Young advisers need help developing 'soft skills' for serving clients

New planners need to know the proper language and tone to use with clients, how to be a good listener and how to prioritize their workload

Apr 5, 2015 @ 12:01 am

By Liz Skinner

Daniel Mock, 24, is highly educated, graduating college with a double major in economics and political science. He later added a master's degree in quantitative economics.

But when he started his career as an associate adviser with FMB Wealth Management last year, he lacked the communication skills that some more seasoned advisers take for granted.

“I struggled coming out of the academic environment with creating research and presentations for people who don't have a financial or analytical background, such as small-business owners,” Mr. Mock said.

“Being able to communicate at the appropriate level was a challenge,” he said. “One of the most important things for me to learn was to be able to listen passively and not jump in right away.”

As newly minted graduates make their way into the advisory workforce over the next few months, many of them will be facing the same challenges as Mr. Mock. These individuals are well-equipped to tackle many of the technical duties of a financial planner, but they sometimes lack the soft skills needed to interact successfully with clients and even some co-workers.

New planners need to know the proper language and tone to use with clients, how to be a good listener and how to prioritize their workload. Budding advisers who receive training in these skills during their early years could find greater success and satisfaction in the advice industry, experts say.

Edward Jones, which plans to hire about 500 undergraduates this year, has a year-long training program for recent college grads that covers everything from generating clients and building relationships to being productive and speaking to clients.

“We try to teach the soft skills of how you ask open-ended questions to ensure you're drawing out information from the client,” said John Rahal, head of financial adviser talent acquisition.


Experts generally recommend that financial advisory firms of any size offer new graduates training in four key areas: business communications, personal productivity, interpersonal skills and prospecting.

1. Business communications

Wescott Financial Advisory Group in Philadelphia works with new graduates to help them sound polished in their writing and speech, especially when communicating with clients, said Stephanie Curtis, a financial adviser and manager of Wescott's associate adviser program.

That includes using templates, such as a typical follow-up email to be sent to a client after a meeting. During an associate adviser's first year, all written communications to clients are reviewed by senior advisers before they are sent out, Ms. Curtis said.

The firm also directs new associates to pay attention to the client relationship management system, which indicates whether clients like to communicate via phone or email, she said.

New advisers also learn presentation skills and the importance of fact-checking to make sure every detail is correct, Ms. Curtis said.

Of course, training in what is appropriate to say to clients, and what not to say, is also important.

Individuals coming out of college today “grew up in a culture of abbreviated words and short messages,” which won't work with the average financial advice client, said Craig Pfeiffer, chief executive of Advisors Ahead, a firm that prepares college graduates for jobs in the financial advice field.

2. Personal productivity

New graduates also often have trouble with “the 9-to-5 concept,” Mr. Pfeiffer said.

Young hires are extremely busy juggling the new job, certification classes and extracurricular activities, but they are used to breaks during the day and may accomplish a great deal of their work late at night or very early, Mr. Pfeiffer said.

In transitioning to full-time work, they often feel overly busy because work is expected to be completed during the traditional workday, he said.

Ms. Curtis said many of the young professionals who join Wescott know how to prioritize their own tasks, but have little experience when it comes to weighing the importance of different duties at work. This is especially true if they have been assigned tasks or projects by multiple people.

During his first days at FMB, Mr. Mock said he had to figure out how to prioritize tasks and say no when too many people were throwing work his way.

“It's about being able to manage time and priorities and being able to say no when you really have to,” Ms. Curtis said.

Wescott's next-gen advisers are taught to communicate openly with everyone involved and ask which tasks they should be concentrating on when conflicts arise.

3. Interpersonal skills

Training at Wescott also focuses on how to listen to conversations and take relevant notes, how to handle constructive criticism from others at the firm and how to build strong relationships, both with clients and colleagues, Ms. Curtis said.

The firm has new hires participate on teams and in committees so it can evaluate how well they work with other people, and identify leaders.

Ms. Curtis acts as a mentor to the young advisers, providing feedback on how well they're doing and areas for improvement. Initially she talks with them each week, but the meetings become less frequent over time as the need dissipates.

4. Prospecting

New graduates also need direction on whom to pursue as clients and how.

At Edward Jones, financial adviser candidates are sent into the town in which they will be working to figure out what their market looks like and how they will generate clients, Mr. Rahal said.

They'll evaluate which strategies — from face-to-face meetings to leveraging a referral network or hosting seminars — are likely to be most effective, he said.

Wescott's client development group does presentations for the next-gen professionals, sharing their two-minute elevator speeches and describing different ways to ask for referrals.

“It's hard for new advisers to have the confidence that they're capable of handling clients no matter what their age,” Ms. Curtis said.


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