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3 Essential Ways of Getting to the Heart of What Matters for Clients

James Werner January 24, 2023

Advisor and client family meeting

A financial plan should be an accurate reflection of a client’s truest vision for their future. It’s easier said than done.

Creating a financial plan that maps closely to a client’s values and goals requires quite a bit of work—mostly in getting to the heart of what really matters to them. To this end, in my opinion, there are a few things the financial planning industry needs to work on: presentation, personalization, and goal setting.

In my experience, there are a few ways most planners can go above and beyond on each point, especially once they understand the ins and outs of their planning software.

1. Curating the Perfect Report for Every Client

Every financial planner has to deal with the concept of curation when it comes to presenting the financial plan.

It’s likely your planning software can produce hundreds of different kinds of reports and potentially even real-time data about your clients’ financial situations. Most clients, though, are going to want to see one or two reports.

This is a highly underrated aspect of planning. When you can give clients the exact report they want to see, the perfect report that tells them everything is fine, you’ll get far greater client engagement with your planning process and your technology solution. You’ll find that your communication is much easier and clients are happier.

But how do you find just the right report for each client? At our firm, we simply ask clients to choose a few.

I frame it to my clients this way: if you’re a pilot and you need one or two reports to say that your plane is ok to take off and land, which reports would they be?

Clients are more than happy to choose the report they like best, and over time, they come to see it as “my report”, not just the cash flow or net worth report they happened to choose. They view this as the report that’s been individually curated to match their financial vision, which is a powerful way of showing you know what they care about. And it’s true—you can learn a whole lot about the financial things they care about most when you see which reports they view as most important.

2. The Power of Asking “How Do You Feel About This?”

It’s such a simple question, with such powerful implications, but all too often financial planners ignore the emotional side of the financial plan.

I had a client whose husband had passed away. Her husband had made most of their money and, being most interested in the quantitative side of things, made most of their financial decisions. After he passed, I explained the ways in which everything in my client’s plan would be executed just as we had planned. By the end of the process, she understood everything that was going to happen and why it needed to happen, but when I asked how she felt about it, she communicated to me that she didn’t feel good about it at all. She said that what we had planned for was her husband’s vision, but he wanted to work until he died and he was a lot more comfortable taking on risk than she was. This called for a complete reworking of the plan to match what would give her a happy and comfortable future.

Most people, I believe, will go along just to get along. They’ll do whatever they think they need to do, even if it’s not their ideal lifestyle or future. And part of this is because they’ve either never been asked how they feel about it, and/or because they may not even understand what their possibilities are.

The example above is not uncommon in the industry, especially as clients reach retirement age. The question “How do you feel about this?” is so important for aligning a financial plan with what a client truly wants, even if they don’t know exactly what they want.

In my experience, many couples approach retirement with completely different visions of how they’ll spend their time. This is a consequence of not talking about the retirement plan enough. In my practice, I make sure I’m asking clients regularly how they feel about their plan for retirement—this spurs in-depth, honest conversations about what retirement will look like. I cannot overstate the importance of this.

As we create a family and age toward retirement, we take on certain roles in our family unit. We tend to maintain these roles for as long as our family is together. But upon retirement, those roles completely change. When clients are talking to each other about retirement and how they feel about it, they don’t drift so far apart that their visions can’t be reconciled.

In contrast to the example above, I’m working with a couple right now that’s just about to retire. Over the past ten years, I’ve helped them start four or five serious conversations about their options for retirement and how they truly want to live. Now that they’re near retirement, they’re fully ready to commit to a plan that has room for both their desires.

3. Setting Goals That Clients Dream About

Asking someone how they feel about their plan is important, but that doesn’t mean they’ll then be able to tell you exactly what they want. Most of us aren’t sure exactly what we want for our future and won’t be able to communicate our most authentic future vision after answering just a few questions.

So how do you get started uncovering what a client truly wants? A great place to start is anti-goals. We may not know what we want, but most of us know very well what we don’t want.

If you ask someone about their goals, they’ll give you an answer to impress you. Nobody wants to have a bad goal. But if you ask the same person what they don’t want for retirement you’re much more likely to get an honest, fear-based response. They may say, “I don’t want to be stuck in the same four walls I’ve been stuck in my whole life. I want to get out more and maybe travel.”

With anti-goals, you create the foundation of the vision. Once you know what you don’t want, then you can more successfully move towards what they do want.

But you shouldn’t stop there. The industry today, I think, does a decent job of fear planning—helping people avoid undesirable situations. But what’s more challenging, and what I think few are truly doing well, is dream planning.

I have several clients who, when they started out, had a $0 baseline plan in a worst-case scenario. They weren’t going to pass on any money to their children, which was a significant concern. But after going through the planning process, and being given the opportunity to play with their plan and see how different levels of end assets impact their lifestyle, they now have over $1 million to pass on to their children.

What’s so powerful about this is that we’ve gotten past their fears. They now can enjoy playing with all the different toggles of their plan to see what’s possible for their future. This is dream planning. They’re not avoiding a negative outcome, they’re excitedly exploring and pursuing positive outcomes for their financial future.

Getting Clients to Where They Want to Go

The numbers are the numbers. Finding out where clients want the numbers to take them is the real work of financial planning.

For other planners out there looking to take their relationships deeper and improve outcomes for clients, I highly recommend focusing on presentation, personalization, and goal setting. If you can do these three things effectively, you’ll be giving your clients the highest level of service.

About the Author

James is a Certified Financial Planner™ professional with over 25 years’ experience in wealth management and personal financial planning. James takes a special interest in areas where finance intersects with daily life. He is also the host of the Voice from the Hills podcast where he covers the changing financial landscape, timely financial research, and best practices across the wealth management spectrum. James graduated from The University of Texas with a degree in Business Administration in Finance and Economics. He acts as an advisor to the UT Planned Giving Council, serves on the Advanced Planning Steering Committee for eMoney Advisor, and speaks frequently on philanthropic planning.

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