I used to have three cats, all named after Nobel prize-winning economists. When my cats passed on to that Big Economic Summit in the sky, I replaced them with two adorable Labradoodles with mundanely suitable names like Ginger and Cinnamon.

My cats flat out refused any kind of training, but I decided to get an expert trainer in positive reinforcement for the dogs. The first day we met, the trainer sat down with me and explained how this was going to work. “I don’t train dogs,” she said emphatically. “I train the owners. You need behavior modification more than they do.”

Earlier this year, I had a lively discussion with a group of institutional portfolio managers at the CFA Institute Annual Conference in Seattle. It was pretty clear to them that the world of institutional management has changed; people need management more than their portfolio does. We are increasingly beginning to realize that the soft skills of building client relationships and managing client behavior are more important than the technical skills of plan design and portfolio management. Over a decade ago, Meir Statman, professor at Santa Clara University, well known for his work in behavioral finance, wrote that 93.6% of the financial planning process is the behavioral management of the clients.

This really addresses the basis of what we do; we must know our clients. We learn to communicate with them on their terms, building a plan and an investment portfolio that recognizes their automatic decision-making biases. In his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman refers to this as “Level 1 behavior,” in other words, their instinctive behavior. There is very little we can do about it without very intentional management. In practical terms, the Level 1 behavior will take over when the advisor and client are under pressure. Pressure is present anytime clients have to make major life and financial decisions.

Most advisors will admit they can’t tell how their clients will react under pressure, although many of us spend time, energy and effort trying. We somehow believe that we can learn enough about our clients by simply observing and listening to them over time. However, the more I learn about behavioral finance, the more I realize that humans, because they are human, naturally have blind spots that can get in the way of good decisions. The problem for most advisors is how vulnerable and exposed they feel in dealing with the human issues at a deeper level. Sticking to the numbers is easier.

Over the last 10 years, I have been following the work of Hugh Massie at DNA Behavior International. Hugh believes that the financial planning life cycle is about relationship management through the behavioral management of the client, or what he refers to as “understanding people before numbers.”

Traditionally, advisors have used a risk tolerance questionnaire or some kind of risk assessment to better know their clients. We even developed our own at our firm. The problem is that many of the risk tolerance tests can produce unreliable results because the questions may be subjective, often difficult to understand and generally biased by current perceptions of the market. Even if a risk tolerance questionnaire is a good one, it still will not tell you how to communicate with the clients or help you understand what their broader predispositions are for spending, saving and goal-setting.