When Advisors Get Personal: Helping Clients Through Tough Times

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Financial planners spend much of their day advising clients on money matters. But sometimes, the advice gets personal.




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Depending on your client relationships, you may feel the urge to dish out advice on topics ranging from dating to vacationing to raising children. Clients usually welcome such input, especially if you’ve earned their trust and respect.

The trick is to give advice that sticks. Butt into their lives too aggressively and clients may resist your guidance. That’s particularly true if you volunteer too much unsolicited advice.

Tactful advisors set appropriate boundaries. When it comes to financial issues, they will share their expertise freely. But they tread delicately with everything else.

The nature and scope of your advice largely reflects the baseline that you establish with clients from the outset. If they confide in you about personal dilemmas that don’t involve money, they may want you to serve as a sounding board.

“I’m always asking new clients about their hobbies, career and how happy or not they are in their life,” said Caedmon Bear, an advisor in Walnut Creek, Calif. “I set the groundwork for giving advice on how they can be more happy in their life.”

For clients who prefer to limit conversations to financial matters, advisors must stick to business. Even if they’re tempted to offer more intimate input — on marriage, family relationships, etc. — they should refrain or risk overstepping their bounds.

Beginner’s Mind

If you decide to get personal, proceed with care. Just because a client praises your financial advice does not mean your child-rearing or dating tips will be equally well-received.

Beware of lecturing people on right and wrong. Clients may chafe when told what they should or should not do.

“Rather than say, ‘You should do this,’ I might ask probing questions like, ‘Have you thought about … ?’ or ‘Ideally, what would you like to happen?’ ” Bear said.

He adds that he’s genuinely interested in listening to their answer. Depending on their response, he may withhold the advice that he was thinking of sharing.

“When you ask probing questions, you don’t want to have an agenda,” he said. “People can pick up on that. It’s better to just ask open-ended questions. It’s called ‘beginner’s mind.’ “

In some cases, what starts as a strictly financial discussion with a client can morph into something more personal. Advisors need to determine if they’re qualified to venture well beyond their training and expertise.

Don’t Judge

Clients may simply want to unload their anxieties and frustrations — without expecting you to reply with practical feedback. Nonjudgmental listening can in itself prove invaluable.

Bethany Bristow, a certified financial planner in Brooklyn, N.Y., wants clients to feel comfortable initiating a personal conversation. Her openness and empathy help her create rapport.

“I see the financial planning space as a safe space,” she said. “People come to you with their problems.”

She recalls a client who expressed concern about spending money on fertility treatments.

“She was paying for freezing her own eggs and delaying motherhood for her career,” Bristow said. “She had paid for one cycle, and she wanted to know if she could afford to pay” for a second or third cycle.

This led to a soul-searching conversation about single motherhood by choice. Bristow says she sought to offer emotional support as well as practical suggestions on how her client could tap resources to learn more about her options.

With Age Comes Wisdom

When advisors conclude that they’re unable to offer constructive advice on nonfinancial topics, they find gentle ways to redirect the discussion. They may acknowledge their lack of experience with the subject matter or offer a referral to a more knowledgeable source.

“If I know the client is expecting a certain answer from me, and I can’t honestly give the answer they’re looking for, I’ll politely decline (to give advice),” said Michael Garry, a certified financial planner in Newtown, Pa. “I don’t want to start an argument. So I may say, ‘I’m not sure I’m qualified to weigh in on that.’ “

Over his 20 years as an advisor, Garry has learned not to jump at every opportunity to dish out personal advice. Instead, he will respond with compassion without rendering a verdict.

“As a young guy, I was too sure of the advice I’d give,” Garry said. “Now that I’m 51, I hope I have more wisdom than when I was 31.”

He says he’s more apt to pose thoughtful questions that lead clients to draw their own conclusions. And if they want to vent, he knows to listen with attentiveness.

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