. Her goal is to assure them that she cares and wants to help.

“I don’t want them to feel bad that they brought it up,” she said.

Flexibility pays off as well. Advisors may plan for a meeting to focus on investment strategy, but a preoccupied client may raise an entirely different and more personal concern.

“You can’t say to someone who talks about some trauma or horrible situation with their family, ‘Oh, that’s too bad. Let’s get back to that $4 million in your 401(k),’ ” said Nancy Coutu, a certified financial planner in Oak Brook, Ill. “I might be the first person they’ve told this to.”

At the same time, Coutu knows not to press clients to divulge more. Observing their nonverbal cues helps her build rapport and avoid awkward moments.

“I read body language,” she said. “If they’re wrestling in their seat and not making eye contact, I’ll move on and not keep asking about that. I may come back to it later.”

Coutu lays the groundwork for more searching conversations by having new clients complete a questionnaire and bring it to their first appointment. Glancing at their responses might trigger an icebreaker such as, “I see you have five kids.”

“Rather than dive into money, I start by acknowledging the information they’ve already shared,” Coutu said. “What’s important is do they have a problem that I can solve?”

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