Originally posted at fa-mag.com by Mitch Anthony, December 1, 2022.

The financial advisory profession has done a great job getting quantitative information from clients, processing that information, and then analyzing it for reports or plans. But when it comes to finding qualitative information—knowledge about our clients’ experiences, principles and deepest hopes and fears—the industry often leaves it to whim or chance.

To fix this, we need to have a biographical mindset. The good news is that’s natural to learn. In fact, we already do it: It’s the same way we build the most satisfying relationships in our lives, which is by following natural curiosity. It means asking people about the following things (in the following order):

• Their history (where they’ve been);
• Their transitions (where they are now); and
• Their goals (where they’d like to go).

When I speak with financial services firms and ask about their qualitative inquiries into clients’ lives, I’ve found most professionals focus on the clients’ goals. But turning to goals first is premature and problematic. These should actually be the last thing you delve into. Before that, you need to ask clients about their history, the transitions they’ve made and the ones they anticipate.

Why? Because the past matters.

How often have you seen clients who will never reach those goals because of the patterns and habits they’ve already set with their money in the past? You can find this out yourself in your history inquiry. How often have you seen clients whose lives are filled with so many problems impeding their financial progress that their goals will never materialize? It’s likely you see this quite a bit.

I’m not saying that the goals questions aren’t important, but they should be at the caboose of the train. They are not part of the engine.

Besides their pasts, we also need to have a comprehensive knowledge of our clients’ present life circumstances and challenges. We’ll find great opportunities to help if we get our clients to articulate the way money affects them now.

Opening The Broader Conversation
You’re probably wondering how you even begin this conversation. In the first five to 10 minutes of your talk with a client, you should explain what you do and the role you want to play in their life.

Imagine you have a 200-piece puzzle in front of you. Are the corner pieces the most important thing to find or is it the picture on the front of the box?

I’m asking because there’s a bigger picture you have to see, and when you ask questions, your client is going to demonstrate what I call “contextual curiosity.” Think of this as something housed in the right side of their brain. They want to know, “What are you going to do that fits within the larger context of my life and my goals?” When the right side of the brain sees a shard, it wants to know what the entire relic looks like. When it hears beautiful lyrics, it wants to know the story behind them. When it sees a puzzle piece, it wants to see the whole image.

This is context. Smart communicators know that you have to address it up front, because once the audience understands context, they pay more attention to all the pieces of information that follow.

So you should ask yourself: Are you speaking to this larger context in your client presentations or are you majoring on specifics and individual pieces? It’s not enough to just explain your services. To extend the puzzle metaphor, this industry has been doing little else other than simply moving pieces around on the table for far too long without letting people see what the whole landscape is.

Take questions like these: “What rate of return are you getting?” That’s just a piece. “How much are you paying for that?” That’s just another piece.

So how do you get them started talking about the bigger things? One advisor I know asks his clients to send in a family picture before their scheduled meeting. He then has it converted into a small jigsaw puzzle and uses it to open his conversation.

If you think that sounds a little corny, keep in mind that he manages over $3 billion dollars. Maybe his understanding of context has something to do with his success.

The Means Or The End?
I met a successful financial planner who begins his meeting by asking, “Is money a means or an end for you?” He says 99% of the people he asks will call it a means—to which he answers, “If money is a means, then before I make any suggestions as to how that money be invested or managed, I need to know to what end. Would you mind if I took some time to learn more about the people and things in your life?”

From there, the conversation moves into matters that are meaningful to the client, and he’s created an emotional core for the topics he’s going to discuss.

As far as the other 1% who said money is the end, he says you may want to think twice about working with them. They can be difficult to please.

What Is Most Important To Me?
Our industry has made clients believe they should behave a certain way and talk only about certain things. Many advisors say they want to have more meaningful dialogues with their clients but then they quickly get dragged into the mundane “money stuff.” How can you pivot to a more meaningful conversation in your very first client meeting?

First, you should tell them what’s most important to you when it comes to helping them.

I took these conversation openers from one advisor I met with a robust practice:

“I’m not comfortable advising people on what to do with their money until I have a better idea of who they are. Would you mind taking some time to help me learn more about you?”

“Before we talk about where you’re going, I feel that I need to have a good idea of where you’ve been. Can I ask you a few questions about your background?”

Developing Biographies
Once you have let your clients know what you really want to talk about—their experiences, hopes, dreams, and life satisfaction—now you can play the role of biographer.

Try opening with this:

“In order for me to do a good job and to tailor my services to you and your life, I’m going to ask a few questions about you, the people important to you, and the things going on in your life. Is that OK with you?”

If the client or prospect responds, “No, I just want to buy a bond fund,” then you can either help them find the best bond fund possible—or let them know you might not be the best fit for them.

My experience, however, shows that most people are not only willing to engage in this sort of financial life dialogue but that they hunger to do so.

When advisors want to open dialogues, I tell them to do three things:

1. Establish context/gain permission.
2. Ask the question.
3. Respond reflectively.
(I call it “EAR” for short.)

After you’ve asked the question, dialogues usually begin to take on a life of their own. You’ll see the interesting aspects of their lives and perhaps find similarities with your own. And best of all, you can understand what’s meaningful to them. You may conduct your biographical information search in a session or two, or just collect pieces of your clients’ stories over time. And you should remember to offer them appreciation for the stories, thoughts and perspectives they share.

Later, through your response, you can tie what you offer in your business to what they need. I call this process anchoring—anchoring your service to their personal story. “Based on what you told me, maybe we should look into doing a few things …” and then you can show them. Contemplate what you can do as a concerned human being and as a financial professional to address any concerns they have. Is there an adjustment or addition in their plan that could help?

When I talk to advisors about this, I often hear a couple of objections:

1. I don’t have time for this.

The time issue is a myth. You have time. Listen to the conversations you already have during the day. You are likely simply trading small talk and market-speak for meaningful qualitative discussion. I’ve been conducting an experiment in the last few years that addresses this time concern.

In a workshop, I let advisors talk to each other and I allow them exactly eight minutes to learn as much as they can about each other’s stories: one question about their past, one about their present, and one about their possible future.

The results are amazing and myth-exploding—advisors say they can’t believe how much important stuff they learned in so short a time. One noted that he went through this exercise after having spent five hours with the same individual at a football game and dinner the day before. “I learned more about this guy in a few minutes with the right questions than I did all last night being together.”

If you are intent on knowing your clients, you can go miles in minutes with properly designed questions.

There’s another objection to this method:

2. What do I say to clients that I’ve had for years but never made this sort of inquiry with before?

If you have never made such qualitative inquiry into the lives of your clients, you need not be embarrassed. You can casually segue into a more meaningful conversation by saying something like, “I was thinking as I was preparing for you to come in today about the fact that I don’t know if I ever asked you where you grew up and where you went to school.”

You could also catch up with them by saying, “You know, life changes so fast for all of us. To make sure I’m up to date on all that’s happening in your life, let me ask you: Is there anything else in your personal or professional life that might impact your financial life?”

The quantitative stuff is pretty boring when stacked next to the meaningful and profound stories you will find with well-thought-out qualitative discovery. Most people can’t resist the opportunity to talk about their story—and you are now making a more meaningful connection to their life.