I’ve been helping people with their finances for a long time. Even before I established my financial planning firm in 2015, I’ve always been the ‘go-to’ person for financial questions. However, I was still on the military books until 2017, and I’m approaching my first full year as a full-time financial planner.
This article is simply a list of some observations that I’ve made based upon my experiences working with my clients. While I read a lot, much of what I’ve learned as a financial planner, I’ve learned by working with my clients. In fact, I’ve had to unlearn things that I’ve read because a lot of them don’t work.
I wanted to take some time to get these thoughts down in writing for a couple of reasons. First, if I don’t write it down, I tend to forget it. And I need to remember these important lessons.
Second, I would like people who read this to understand the type of client I feel I can help. Because those are my ideal clients—people for whom our relationship provides a tremendous value. Just as importantly, I would like people to understand the types of folks I CAN’T help. Because I’d rather help those folks to quickly decide that I’m not the person for them. That way, they can focus their efforts on finding their ideal planner. And I can focus my efforts on helping my ideal clients.
So here goes: 7 lessons I learned from working with my clients. All of whom are my ideal clients.
No matter what I think about a client’s finances, I need to solve THEIR problem first. Then we can take some time to talk about things I might feel are important.
It just so happens that the problem that brings a client in the door is different for each client. And it’s not necessarily the issue or question that they might have been talking about when they first met you.
When most people find out I’m a financial planner, they usually ask me how I recommend investments. However, when I’ve started actually working with a client, no one has EVER asked me about investments as the first part of financial planning. And if I tried to go that way, I’d lose them quickly.
Instead, we spend a lot of time talking first. I try to limit how much I talk so I can hear my client. If I ask the right questions, then I can usually help identify the real problem. Admittedly, I’m still working on this skillset.
But that doesn’t matter. Because until I help the client address the problem that made them want to hire a financial planner in the first place, what I think doesn’t matter. Once we’ve addressed that issue, THEN we can talk about things that I think we might want to work on.
Financial planning happens at the client’s pace. Never faster.
Every financial planner tries to help their clients get things done quickly. And once the recommendations are made, then they should be implemented pretty quickly. That’s all well and good, but sometimes it doesn’t work out that way for a couple of reasons:
- Just because you make a recommendation doesn’t mean the client agrees.
For example, one of my clients was sold a very expensive permanent life insurance policy a few years ago. After consulting with a reputable life insurance advisor, we concluded that we could stop paying the premiums on the current policy while obtaining a new term life insurance policy. The result would be 2-3 times the coverage at half the cost. No-brainer, right?
Well, not so fast. My client wasn’t so onboard with that. After all, there was a built-up cash value in the old policy. Even though my recommendation was sound, the new term insurance would never have cash value. That was an issue for my client.
A few months later, she started warming up to the idea of replacing her insurance policy. Then #2 happened:
- Life gets in the way.
It just does. Recommendations don’t get implemented right away (or soon, or at all) because there’s always something happening.
Emergency bills might derail a new spending plan. A sudden illness or work trip might force you to postpone a meeting. Estate planning (who wants to talk about what happens when they die?) almost always seems to get kicked down the road.
In the insurance case, my client is now onboard. However, we’ve both agreed that she would get a much lower premium if her husband stopped smoking (Hint, Hint!). We’ll be able to implement this as soon as we can get him qualified for non-smoker (and much lower) insurance rates.
It’s all part of the job. I’ve learned that it’s my job to keep track of these recommendations, listen closely, and find ways to gently remind clients about those important things.
For example, instead of pestering someone about their estate planning appointment, I might ask during an investment appointment: “Since we’re talking about your investment accounts, let’s take a quick look at your beneficiary designations to make sure they’re up to date.” Action item completed, and one less thing to worry about.
Financial planning isn’t about the price or the dollars, it’s about the value and the relationship.
Here’s where I’ll start to differentiate my ideal clients from folks who might not feel like they can work with me.
With non-ideal clients: We may have a good general discussion about their financial concerns. However, I’ll usually get asked for a quote before I have any real information about their finances. If I don’t give them a quote, they usually walk away. I have no idea what to give a quote on, because I know literally nothing about their situation. Doesn’t matter.
For what it’s worth, I’ve never walked into a doctor’s office and said, “I’m feeling sick, and my arm hurts. How much do you charge?” Kind of depends on what’s wrong. And I wouldn’t feel too good with a doctor that told me, “Doesn’t matter if you’ve got the flu and bumped your arm or if you have cancer. I’ll charge you $500.”
But that’s kind of what these folks seem to expect. And whatever the dollar value, it’s always cheaper down the road. If that’s the case, I let those potential clients go down the road. It doesn’t seem that I’ll ever be able to help them with real financial planning if they’re only concerned about price.
