Outside-IN

The path to success? It's all about client relationships

It takes time for young advisers to build their relationship skills — but training can help

Sep 5, 2019 @ 12:53 pm

By Joni Youngwirth

How long did it take to become the skilled financial adviser you are today? Would you say about as long as you've been in practice? That answer sounds right to me.

As an established and experienced adviser, I bet your advisory acumen has improved with each day of practice and every client meeting. Discovering clients' unspoken needs and developing their extreme trust is a nuanced process that takes years.

So is learning how to display authentic empathy when advising clients. Gaining experience is the only way to become wise in the ways of establishing and maintaining the unique, precious relationship you have with each client.

What about expert knowledge? Naturally, you had to develop and maintain a mastery of financial topics as you built your practice. But expert knowledge doesn't differentiate you. Clients expect that from any professional in this industry.

And today there's a growing recognition of the importance of behavioral finance, an emerging field that studies how behavioral biases affect financial decision-making. Expert knowledge may be on its way to becoming a commodity compared to the importance of relationship competence and craftsmanship.

How can new advisers develop?

Our tendency is to expect miracles from young, emerging advisers. But that's not realistic.

While the CFP curriculum goes a long way toward developing an adviser's subject matter expertise, building relationship skills requires a slow, simmering process.

Young advisers need to go through a continuous cycle of trying, practicing, failing and succeeding. Learning from each of these experiences is an art. But how can a young adviser safely practice developing relationship skills, especially when failure is part of the process?

Recently, I had the opportunity to participate in an intensive development program called Commonwealth Advisor Live. Over three days, the leaders and new advisers dove into a comprehensive range of practice management fundamentals.

The program included a relationship training module that gave attendees the opportunity to practice holding meetings with "clients" played by stand-ins. A third-party observer sat in on each meeting. This structure created a safe environment for the attendees to learn — and fail — without adverse ramifications.

I acted as the observer for three one-hour meetings and led the follow-up debriefing sessions. Each debrief analyzed successes and opportunities to improve as perceived by the adviser, client stand-ins, and the observer. Topics covered were:

• What went well.

• What could be improved in a "do-over."

• The adviser's strengths and weaknesses.

• Total minutes spent talking by the adviser versus the clients.

Done right, the experience helps new advisers recognize which parts of their client interactions are solid and which need improvement. The number of minutes clients spend talking is an excellent predictor for how much they feel heard during a meeting.

[Recommended video: Advisers demanding help to improve client experience]

In some situations, the presence of a senior adviser can intimidate a young adviser. Feedback from an independent observer may be easier for the young adviser to hear.

Whether a third party or senior adviser, an observer has a lot to gain, too. An open-minded adviser who is capable of unbiased observation may just discover a new skill or approach in the interactions of the young advisers.

Advantages of relationship training?

David Israel, Commonwealth's director of field outreach, designed the Advisor Live program. Discussing how it challenges new advisers, he said, "While new advisers may have previously shadowed, sat in the 'second chair,' or taken on a small part of a client meeting, this program allows them to practice in the lead adviser's seat.

"They get a chance to practice running a client meeting, learning how to ask powerful questions and work on active listening skills," Mr. Israel said. "They get a taste of what it's like to truly juggle the client interaction and conversation."

What is the program like for a young adviser? "My favorite part of the program was the opportunity to practice running several client meetings, which allowed me to fine-tune my meeting process and receive immediate feedback on ways to improve," said Brian Sirota of Cary Stamp & Co. in Tequesta, Fla. "The coaching was invaluable. I look forward to implementing what I learned in my daily practice."

[More: Making room for the next generation of advisers]

Joni Youngwirth is managing principal of practice management at Commonwealth Financial Network.

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