When financial markets are scary—like now— you can often help your clients the most by simply listening to them.
The market volatility lately can be scary for everyone, but it’s probably particularly unnerving for some of your clients. They may never have experienced this kind of decline, or maybe they’re nervous about whether their portfolio is going to come back. In those situations, financial professionals may feel tempted to jump in and start talking about various options and products, and then keep on talking. That’s a huge mistake.
If you want to build a strong relationship with people, you need to become a better listener so you can empathize with clients as individuals and understand their unique financial goals and objectives. That’s true in any market, because money is an emotional topic for many clients. It can dredge up powerful feelings, and many clients are probably talking more directly about money with you than they do with anyone else in their lives. In fact, the inability to talk about money is something that prevents people from seeing a financial professional in the first place. So merely by sitting down with you, most people have already taken a leap of faith, and one that you should acknowledge.1
But the need to listen and empathize is especially critical right now, when many clients may be tempted to sell into a down market—or make other rash decisions. If you can take the time to understand their perspectives by really listening, you can build the kind of client relationships that last. The good news is that virtually everyone can get better at listening if they keep a few key principles in mind.
First, take away all distractions when you meet or have a call with someone. You may think you can multitask but doing so sends a clear signal that your attention is divided. When meeting in person, mute your phone (or better yet, put it away), fold up your laptop, and put away any papers on your desk. Simply taking these steps reinforces to clients that they have your full attention.2 If an in-person meeting isn’t possible and you’re talking to a client over the phone—increasingly likely these days—the same principles apply: Make sure that your environment is free of distractions. Schedule calls when you’re in your office and focused, not while you’re driving or doing something else. If you’re using videoconferencing technology, make sure it’s 100% reliable, without any delays, glitches, or echoes. Anything that distracts you or the client works against you.
When clients are talking, don’t interrupt or finish their sentences for them. Make eye contact, paraphrase what they’ve said to make sure you’ve fully understood it and ask follow-up questions.
Often, it’s not what people say but how they say it that truly matters. Only about 7% of information comes through a person’s words. The rest comes from non-verbal cues, like body language, facial expression, and voice quality.1 By paying attention to these aspects, you can often discern more about what a client really means.
Critically, suspend all judgment about every aspect of what you hear. Many clients feel vulnerable when they sit down with a financial professional. They have to talk through topics they may not know a lot about. (Even the math may be off-putting for some people.) And many feel like they’re going to be assessed based on their financial situation and the choices they’ve made in the past. These include things like how much they’ve saved, how much credit card debt they carry, or how they can move on after a painful divorce.3
Rather than jumping straight into sales mode, ask about clients’ families, their most recent vacations, their hobbies and their passions, and be genuinely curious. Open-ended questions are more likely to get a discussion rolling. This kind of listening will likely lead to longer discussions than you may be used to. It also may have a nonlinear payoff—some discussions don’t always lead to a specific answer. But by taking time in this way, you can build trust, so that any recommendations and solutions you do offer, once the time is right, will get a better reception.
At a time when the equity markets are setting records for declines and increases, listening skills among financial professionals are more important than ever. By focusing on your clients and truly listening as they talk through their financial objectives—and even their financial fears and anxieties—you can reinforce that you’re the right person to help them achieve those goals, regardless of what happens in the market.
1 Dr. Barbara Nusbaum, “Create Empathy. Create a Better Client Relationship,” Hartford Funds, February 2020.
2 Márta Borbála Király, “5-Minute Finance: Building Relationships Through Empathy,” InsuranceNewsNet, April 26, 2019.
3 “The Financial Advisor’s Irreplaceable Power in the New Market: Empathy,” Advice Chaser, Aug. 2, 2019.
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