For example, I had a phone call with a retired military officer who spent 10 minutes gushing over how much money he was making and how much he had in savings. To hear him talk, he was printing money in his second career. But he kept asking about my fee. When I said, “I don’t know your fee right now, but my minimum fee starts at $3,000 per year,” you’d have thought I was asking for his first-born child.
Although it was apparent he was no longer interested in working with me, I later calculated his fee for my own amusement, based upon the information (think bar napkin notes) that I had. It would have been about .6% of his investable assets, or $6,000 per year. When you look at the industry average of 1% (or $10,000 per year, hidden away in various investment accounts that many clients never take the time to read), my services were a steal. And many financial planners charge 2% or more, then hide commissions on top of that!
With my ideal clients: Most of my ideal clients start talking about their problems and why they need financial advice.
If price ever comes up, I explain that I can’t give a quote without knowing more about their financial situation. I explain how I invite potential clients to talk about their issues and concerns. I look at financial documents to learn about their situation. Only then can I determine whether I can add value by working with them. If I can, I calculate a fee based upon the complexity of their finances. I take time to put together a proposal so they can see not only the price, but the value that I expect to add. This can either be actual cash (like tax savings or lowering the cost of their investments), peace of mind, or it can be both.
Assuming everyone agrees, we sign the agreements and get to work. However, in virtually every one of my client’s cases, the fee never comes up until we’re ready to sign the paperwork. One time, I had a client tell me, “I was going to sign with you, regardless of what you told me the fee was going to be.”
It just seems that when I’m able to demonstrate value, our relationship is going to be a win-win situation. And when it’s not, I’d be more than happy to introduce that person to another financial planner who might be able to serve them in a different way.
I’m a trusted advisor. But the client is the decision-maker.
Here’s another difference I’ve observed: My ideal clients ask me to help them learn more about their finances.
But sometimes there are folks who do a great deal of self-education whom I’ll never be able to help. Either they’re doing everything right (which means there’s not a whole lot of value that I can add), or we have philosophical differences that prevent us from seeing eye to eye.
Some folks tell me, “I don’t want to know anything. Just do it all for me.” Turns out that I haven’t had a whole lot of success with those folks either.
For me, the right clients are just in the middle.
But the clients whom I work best with want me to give them sound advice. Usually, they’ll tell me one of two things:
- I don’t understand this. Explain it to me.
- Understanding that is not important to me. I trust your recommendation. Let’s do it and move on to something important.
There are no biases there. There’s not a whole lot of debate. These clients hired me because they expect me to know something they don’t, and they want me to help them with getting through it. Sometimes, they want me to take the time to educate them so they can understand it. Or they don’t want to understand it because the details aren’t that important. They’d rather focus on the next thing that is important.
Sometimes clients want to be told what to do. But clients NEVER want to be told what to do without having been heard. And education counts!
Like I mentioned, there are times when clients just want to be told what to do. And those times almost always fall under the category of: “Understanding that is not important to me.” However, that recommendation might come after a very long discussion.
For example, I recently helped one of my clients find $25,000 in annuities that she thought she lost. The process was as simple as calling the life insurance company with the account numbers my client had, verifying her identity, and having the customer service representative give the updated balance. But it took a long time to get there.
First, we had 3 meetings before I even found out that these accounts existed. Then, it wasn’t until she gave me the dreaded ‘shoebox full of paperwork’ to sort through. When I took the paperwork back to my office, I found a 4-year old piece of paper with all of her account numbers (including her ‘lost’ annuities). At that point, I had enough information to feel satisfied that I could help her. However, the breakthrough didn’t happen until I heard her story.
It turns out that in her previous dealings with financial advisors, my client was always ‘the wife.’ And her husband was always the ‘breadwinner.’ In her experience, the men would do the work, and any questions she might have had were completely ignored.
This is literally how our conversation went:
Client: Someone recommended that I take my IRAs and put the money into annuities. I did that, but I’m pretty sure the insurance company took the money back.
Me: I don’t know if that’s how annuities work. Are you sure?
Her: The money’s gone. I’m not really counting on it for anything.
Me: If I could help you recover some of that money, would that make you happy?
Her: I would be ecstatic, but I’m not counting on it.
Me: From what you just told me, it seems like the only financial planners you’ve worked with have focused on your husband. But what about any issues you had?
Her: Well, they told me that they would just ‘take care of it.’
Me: Did you have questions that you wanted the advisor to answer?
Her: I did! But I didn’t want to sound dumb, so I just didn’t say anything. Besides, I didn’t have that much money. It didn’t seem like they were interested in hearing what I had to say.
