"Know your patient."

I recently interviewed a dentist who also is a CFP certificant. He wants to transition from dentistry to practicing financial planning full time, and he and I discussed the feasibility of doing that and how it might be successfully accomplished. I asked him about himself and his dental practice and was quite impressed with the way he runs his business, particularly what he does when a new patient comes to him for the first time.
Unless there is a problem that needs to be handled immediately, he informed me, no dental work is performed at that visit. Instead, he told me that it is very important that a relationship that is built on trust be established before dental recommendations are made. He asks his new patients about their lives, their history (not only their dental history), their families, their careers and their expectations. Taking a genuine interest in them, he is certain, helps him to treat them and builds trust and rapport, which he believes is essential if they are to accept his recommendations. He also tells them at this interview that he will not recommend any treatment for them that he would not perform on his own family.
The dental work, he told me, will come later if it is necessary, but this interview begins a relationship with his patients that few other dentists enjoy, because most dentists appear more interested in performing procedures than in who their patients are as human beings. How do we feel when we call a doctor or dentist and the first question we are asked is, "What kind of insurance do you have?" Do we believe that our potential clients feel differently when one of the first questions they are asked is how much money they have? This dentist, by the way, told me that he will not enter any managed care network, because that would limit his ability to treat his patients properly. As an aside, he told me that he believes the medical profession and its patients have suffered because of the short-term gains doctors perceived from managed care.
As our interview progressed, two things became apparent to me: First, he had just the sort of attitude we look for when we hire new associates, and second, there are quite a few practicing financial advisors who could learn a great deal from, of all people, a dentist.  No doubt, our dentist has a great deal to learn about investing, taxes, estate planning, retirement planning, risk management, long-term care and all of the other issues facing his potential clients; and many financial advisors have the knowledge that he lacks, so he will need training from experienced practitioners.
However, there are many lessons these planners can learn by the way he practices dentistry. It may be a worn-out phrase (most good ones are, for obvious reasons), but it certainly applies to our profession: "I don't care how much you know until I know how much you care." Our dentist clearly demonstrates that he understands that. One of my clients was once asked by a journalist what questions one should ask financial advisors before hiring one. His answer: "It's not the questions you ask them that matter-it's the questions they ask you."
In other columns and in my new book (Financial Planning - The Next Step: A Practical Approach to Merging Your Clients' Money With Their Lives, FPA Press), I have stressed the importance of understanding who your clients are as people before tackling the quantitative issues they may have. Similar to the dental practice, it will help financial planners establish rapport and assure that their recommendations are aligned with their clients' values and attitudes about money and other issues. This may mean altering your approach with new clients by asking qualitative questions before gathering information and documents. It may very well set you apart from other financial advisors, who may be more interested in demonstrating how smart they are to their clients than in really getting to know them. You will have plenty of time to show them how much you know when you make your recommendations, but this advice may be much more meaningful to them if it aligns with their attitudes and values, as well as their goals and needs.
How many of us have clients who, despite the logic and apparent soundness of our suggestions, fail to implement them? My experience has taught me that this inertia is probably from either a lack of trust for the advisor or the recommendations do not "feel right". The latter is probably because they are not aligned with the clients' values or attitudes.
For example, your recommendation for a client may be to revise their estate plan and establish a unified credit trust to save estate taxes. While they have acknowledged the prudence of this advice, they hesitate. What if you knew that her mother inherited a credit sheltered trust and complained about its restrictions during her lifetime? Would this be useful information? And if your interviews did not include questions about your clients' family history, how would you have uncovered that valuable information, except by accident?
I recently learned from a new client that his father (who was a successful professional) was in debt most of his life because of medical expenses that were paid for a son who was very ill (my client's brother). While the family income was high, so much of it went for debt reduction there was little left for the luxuries that many of his friends enjoyed. I asked him how that affected him, and he told me that he was "obsessed" with not having debt. As we move forward and help this new client achieve his goals, we will be very aware of his debt aversion and that knowledge will affect our recommendations. Would he have volunteered this information if we did not ask? Perhaps, but why leave it to chance, when a thorough discovery process will reveal it early in the relationship?
Ayn Rand has written, "Happiness is that state of consciousness which proceeds from the achievement of one's values." Therefore, the questions you ask your clients need to be about their values as well as their history. People come to us to help them make good financial decisions. We all know how disconnected we feel when our actions in life are not aligned with our core values.
Knowing what our clients value most in life will provide us with the information to guide them in the right direction. Roy Disney wrote, "It's not hard to make decisions when you know what your values are." As author and psychologist Olivia Mellon  says, "If your relationship with money is not in balance, no amount of money will help you. It is your job (as financial planners) to help your clients find balance around money."  
Some of the questions we ask at our first client meetings (before we collect quantitative data) are:
Was money discussed at the dinner table?
What messages, direct or indirect, did you receive from your mother regarding money? Your father?
How were you affected by those messages?
What financial values of your parents continue to affect you today?
What is your first memory about money? How does that affect you today?
What are you major beliefs about money?
How do you measure wealth for yourself?
How do you feel about passing assets to your heirs?
What part does philanthropy and charitable giving play in your value system?
How do you feel about debt?
These are samples of the kind of questions financial advisors could ask to get to know their clients and offer advice that is based not necessarily on what is the "best" quantitative reasoning, but on what is truly best for your clients lives. We know at least one dentist who understands that. Fortunately, we know many financial advisors who get it. Unfortunately, we don't know enough.

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