As a person whose professional life is all about coaching and training advisors, I am frequently asked, "What's the most important thing I can do to be more successful?" The answer is that you must improve your people (or interpersonal) skills.

Your success as a financial advisor has more to do with this than you'd think, and in fact, it's often more important than your technical expertise. Of course, it's good to have both. But in the current economic climate, it's your people skills that set you apart. They allow you to demonstrate empathy for the pain your clients may be feeling as they make a mental and emotional transition to their new economic reality. Such skills also make it more likely clients will act on your advice. It's your people skills that can help you help your clients adjust their goals and financial time horizons.

A knack for communication will also help you engage people who might make more ideal clients. As a skilled communicator, you can learn to more effectively find referrals and make follow-up connections-making sure more of the clients you're seeking out are the ideal ones.

What if you're not a natural people person? Don't worry about that. The problem with the "natural people person" anyway is that he or she tends to talk too much. Talking skills are not the same as people skills.
But how do you develop this flair for people if you are new to our business? And how do you polish your people skills if you've allowed them to get a bit rusty?

There are three key things to remember: Ask good questions. Listen with empathy. And when it's your turn to talk, be able to articulate your ideas and your advice with conviction so your clients and prospects respond. It also helps if you genuinely care. It's hard to fake liking people.

For referrals, your people skills are invaluable. In fact, regardless of the way you currently prefer to seek out new clients, sooner or later you're going to have to talk to a human being. The more you do it, the better you get. Over the past 20 years, I've seen several studies about how people with money meet their financial advisors. And typically, 90% or more say it's through a referral. (The remaining 10% meet professionals through cold calls, direct mail, drip marketing, seminars, advertising or radio shows.)

Of course, I'm not telling you anything you don't already know. No doubt, you've read the same research. I'm simply proposing that you finally suck it up and get good at actually asking for referrals and making the follow-up calls. Can you think of anything more intelligent than becoming good at meeting new ideal clients the way they say they want to be met?

There are also critical reasons to give these skills more consideration now, given the current market turmoil. You might have been able to get away with not-so-intelligent marketing in the old economy, but the new world is far less forgiving. And it will be your people skills that have the biggest impact on your search for new clients, because your cost per "ideal client" is the lowest when you acquire them by referral. Can you think of a better time than now to implement the most effective and least expensive way to find those clients who are right for you?

Improving Your People Skills

At first, these "muscles" may be weak. But with constant exercise, they become strong. Being a financial advisor, you're likely the sort to seek a formula that produces a predictable result. So the key is to have a process. Thus you should be able to do the following things when talking with clients or prospects:

Ask good questions
Listen with empathy
Resist the temptation to talk about yourself and/or what you do and how you do it
Ask more good questions
Continue to listen with empathy
Continue to not talk about yourself or what you do and how you do it
Lather. Rinse. Repeat. (The sound advice you find on the back of the shampoo bottle)

Say something relevant to them when it's your turn to talk and try to offer something of value, whether or not they ever do business with you.