How important is it for an advisor to understand the storyline of his clients' lives when entrusted with the duty of managing their wealth? Is it enough to know their numbers, their occupation and their retirement goal? According to former literary agent turned wealth manager Joanne B. Jarvi, there are stark similarities between what she did in her former career and what she does in her current capacity working in the Kansas City area.
As a literary agent, she had to sift through all manner of submissions and decide which books were worth her time and efforts to sell to a publishing house. Authors submit query letters where they are required to answer (in short order) the following questions:
What's the story?
Who are the characters?
What are the plotlines?
"I like to read and I love people, and so I became an agent-a literary agent. I like working with money, and I love people, so this business feels very much the same to me," Jarvi says, and declares that the first job of advisors is to "go out and learn what touches them."
After introducing herself as a literary agent turned wealth manager, Jarvi tells her prospects and clients that her job is kind of like writing a money memoir. "I'm going to be your editor and hopefully can help you make the story better and end the way you want it. In my other career, I could edit the story but not really influence how the story ended; but in this career, I feel I really can bring the impact necessary to affect how the story ends."
Jarvi has found that using the analogy of memoir and editor removes conversational barriers and allows the story to come out. She is asking her clients what their story is and how it developed up until this point. She is inquiring about the key characters in their story-helping to uncover who and what is motivating the clients-and then learning about the key plots that are influencing their situations at this moment in their lives.
What a perfect analogy for what the discovery process in financial life planning should be. We are facilitators of valuable assets, which are destined to support each client's key characters and plotlines. Once you strip away all the technical information and strategic approaches, the story is what this business is all about.
Too often advisors take a much-too-literal approach when they should be adopting a literary approach to understanding their clients. This approach-knowing their numbers, facts about them and strategies they like-doesn't come anywhere near the understanding of what drives them, what formed them and what their most cherished hopes might be.
Regarding the literal discovery of clients, Jarvi says, "You can learn facts about prospects and clients through the Internet. To me, it's then interesting to see what facts THEY cover when they tell their story to you." By integrating facts about themselves into their stories, clients are telling you what they want you to know about them.
It's about finding out what is important to your clients. Questions that Jarvi starts her discovery process with include the following:
"If we were going to write your life story, how would you like it to end?"
"What have been the most important parts of your life?"
"When do you remember money starting to become more important to you?"
I find this last question quite intriguing. I'd never heard the question before interviewing Joanne, but was immediately struck by the emotional archeology that could be accomplished by asking this unique question. When Jarvi asks this question, she hears stories about parents fighting about money, about being the only one in their class at school having to work, about feeling guilty after hearing parents say that only one of the siblings was going to college and it was going to be them. These rarely told stories are quite telling about a client's motivations and principles around money matters.
Jarvi told me that the first story clients tell after hearing this question is not usually a great story with a happy ending, but one that has more to do with the hard lessons they have learned. "For some reason, it's easier to tell a sad story than it is to tell a happy one," Jarvi says. Maybe that is because people are shaped by hard lessons and difficult trials, and money is often at the center of those lessons and trials. Smart advisors, especially those seeking to play the role of financial life planner, don't avoid those stories. They seek them.
She reminded me that something we need to always remember is that these stories are not finished yet. "As an agent, I was responsible for managing an author's career and editing their creations. As a wealth manager, I'm responsible for guiding their financial career. As advisors we get to help them write the end of the story-it's not finished yet."
What Joanne Jarvi is looking for are stories she wants to be a part of-people with philanthropic hearts, people motivated to help others and people trying to do the best they can in this world. One of things she likes best is that she gets to pick the people she gets to work with. She feels like she can do that in this business.
The best we can do in this business is to play a fiduciary role in the completing of the story. To perform that role well, we do need a better understanding of the story, the characters and the key plots playing out within the story. We are not all former literary agents with keen eyes for stories that will sell, but we all have the opportunity to help our clients' stories end better than they would ... without us.