Richard Beckel was recently quoted in an article in Financial Advisor: “…as business owners, financial advisors need to connect with their clients on an even deeper emotional level than they have ever had to before.” Beckel advises emphasizing client goals, not the advisor’s performance.

In other words, focus on your clients by making them front and center in everything you do. In the second edition of Your Client’s Story: Know Your Clients and the Rest Will Follow, Scott West and I argue that even before discussing goals with clients, you need to understand their history and transitions.

Think of it this way. You wouldn’t begin a client conversation with, “How are you, and how much do you have?” If you did, chances are that client would no longer be your client! You first need to establish context by delving into their history and what they are currently going through.

Numbers and facts tell us what a client has, but they don’t tell us the rest of the story: how hard they worked; what they had to sacrifice; who inspired them; the hardships they overcame; and the pain and joy they experienced during the journey. Each client is unique. Uncovering this context requires curiosity––something that cannot be found on a printed application or checklist.

The financial services industry has done a good job at developing tools for obtaining quantitative information from clients, processing that information, and then spitting that information back in a report or plan. But qualitative information—the experiences, principles, and deepest hopes and fears of those clients—are often left to whim or chance. Without qualitative information, quantitative information loses its value–-and any plan you put together is a disservice to your client.

Focusing on goals first is premature. Both you and your clients will be better off if you rethink the order of how you conduct your discovery:

First: Learn your client’s history (where they’ve been).
Second: Identify their transitions (where they are now).
Third: Identify their goals (where they’d like to go).

Goals discovery is a critical part of any financial plan, but it should be the “caboose” in the conversation instead of the “engine.” How often have you seen clients whose lives are filled with so many issues impeding their financial progress that their goals never materialize? By understanding their history and transitions, you’ll be able to proactively address those issues and how they impact goals.

How can you claim to know your clients if you cannot articulate their most important principles and philosophies regarding money and investing? And without knowing them, how can you put together the most effective and impactful plan? Playing the role of biographer can help you learn about your client’s history and the transitions they are experiencing—and how those things impact and influence their goals: “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 this client or prospect responds with, “No, I just want to buy a bond fund,” either help them find the best bond fund possible or let them know that you might not be the best advisor for them. My bet is that most people will not only be willing to engage in this sort of financial life dialogue, they will welcome it.

An easy way to remember how to conduct this dialogue is by developing a Listening EAR:

  1. Establish context/gain permission. Establish context for what you’re about to ask, such as, “We’ve learned it’s very important for us to understand your financial experiences so far; would you mind if I asked you a couple of questions along these lines?”
  2. Ask the question. Assuming they respond positively, you’ve gained permission to ask away (If they don’t answer positively, that may be a sign they aren’t a good fit for you).
  3. Respond reflectively. Respond to the stories and perspectives they share with you in a way that leads back to the value you can bring: “Based on what you told me, maybe we should look into doing the following…[your suggestion here].”

If you are intent on knowing your clients, you can go miles in minutes with properly designed questions and casually segue into more meaningful conversations by saying something like, “I was thinking as I was preparing for you to come in today that 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 be affecting your financial life?’” Most people can’t resist the opportunity to talk about their story—and you are now making a more meaningful connection to their life while also gathering critical information (the context) you may not have gotten otherwise.

Put yourself in your clients’ shoes. How many people are informed enough about their life to see past what they do, to why they do it? How many people are informed enough of their material life to see past what they have, to how they achieved it, and what they really want out of it? How many people are informed enough about their life to see past their profession and job title and know what really motivates them in work and in life? The people who know these things about themselves fall into two categories: those who have grown up with them (i.e., friends and family) and those who have taken the time to learn about them (i.e., their financial advisor).

As an advisor, you will find that your sincere inquiry into the qualitative aspects of your clients’ and prospective clients’ lives will produce more than income—it will create lasting relationships, friendships…and clients for life. And the best news of all: you will be doing so knowing you have helped them meet their goals.