"It all starts with a conversation. You might want to grab a chair, because you'll be asked about your fondest aspirations for yourself and your family, your feelings about where you are and where you hope to be and, of course, your fears, and the things that might prevent you from getting what you want."
Think this catchy quote originates from the mouth of an independent advisor who's learned that true financial planning goes well beyond the numbers? If so, you'd be wrong. It comes from the Web site of none other than Smith Barney.
Similar sentiments emanate from the competition in a variety of forms. On UBS' Web site an unseen rep says, "As a financial advisor, my goal is to help clients pursue their financial objectives and live their dreams." Yet we find no evidence to suggest that the UBS wealth management process is anything other than business as usual. At Van Kampen Investments, several vice presidents come together to write a book entitled Get Inspired to Retire: Over 150 Ideas to Help Find Your Retirement, presumably designed to spark retirement revelations among the firm's clients who read it. Wachovia creates its Envision system, hailed as an innovative process for deepening advisor-client relationships but which, on closer examination, is little more than a Monte Carlo-based retirement calculator much like those that independent advisors have used for more than a decade.
Isn't any big-box firm walking the talk? Actually, Ameriprise Financial probably comes the closest with its Dream Book. The Dream Book, in case you're one of those weirdos who shuns T.V., is advertised in prime time by Easy Rider star Dennis Hopper, a pre-boomer, as the embodiment of Ameriprise's catch-phrase: "Dreams Don't Retire." The Dream Book is the company's apparent attempt at life planning.
A small-format, spiral bound book with questions and spaces for answers, interspersed with photographs, the Dream Book inspires a financial planning client to think more deeply than he otherwise might about retirement. One photograph shows a boomer couple trekking somewhere with a couple of llamas, an anonymous quote hovering above their heads: "It's not just about return on investments, it's about return on life."
A little transparent, perhaps, but effective, says Derrick Kinney, a senior financial advisor with Ameriprise. "I started using the Dream Book as soon as it came out-maybe two years ago-and it's resonated with our clients, helping them understand the importance of putting dreams behind the numbers." Kinney, who says he'd been asking clients questions similar to those posed by the Dream Book for years before it became available, adds, "The Dream Book has given me a more organized approach."
Does using the Dream Book require training? "No," says Kinney. "It simply helps the advisor take a renewed interest in people as individuals and not just as pocketbooks. Baby boomers want people to understand them first, and money second."
Indeed, the Dream Book starts with general questions about retirement, moves on to focus on the client's hobbies and other potential time-filling retirement activities, wanders through the landscape of geographical preferences and health considerations, and ultimately settles on passion, with questions like, "If you had only five years left to live, how would you spend those years?" In fact, that particular question is probably the reason many have likened the Dream Book process to life planning-the question sounds a lot like one in a series of questions popularized by George Kinder of the Kinder Institute of Life Planning (www.kinderinstitute.com).
Not so, say company representatives. The Dream Book and its questions are the outgrowth of The New Retirement Mindscape, a study by Ameriprise Financial in conjunction with Age Wave, Ken Dychtwald, Ph.D., and Harris Interactive Inc., which concludes that a fulfilling retirement combines a wide range of variables such as having a clear vision of retirement goals as well as financial preparedness.
So, is the Dream Book life planning or not? Christopher Olsen, an Ameriprise Financial advisor whose firm is Olsen and Associates of Lodi, Calif., has completed Kinder's two-day and five-day training courses and uses his life planning skills as well as the Dream Book with clients. Says Olsen, "Ameriprise isn't making an offer to do life planning. The Dream Book simply moves the conversation to a level that's more about the client's life." He says the training he's received as a life planner and his use of the Dream Book are complementary.
Olsen relates a client story to illustrate his point. "The client I saw last night answered a Dream Book question indicating she wanted security because, although she has plenty of money, she doesn't feel financially secure. Another advisor might read her answer and dismiss it by saying to the client, 'You have plenty of money, so don't worry.' Instead, I questioned her response." Olsen asked his client, "What might have happened in your life around security?" That's when she told him, "My husband left me when I was very young." "Anything else," Olsen asked? "And my dad died when I was a teenager ... and we were destitute." "Do you think that could affect your sense of security?" Olsen asked his client? She answered, "Yes, that's a good point."
An advisor experienced in using the Dream Book, but not life planning trained, might have stopped short of asking the questions that would allow his client to begin to understand that her fears were irrational.
Surprisingly, Kinder sees the Dream Book in a broader context than does Olsen. "Life planning is a general term for all the tools we use on the human side of money," he says, "so the Dream Book fits there." But where the Dream Book ends and life planning begins is in the realm of training. "Another definition of life planning, the way we think about it, is that it's an aspect of the financial planning profession, a series of professional tasks, that lead to delivering a layer of freedom in a client's life that the client can get no other way. That series of tasks requires training to deliver, as does delivering on what the client says they ultimately want."
Kinder voices a truth that should be self-evident to most readers: "We've all made excuses for why we can't live the life of our dreams. Our training prepares an advisor to cut through all the excuses and dedicate every ounce of his or her creative and professional ingenuity to make sure the client lives that life."
What happens if the client, holding himself back from the life he wants, is confronted with the Dream Book? "He may not write down the dream he doesn't think he can have," says Kinder, "or he may shade it a particular way." To ferret out the client's dreams, advisors need training in listening skills, lighting the torch and dealing with obstacles, says Kinder. Lighting the torch, also the title of his new book with FPA Press, means capturing what's truly exciting to the client and empowering the client so that his plan becomes easy to deliver. "You may be proposing something radical, a lifestyle change, a dramatic shift ... if you've really lit the torch, your client will have so much energy around it, she'll work hard to figure out how she can do it," says Kinder. "The art form is in the conversation."
Kinder sometimes is asked to "life plan" a volunteer during his training sessions or public appearances. "In one session, my volunteer professed a deep desire to spend more time with his family." Asking the volunteer how it would feel if Kinder could deliver on that, the volunteer took a big sigh of relief and said, "I'd feel content." "I knew two things," says Kinder: "I'd done a good job, but I hadn't lit the fire. The client wasn't passionate."
Probing the volunteer further, Kinder heard him say something about fatherhood. "So I constructed a vision with much more family time and lots of fatherhood focus: 'What if we were able to do this for you?'" The volunteer turned red and said, "That would be awesome." Says Kinder, "That's when I knew I'd lit the torch. It takes training to deliver that."
"The Dream Book is designed to help advisors and clients have a more meaningful conversation about their dreams and goals than what rate of return they want to achieve," says Olsen. "Kinder is offering training for advisors that is designed to help with interpersonal skills and get to a deep understanding of all aspects of the client's life, including relationships, money, goals and other concerns. As advisors embrace tools like the Dream Book they will be asked questions that they wish they had better resources to answer. My hope is that they will then seek out training through organizations such as the Kinder Institute to be able to handle more complicated issues."
An independent financial advisor since 1981, David J. Drucker, M.B.A., CFP, has been influential in the industry for many years. Learn about his upcoming Technology Tools for Today Conference, the industry's premier technology conference for financial advisors, at www.DavidDrucker.com.