One of my clients, who we will call Dr. Chang, was recently in our office for an annual renewal meeting. He has been a client with our firm for over 18 years and we have had a good relationship. We had always managed about half of his investments, and he also held assets outside our firm with other managers. Occasionally, we would ask him to transfer those assets to us so we could better coordinate his planning and investments. He sometimes said he would think about it and get back to us. But the assets never moved.
Because he had been a client of ours since long before we developed our financial life planning system (and its attendant questions), we never fully explored his history. Of course, we knew he had emigrated from China as a teenager, was well-educated and had raised a successful family. Since we'd had a relationship with him for so many years and knew him so well, we didn't think it was necessary to take him through the process and ask the questions.
At this particular meeting, though, I asked if he had been to Hong Kong recently, since I knew that he sometimes traveled there. He told me he hadn't gone for several years, and for the first time I asked him about his family there. He corrected me and said his wife was the one with family there, not he. When I asked what had become of his family, he told me the story of his life as a child and teenager. His family had fled to Korea from Mainland China when the communists took control. His family members volunteered to fight in the Korean War and as a young boy he lost contact with them and never saw them again.
He then relayed a story about a benefactor who helped him move to Hong Kong, where he worked his way through high school. He saved enough money to come to the United States and got a job in a casino in Las Vegas, saved his money, went to college, and eventually got his Ph.D. He told us that the first tip he received in Las Vegas was for 25 cents and he still had the quarter. I listened intently, asked him more questions about his background, and how it affected his life and the way he raised his family. It was a fascinating conversation and it proved to me, once again, that as much as I may think I know my clients, there are probably things I don't know that I could discover if I asked the right questions.
The most improbable thing occurred the very next day. Dr. Chang called our office and asked what he needed to do to transfer all of those outside assets to our firm for management.
I can't say definitely that there was cause and effect. But since he had waited all those years to transfer the assets, it seemed highly likely to me that the story he shared and my listening to it were the reasons he decided to finally entrust us with all of his money. I had not asked him to transfer at the meeting where he told me his history.
Kerry Johnson, an author and speaker, has written, "You cannot establish trust if you cannot listen. A conversation is a relationship. Both speaker and listener play a part, each influencing the other. Instead of being a passive recipient, the listener has as much to do in shaping the conversation as the speaker."
What I did in the conversation was mostly listen. By sharing his story, Dr. Chang developed a bond with me and strengthened our relationship, as well as his trust. Apparently, transferring his assets was his way of showing it.
Of course, sharing works both ways. After that conversation, I felt closer to him than I had in the 18 years we had been working together. Knowing someone's story will have that kind of effect. My regret, of course, is that it took so long for me to really understand my client. What would have happened if I had asked him 18 years ago to tell me about his family? If I had asked the simple question, "Tell me about your life when you were growing up"?
Sharing your own story with clients can also have a profound effect. Two of my clients, Richard and Rita, were retired and had a net worth of more than $12 million. Yet they did not have enough money to maintain their lifestyle for the rest of their lives. Only $3 million was liquid and they were spending more than $350,000 a year. They were on a collision course and knew it, yet they seemed unwilling to implement the recommendations that would improve their financial condition.