Me: In other words, they just took your money, did what they felt like doing with it, ignored what concerns you had, and made you feel dumb for even trying to learn.
I was completely floored. But I learned a couple of things here:
- I knew I could help. Instantly.
- My first meeting was going to focus on three things:
- Helping my client get organized
- Helping her track down her annuities.
- Educating her on everything as we do it.
Long story short, she found her annuities, and literally asked me if she could give me a hug (Disclaimer: I live in Florida. Everyone knows that we get paid partly in sunshine. Part of my compensation is also in hugs).
But she didn’t need to know all the details about how annuities work. At some point, we’ll sit down, talk about her annuities, and figure out what we’re going to do with them. But that’s a problem that my client faces because she’s $25,000 richer than she thought she was. And I’m pretty sure she doesn’t need to know the nitty-gritty details on how annuities work…she just wants me to give her good advice.
- Feeling safe matters more than ‘results.’
Real financial planning eventually involves investments. As a result, every financial planner who gives advice on investments has to register as an investment advisor. And when you talk about investments, you eventually talk about ‘results.’ Why? Because they’re numbers. You can calculate them. You can change them around. You can make numbers say whatever you want.
But financial planning is more than just that. What if I see that you don’t have enough umbrella insurance to protect you in a lawsuit? About your will—let’s double check it and make sure your stuff isn’t going to your ex.
That’s what my ideal clients care about. While another advisor might suggest they can get superior returns on your investments, any one big hiccup might completely wipe out any of those gains. My clients understand that, especially if you feel like you don’t have that much in investments to begin with.
Even when we focus on investments, it’s not just about investing in CDs and savings bonds. It’s about having a philosophy where we mutually understand how much money we need for emergencies, and how much we can set aside for long-term investment goals. It’s about understanding that the focus is on being on the same page. To be on the same page, we have to understand the amount of risk we’re taking with those investments.
And that these investments are for the long term, regardless of what the markets do in a given week, month, or year. We don’t change course mid-stream just because the stock market dropped 500 points in a week. We stay true to our philosophy, and make slight changes to our investments periodically.
Once we’re on the same page, then we can talk about what things can possibly look like in 10, 20, or 30 years. But that’s never the first part of the conversation. Taking care of the contingencies comes first.
Sometimes, it’s okay to get uncomfortable. But a little at a time.
I know. This risks sounding creepy. A mentor of mine once said to me, “To a client, financial planning is like getting financially undressed. You’d better trust who you’re with.”
But it’s true. I hear things that none of my clients would say to their parents, their brothers or sisters, or anyone else. And that’s okay. My clients have my undivided confidentiality. Unless I’m compelled to by a judge, no one knows any personal information about any of my clients. In some cases, my clients and I have mutual friends…no one knows who is a client of mine, unless the client tells them. But that doesn’t mean that I get to know everything up front.
For example, one of my clients told me, “I’ve got $10,000 in cash in a safety deposit box.” I answered, “Are you doing anything illegal?” When she answered no, I told her, “That’s perfectly fine. As long as you know that you should disclose all income that you’ve earned, there’s nothing wrong with having cash in a deposit box.”
But that was a huge relief! She thought I was going to audit her or ask her a bunch of questions on how she got the money. Nope. As an enrolled agent, I told her that I don’t have a responsibility to report he cash in a safe deposit box…just to give her sound advice.
Later on, she told me about how she had done some consulting work previously. But she wasn’t yet comfortable getting back into it. After a nice conversation, we talked about some projects that she had previously done when she lived elsewhere. She loved doing the work, and she told me she was willing to try them again. In fact, some of those projects were fairly profitable.
But when she changed jobs and moved to a different city, she was hesitant. She didn’t think they would work the way they did before. So when I encouraged her to try them again, there was a little resistance. But after a little more talking, she got really excited! And yes, she gave me a hug at the end of our appointment.
But NONE of that would have happened without letting her control how this conversation went. And it wouldn’t have happened if we hadn’t already established some trust in previous appointments.
I feel pretty fortunate as I wrap up my first year as a full-time financial planner. Every day, I work with great clients. And when I’m not in client appointments, I make it a point to talk with as many interesting people as I can find, just to hear their unique story. And I learn something from everyone I meet with.
However, the biggest thing that I have learned from my clients is that I’m not the right fit for everyone. And that’s okay. Because I’d rather let a few possible clients go if there isn’t a good fit. That lets me have really good relationships with people where there’s a lot of value for us to uncover.
What do you think? Would you like to see if we can work together? Feel free to take that first step by scheduling a complimentary 30 minute phone call!