One thing is for sure, with the recent market downturn it's become a lot easier to keep up with the Dow Joneses. 

Jokes aside, like many of you I received numerous calls and emails from clients, family members, and the media about the market's recent downturn. I told them I've been sleeping like a baby every night... in other words, waking up every hour crying.

But seriously, folks ... during market corrections like this, advisors have a perfect opportunity to break away from all the economic news and turmoil and develop a deeper, more meaningful relationship with clients instead of one based solely on investment performance. Adding personality to your practice and client relationships, though, must be done in the right manner or it could send the wrong signal and even damage relationships. There are two simple ways to accomplish this: 1) sharing a personal story that has had a profound impact on your life and 2) adding a dash of humor to lighten the mood.

Personal Stories
Sharing a personal story is a great way to engage your clients, and a chance for them to see more of what makes you tick. Doing so opens a path of communication for them to likewise share an important aspect of their life, and who knows, they just may share your story with others (think referrals).  

A great way to uncover a personal story to share with clients, putting them at ease and shedding a more personal light on you, is to think about:
  Events and situations that led you to this industry, and why you're still in it
  Financial, investment, or retirement planning lessons you have learned the hard way
  Seemingly impossible personal or professional situations you have overcome.

Take the lessons learned and use them to illustrate the attitude you bring to the office every day, the way you service clients, or how you deal with the adversity brought on by yet another media-frenzied market collapse.

But story-tellers beware. Make sure your story creates the right impression. Don't expose yourself to concerns about your background, capacity or future.  For example, you may want to avoid describing the lessons you learned as a D+ student, or from a drunk-driving ticket, divorce, or bankruptcy.  I'm not saying these aren't great stories or lessons learned, but play it safe when sharing experiences.  Save these stories for your autobiography, E-True Hollywood story, or A&E special.  

A personal story, which I share with clients during times like these, took place early in my career when I had an opportunity to meet with my first millionaire, a 78 year-old widow. I was certain this meeting would reveal some enlightening information that would set me on my own path to riches. As our conversation progressed, I was finally able to ask the million dollar question, "What was the best investment you ever made?"   Expecting to hear she had invested heavily in real estate, knew Sam Walton, or had kids hooked into Microsoft, I was shocked when without hesitation she replied, "my Craftmatic Adjustable Bed.  It always brings me a great night's sleep."  That brought me down to earth in a hurry. I probably should have asked if she owned "The Clapper," too.

It helped me realize that life - at any stage - isn't defined by money, investments, or a net worth, but rather by the Craftmatics - the things you see and do every day that keep you happy and fulfilled.

I believe in this method of thinking and try to impart it to my clients at a financial level as well. In fact, it's one of the reasons why part of the portfolios I design for clients contain products and services that they and millions of others use every day.  This point is important because when developing your story, it's important to find a way to connect your story to the client and their account.  By connecting your experience with their portfolio, they perceive a personal benefit and thus receive added value during a difficult time.  

Using Humor
I recently wrote that the debt ceiling talks reminded me of Fred Sanford faking a heart attack.  "You hear that, Elizabeth? I'm coming to join ya, honey!"  Essentially suggesting that the politicking was all for show and attention.  My analogy emerged from extensive research of past debt ceiling talks and government shutdowns.  Additionally, I made sure not to violate my three critical rules for using humor with clients:
1)    Never joke about a client's children, even if they initiate the sarcasm
2)    Never joke about their money, net worth or account balance
3)    Never joke about your ability to manage it.

Using humor with clients can be more of a slippery slope than sharing personal stories because it's hard to know what an individual client thinks is "funny".  Times like these are challenging and many people are in need of a dose of humor, but before exposing yourself to your ultimate critic think carefully about the timing and the context of the humor you plan to use.   Here's a couple of jokes I avoided using because they imply something negative about account balances and my ability to add value during tough times:

"How can you end up with a million dollars in the stock market?  Start with two!"

"If you had purchased $1,000 of shares in Delta Airlines one year ago, you would have $49.00 today. If you purchased $1,000 of shares in AIG, you would have $33.00. If you purchased $1,000 of shares in Lehman Brothers, you would have $0.00 today. But, if you purchased $1,000 worth of beer, drank all the beer, turned in the aluminum cans for recycling, you would have $214.00. Therefore the best current investment plan is to drink heavily and recycle."

The wrong kind of humor or bad timing can easily backfire.  Obviously advisors don't want clients to think they're not taking a situation like the S&P downgrade seriously.  Therefore, I suggest using humor only after providing solid facts and statistics, which you can regurgitate while simultaneously chewing gum and patting your head.  By separating research from opinion, you're better positioned to relate a subsequent humorous analogy or comment without being offensive or perceived as not taking things seriously.  

This week I incorporated the two comments at the beginning of this article into my newsletter and blog.  Prior to that, however, I sent out two serious and well-researched emails.  I also conducted several hand-holding phone calls detailing our stance on the market, its historical relevance, and our view for the second half of the year.   By first calming their fears materially, I felt comfortable revealing my sense of humor as a means of further easing their concerns in a genuine way. Advisors who use humor first and without ample support, run the risk of glossing over client concerns and creating relationship barriers.

Market downturns can be gut wrenching and time consuming for advisors, but they can also be a great time to draw your clients closer and allow them to see their planner or advisor as more than just a stuffed shirt.  Personal stories and small doses of humor can serve as an ideal means to accomplish this. To do it successfully, though, be sure to create a story that has relevancy to the client, and that the timing and context of the humor is positioned properly.  

Robert Laura is president of SYNERGOS Financial Group, author of Naked Retirement ( and co-founder of Laura can be reached at 888-267-1138.