International speaker and author John Maxwell wrote, “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” This was recently confirmed to us by a new client. She was asked the discovery questions we ask all of our new clients at their first meeting. Questions such as, “What was your family like when you were growing up?” “How are you affected by the money messages you got from your mother and father?” “What is your first memory of money?” And other questions that help us understand our client’s money history and attitudes. At the end of that meeting, our new client told us that we knew more about her in one hour than her previous advisor had known in five years. His relationship with her, she recounted, was to try to impress her by inundating her with his technical knowledge. As she told us, he didn’t seem to care about her as a human being. Our process communicated to her that we did. That is why she fired him and hired us.

A couple of years ago, one of our clients was interviewed by a consumer financial magazine about his relationship with his financial planner. One of the questions he was asked was, “What questions would you ask prospective financial planners to help you select the right one?” He answered, “It’s not the questions you ask them that matter, it’s the questions they ask you.”

When journalists ask me what a consumer should look for when choosing a financial planner, I also advise them that the questions you are asked will reveal a great deal about the type of planner you will be hiring. If the first questions you are asked are about how much money you have, the income you make or the insurance you own, it is likely that the planner cares more about your money than they do about you. You should keep searching until you find someone who seems generally interested in you as a person. Of course, technical competence is extremely important and should also be explored. But in my opinion, when the first questions asked are about your net worth, that should be a disqualifying factor.

I have encountered different types of financial advisors. One type is very uncomfortable with establishing relationships, and may in fact care more about technical knowledge and much less about who the client is. This advisor believes that superior knowledge and advice are all that is necessary to obtain and retain clients. This, most likely, is the type of advisor who was encountered by our new female client. However, if this planner attempts to project himself as someone who really cares about the client, it is likely that he will be unsuccessful, since caring is impossible to fake.

Our firm once hired an advisor from another company and we were training him on our discovery process. We did live rehearsals where he asked some of our employees discovery questions. It was obvious to us that he did not care about the answers he was receiving or, more disturbing, the people he was asking. As they were recounting incidents in their lives, he was looking at the paper for the next question. While he may have been somewhat successful in another environment, he was not a fit for our firm.
Another time, at a conference, I actually heard a financial advisor tell an audience that if one of her clients began talking about personal issues in her office, she would tell him or her it was not appropriate for the work she was doing. And it’s not only the field of financial advice where relationships are a problem. I once heard an executive from the famed retailer Nordstrom speak about the company’s personnel policies. To my surprise, he confessed that his company experienced a high turnover among employees in their first three months of employment. The selection program was intensive, but the company had no way of knowing whether these new employees truly cared about people. It was only by observing them in their work environment that they knew. And you cannot train that in anyone, he said. You either like and care about people or you don’t. People who don’t like people cannot work for Nordstrom.

There is another type of advisor who does truly care about people and values the relationship more than the technical knowledge. However, for some reason he believes it is not appropriate to ask the types of personal questions that a financial life planner should ask. So he emphasizes the quantitative aspects of planning. In many cases, this planner will still establish strong relationships, but it may take years. He may even lose some clients, who will find someone with a clear process that demonstrates their care. We would highly recommend that this type of advisor adopt a discovery process to establish strong relationships in the early stages of the engagement.

Before we implemented our process, we were this type of advisory. We prided ourselves on the relationships we had developed over the years with some of our clients. But we knew that there was something missing. We wanted to establish these connections much earlier, and wanted to create these relationships with all of our clients. What we discovered over the years is that the knowledge we obtain from the questions we ask simply makes us better planners. It helps us concentrate on what is truly important to our clients and helps us remove obstacles that have stood in the way of their financial success.

Recently, we were told by some clients at their review meeting that they had been searching for years for an advisor who truly cared about them—who they were and what was important to them. Many have given them lip service; it was obvious that the advisors were more interested in their money than their lives. The clients had just about given up on the idea such an advisor actually existed—until they met us. We were touched by this, and it was a validation that what we do is truly appreciated by the people we serve. While our approach has certainly been successful for our firm and helped us retain clients, the real reward is the knowledge that we are helping people achieve their goals and live lives free from worries about money.

Of course, markets can be extremely volatile, and no one enjoys the roller coaster ride. However, when your clients know that you understand and care about them and their uniqueness, they are much more likely to take your advice during these periods. You could produce charts and graphs that show the history of markets and how they recover, but they may have limited success if the clients believe you are more interested in retaining their business than helping them cope. They don’t necessarily need to know how much you know, they need to know how much you care.

Roy Diliberto is the chairman and founder of RTD Financial Advisors Inc. in Philadelphia.