The good news is that 88% of respondents in a new survey thought that having a financial advisor would help them get to where they want to be. The bad news is only 44% of the respondents actually had an advisor.

Those were the findings of Allianz Life, which performed the survey as part of its "2023 Annual Retirement Study.” And while the perception about advisors is great, Kelly LaVigne, vice president of consumer insights at Allianz, said it wasn’t the most surprising detail to emerge from the survey.

“What was most shocking was the public perception of what a financial advisor does, as opposed to what a financial advisor actually does,” LaVigne said. He thought some of the concerns the respondents had—about an advisor not bothering to get to know them or including them in decisions—was remarkable given how much time and effort most advisors put into doing exactly that.

For example, the respondents said they would be more likely to work with an advisor if the advisor would make recommendations that reflected the respondent’s life and desires, not some financial ideal. They would also prefer it if an advisor got to know their values and concerns. Or was open and knowledgeable about how the clients’ values might impact their finances.

“I think we have a bit of a perception problem,” LaVigne continued. “How do you get that out to the general public, that this is what a financial advisor actually does? I think it's a challenge. It's getting that message across, which I never thought was a thing until I saw this.”

The survey took a nationally representative sample of 1,000 respondents 25 and older, with household incomes of more than $50,000 for a single person or $75,000 for a couple. The survey was conducted online in February and March of this year. It has a margin of error of +/- 3%.

The respondents who worked with advisors also offered some interesting observations, LaVigne said. The group was presented with a list of risks and asked whether they had talked to their advisor about their concerns—and if not, why not?

They mentioned such common fears as running out of money before dying, becoming a burden to their families and failing to maximize Social Security in retirement. They also feared that cost-of-living increases would put necessities out of reach, or that they would be unable to care for themselves because of cognitive decline.

Clients cited a number of reasons they hadn’t broached these topics with their advisors: For instance, they were using other resources to find solutions (something mentioned by 28% of the respondents); they were not prioritizing finding a solution (cited by 23%); they didn’t meet regularly enough with the advisor to have the discussion (cited by 20%); they only discuss topics the advisor brings up (mentioned by 17%); they felt they might be judged (cited by 16%); and they were not aware their advisor could help them with a particular topic (a problem mentioned by 15%).

When asked to picture “the ideal financial advisor,” 56% of respondents said they preferred one who proposed solutions but left the final decisions to the client. Some 35% said they wanted to outsource both the finding of the solution and the choosing of the solution to the advisor. Only 10% said they would be happiest with an arrangement where they did the research and made the decisions but then used the advisor as a consultant to help validate or enhance those decisions.

Allianz also asked those respondents who indicated a willingness to work with an advisor what topics would prompt them to do so. Of the top 10 selections, all of them had to do with retirement. The most popular topic was how to best take distributions from retirement savings for use as retirement income (78% of respondents said this was of interest). The 10th most popular topic was how to maximize Social Security in retirement (named by 66%).

“We know that clients talk to financial advisors about stuff that they don't share with anyone else,” LaVigne said. “It’s sometimes more intimate than with a doctor. You'll talk about your health issues to people in certain cases, but usually you don't talk about how much money you have, how much money you're spending, and how long you think it's going to last. That's a very intimate relationship.

“But what are we doing wrong that people don’t really know what advisors do?”