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4 Tips for Advisors to Start Uncovering Client Values
• Miranda Reiter Ph.D., CFP® • January 30, 2024
A successful financial planning relationship depends on a planner’s ability to dive deep into a client’s core values. But when these relationships are still young, navigating values can be tricky. Clients need to understand what you’re looking for and why; they need to feel comfortable enough to open up to you and feel like they’re an active participant in their plan.
This blog explores a few tips for advisors to get the values conversation started so planning relationships can progress smoothly.
1. Unlocking the “Why”: Starting the Values Conversation with New Clients
Most advisors are pros at discovery—digging into the details to craft a financial roadmap. But understanding what truly drives someone, their core values, that’s where things get interesting. The challenge isn’t always the asking; it’s the starting point.
First, advisors should take the time to think through what values are and why they are important in the client-advisor relationship. It may even be helpful to think about why they are important with a specific client in mind with whom you plan to meet. Depending on the client’s unique circumstances, the reasons for an advisor to dig into the values conversations could differ among clients.
So, how does one start to ask about values? This is where the power of broad questions comes in. Think of them as door openers. A simple “Tell me about yourself” or “What truly matters to you?” opens the conversation organically. You get to see where they take it and what stories they share from their own life. Every conversation becomes unique in this way, a personal exploration of their past, current perspectives, and existing circumstances.
Once you are ready to ask more pointedly about values, you can help your client by providing a more intuitive definition. A definition of values I find useful is this: individual beliefs that motivate us to act in certain ways and inform how we go about life. Explaining values without using that specific word can be helpful, especially if clients are unclear about what you’re asking. Note that it may not be easy for every client to think about their values on the spot. They may need time to digest the question and think about their answer, which is okay.
By focusing on connection rather than extraction, advisors can unlock a deeper understanding of their clients. It’s not just about the numbers; it’s about the stories they tell.
Getting to these precious pieces of someone requires a safe space. Rushing into the values talk in the first or second meeting may be too early. Financial planners must first set the stage for values by focusing on comfort and trust.
2. Helping Clients Feel Comfortable Before Discussing Values
The above examples are simple but effective ways to get clients to start talking about values. Of course, asking intentional follow-up questions and exploring shared values will be important in keeping the conversation going. But before you can get to that point, clients need to be in a space, mentally and physically, where they can open up to you. This is where your office space becomes more than just walls and furniture—it becomes an extension of your commitment to client-centered planning.
The classic mahogany desks and aura of prestige are no longer an ideal part of an advisor’s office. Research suggests a different path, one where the client takes center stage. For example, imagine chairs arranged for easy conversation, not across a big, dividing desk. You can opt for lower desks that promote eye contact and open dialogue. It’s all about creating a warm, inviting atmosphere that resonates with the emotional journey of financial planning.
Think about how a therapist may want to organize their office. How will your space welcome clients? Will the lighting be calming, the artwork uplifting? Consider incorporating elements that reflect your own values and personality, fostering a sense of connection.
In addition to your physical space, remember that trust begins with listening. Speak less, hear more. Let your clients portray their financial dreams and anxieties for you. This is a truly simple yet profound way of helping clients feel comfortable.
As you do this, be mindful of assumptions, especially about the client’s family structure. “Who’s important in your life?” is a gentle way to explore family dynamics, as does “Is there anyone else who needs to be involved in your plan?”, which also opens the door to future collaborations, even with the next generation. Showing clients that you care for their well-being as well as their loved ones can nurture trust in the relationship.
By crafting a space that prioritizes comfort and actively builds trust through authentic listening, you create the ideal environment for those precious value conversations to unfold naturally.
3. Explaining the Purpose of the Values Talk
As I said earlier, clients may not have previously had the opportunity to think about what their values are, and even when clients feel they have a grasp on their most important values, it’s extremely helpful for a planner to help set expectations for the values conversation.
Here’s where some directness comes in handy. Explain to your client that you’re embarking on a collaborative journey, and understanding their inner compass is crucial for a successful partnership. Be clear: “Knowing what matters most to you, your values, allows me to tailor our decisions to your unique goals and aspirations.”
Don’t shy away from defining values for them. Explain that they’re the “whys” behind our actions, the beliefs that motivate and guide us. You can even say, “I want to understand how you navigate the world, so let’s explore your guiding principles.”
A quick values exercise can be a great accompaniment to this explanation. Some advisors get creative with visual animations, but I prefer a simple approach. I’ve found that a sheet with a curated list of values-based words can be a powerful icebreaker. Let your client choose the five that resonate most deeply and discuss them together. Not only does this initiate the conversation, but it also provides a concrete starting point for further exploration.
Clarity of purpose is the goal. By explaining why you’re asking about values and how it benefits them, you instill trust and invite authentic engagement. This initial spark of understanding can ignite a journey of discovering not just financial solutions but the deeper meaning behind their goals.
4. Letting Clients Define What It Means to Be Seen, Heard, and Understood
Being seen, heard, and understood is not a given for anyone. But this is particularly true for individuals in society who are underrepresented or marginalized, especially in the wealth management or financial advisory space. Advisors should know they’re going to have clients who aren’t going to feel seen, heard, and understood right away, and it will require some conscious effort to make them feel that way. Clients aren’t going to open up about their values if they’re not feeling comfortable with you.
Start with a simple, powerful question: “What makes you feel truly seen in the world?” For some, the answer will be easy, as they’re accustomed to feeling unseen. Put yourself in the shoes of a woman walking into a traditionally male-dominated financial environment and not feeling heard or understood. When that’s you, as soon as you hear those words, you immediately connect with them, and you’ll be able to easily communicate what you need to feel understood. Others may be more unfamiliar with the question or may have never considered it. However, it’s still valuable for them to ponder what they need to feel recognized and included. I believe this question can go far in establishing trust with clients, particularly with those who have wanted to hear those words but never encountered a service professional who had the courage to ask.
Feeling like a part of the process matters profoundly. Even a meticulously crafted financial plan can fall flat if the client feels excluded or unseen.
eMoney research echoes this. Among all the ways advisors can strive to understand their clients, clients report their cultural values are the least understood.1 Asking these kinds of questions can help get to those cultural values, especially for individuals who are traditionally underserved or excluded from financial services. These questions will start to surface those cultural values in a meaningful way, giving advisors a chance to better serve these individuals and help them feel seen, heard, and understood.
Starting the Values Conversation on the Right Foot
After setting the stage for values, when clients feel comfortable with you and trust you, the conversation will start to flow naturally. It’s that initial period of getting to values where things can be tricky.
Lean on broad, open-ended questions, work to earn client trust and comfort, be clear on why values are important in the planning process, and ask clients what they need to feel seen, heard, and understood. If you do these things, you’ll be setting yourself and your client up for a long, successful relationship.
1. eMoney Beyond the Plan Research, July 2023, n=504 advisors, n=1,003 end-client investors
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