Start connecting with clients on "what is" and "what will be"--not just on "what might be."

My friend Gary recently called me after experiencing a first-time meeting with a financial advisor from an insurance company. Gary had scheduled the appointment because of some risk management issues weighing on his mind. He said that this fellow engaged first in the predictable and ceremonial chitchat about family and hobbies and then casually turned the conversation to business with the lead-in, "So, tell me, Gary where do you see yourself five years from today?"
    Gary, a seasoned sales professional himself, commented to me regarding this ubiquitous and banal question, "Every emotional cell in my being shut down. That question was so artificial and contrived--I just knew it was right out of the training manual."
    Gary politely ended the meeting.
    Gary, who is in his early fifties, finished his story with this epilogue, "This guy wants to come in here and talk to me about pie-in-the-sky, but hey, I've got some real life issues right in front of my nose. The first of which is not losing what has taken me over 30 years to build. I'm much more interested in protecting than I am in accumulating at this point."

Bad Psychology

Why has the financial services industry tried to operate contrary to years of documented psychological research? For example, take Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, as fundamentally sound an idea as you will find for effectively approaching people's issues. Maslow discovered that people cannot and will not address higher-level emotional needs until the lower level needs are met. Survival is the most basic need of all. Once survival is ensured, then a person is ready to move up the pyramid toward meeting safety needs, helping those they love, addressing self-esteem issues and finally ascending this thing called self-actualization, which is closely correlated to goals.

Whether through ignorance, misguidance or hubris, the financial services industry routinely trains its advisors to fly right past the first four levels in Maslow's Hierarchy and establish a relational premise on goals! What is the point of this? As the above example with Gary so well illustrates, the advisor, by hopscotching to the top of the pyramid and flying right past the important safety issue that was driving Gary's concerns, missed an irretrievable opportunity for establishing a relationship.

Most of your clients need a conversation on the first two steps of the pyramid. They are facing important survival questions such as, "Will I outlive my money?" If they have been at a career for 20 years or more, they are pondering safety issues like, "How do I protect the gains I've made?" They are also facing issues regarding those they love, such as, "How can I help my parents and my children?"

Laughter From The Heavens

"Focus on your clients' goals." "Find out where they want to be." "Help them achieve their dreams." Such phrases have become half-mantra, half cliché in the modern advisory world. If you're smart, you'll build your client conversations around something other than the proverbial pie-in-the-sky and focus on what really matters in the undeniable here and now.

Fragile, fickle and frivolous whimsical musings and capricious contexts are no place to build the foundation for a lifetime advisory relationship. While there is certainly a place for a goals conversation, I just don't believe it is in the initial stage of the relationship.

There is also some industry baggage around this "What are your goals and dreams?" conversation, as it has been routinely used as a launching pad for cheap salesmanship by people masquerading as advisors. A better place than goals to commence a lasting conversation is in the realm of transitions, changes, passages and concerns--the here-and-now episodes your clients are encountering on the road of life.

It's a matter of focusing on what is happening instead of what we want to happen. It has been said, "If you want to make God laugh, tell Him your plans." Life is what happens while we are making our plans. Do we want to anchor our relationships on the events that will happen or on those that might happen? We better think about it, because our answer today will determine whether we exist on a foundation of rock or sand ten years from now.

Connect on the basis of the inevitable--not just on wishful thinking. The simple truth is that a lot of your clients' goals are not going to come to pass. Life is going to get in the way. Parents are going to age and need assistance, thereby restricting your clients logistically and financially. There are going to be health challenges. Children are going to grow up, move on, move back, and continue to bring challenges into your clients' lives. Companies are going to "change directions," pensions are going to be halved (or disappear altogether in some cases), and entire professions are going to become automated.

The best-laid investment plans and the markets are not obliged to go along with our goals and hopes. The only thing that is certain in life is that life will certainly change. And while life is changing direction, it is not necessarily taking its cues from our turn signal or intentions.