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How I Learned about Personalizing My Client Relationships

A while ago, before I became a financial planner, my mother said to me, “I need a financial planner, how do I find one?”  While I was planning to eventually become a financial planner, I wanted to hire a professional for my mother. 

So I found several financial planners from the National Association of Personal Financial Advisors (NAPFA), the world’s largest organization of fee-only financial planners.  I found a planner who charged a reasonable fee, and we hired her to do our financial plan.

I told my mother that I had found a planner, but that she was in Tampa, which was about 30 miles away.  My mother lives in a small, rural town outside Tampa, so she had to drive to the meeting.  Also, any meeting in Tampa meant that she had to ‘get dressed up.’  Not dressed up like changing from pajamas to sweat pants.  I mean, like church clothes.  I would never consider going to Tampa to be a formal affair, but my mother did, just like my grandmother before her. 

When I asked my mother why she got dressed up for the appointment, she told me, “We’re going to Tampa, so it must be an important meeting.”  I could also tell that my mother was nervous, especially as we made our way into the corporate center for the first time. 

The financial planner helped us by using the typical two-meeting process.  Basically, it goes like this:

  • Information-gathering meeting; collect check for ½ total planning fee
  • Financial planner takes information and generates a financial plan
  • Recommendations meeting; collect remaining fee

In the first meeting, we met, and the planner asked my mother questions about her goals, concerns, issues, and other things.  Basically, just trying to figure out my mother’s relationship with money.  At the end of the meeting, we turned over a list of the documents that she had asked for in advance, as well as half the planning fee.

A few weeks later, we scheduled our second appointment, also known as the ‘recommendations appointment.’  Our planner had taken the ‘numbers,’ as well as my mother’s questions, concerns, goals, and objectives (all of which were conveniently boiled down into a series of sterile questionnaires) and generated a financial plan.

And it was a nice plan!  It was in a pretty binder with colorful charts and pictures.  So many charts!  And our appointment outlined the analysis, with data and calculations.  So much data!  It also included investment recommendations and a nice step-by-step action plan. 

My mother graciously accepted the plan, paid the remaining fee, and said, “Thank you.”  As we left the planner’s conference room, my mother handed me the binder and said, “I’m never going to look at this again.  Instead, you’re going to tell me what I need to do.”  And I’ve been helping my mother ever since.

So when I started working with clients, I kept a couple of things in mind:

  • If financial planning is about trust, how could I expect clients to trust me if they were nervous to meet with me? 
  • If financial planning appointments are inconvenient, how could I expect my clients to keep them?

Coincidentally, I started working with clients while I was still on active duty.  As a result, I usually met with them in the evenings or weekends at their home.  During these appointments, I noticed a couple of things:

  • My clients were more comfortable meeting with me.  In contrast to my mother, intimidated by meeting in a professional space, I was meeting clients in their place of convenience, which made meetings more comfortable.
  • I was able to learn a lot about my clients simply by looking around the home.  Observing things like pictures, books, and home furnishings gave me insights on my clients.  This in turn led me to know what questions I needed to ask.  Which then led to better conversations.  Which led finally to better financial planning.
  • The only person who could show up late or without paperwork was me.  After all, it was the client’s home. 
  • Meeting with a client in their home actually instilled trust AND made it easier for them to meet with me. 

Some of my clients were (and still are) remote engagements, either by phone, Facetime, or Skype.  This led me to another realization:

  • Being able to meet remotely helps my clients and me maintain our communications when face to face discussions aren’t practical. 

To this day, I do the following:

  • Meet clients at their place of convenience. 
  • Schedule generous amounts of time for appointments.  That way, I don’t have to cut short a conversation that a client wants to have or shortchange any discussions that I feel are important.
  • I rarely schedule more than 2 client appointments per day:  one in the morning, and one in the afternoon. 

I do have an office.  But it is a home office where I do my administrative and non-client facing work.

In the grand scheme of things, meeting with clients at their home or place of work isn’t scalable.  I definitely can’t work with hundreds of clients and drive to every single place.  That’s why most financial planners have their own offices—so their clients drive to them.  In fact, many financial planners have told me, “You can’t build a practice as big as you want by doing that.  At some point, you’ve got to become more efficient.” 

I’m pretty sure my mother didn’t appreciate being part of an ‘efficient’ financial planning process.  And while people can appreciate efficiency, I’ve never met a client who appreciates the shortcuts that professionals take in the name of efficiency.  You know, like not remembering their names, or not having that personal touch.

I guess I can’t build a practice as big as they want.  But having that personal touch will allow me to build the practice that I want and that my clients want me to have.  And that’s what really matters.

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