Coach Dan Sullivan explains how to distinguish yourself from the pack.

    Dan Sullivan would say the one thing an advisor can do to distinguish himself from all other advisors, and provide a real benefit to his clients, is to have the "D.O.S. Conversation." In fact, he did say this when my co-author, "D" Shannon, and I interviewed Sullivan for our book. The One Thing ... You Need to Do as Told By the Financial Advisory Industry's Top Coaches, Consultants and Industry Insiders (The Financial Advisor Literary Guild, 2005, in October 2004.
    Sullivan, for those not familiar with him, is the driving force behind The Strategic Coach (, a Toronto-based program serving 3,000 clients-the majority of them financial advisors-seeking greater income, growth, happiness and freedom.
    In that interview, Sullivan said, "I don't know, Dave, whether or not you're familiar with the R-Factor [Relationship Factor] Question, so let me give you an illustration of it: If we were having this discussion three years in the future and you're looking back over that three-year time span today, what has to have happened in your life, both personally and professionally, for you to feel happy with your progress? And that's the question. You can learn it in an hour and use it the next hour."
    As your client, or prospective client, answers the question, you guide him through the "D.O.S. Conversation," a discussion of what he believes are the Dangers, Opportunities and Strengths in his life. That is, what are his greatest concerns? Where do (perhaps hidden) opportunities lie? And what are his strengths for dealing with the dangers and the opportunities?
    Seems simple enough. Do profound results really come from simple techniques? Joseph Janiczek thinks so. The owner of Janiczek & Company Ltd., a Greenwood Village, Colo., advisory firm, Janiczek, who's been a client of Sullivan's for ten years, says, "This is a great process because it helps clients build confidence about their strengths and then it gets them excited about their opportunities. Most clients lack confidence, their fears have been unaddressed, and oftentimes they're not excited about their future. If you can open up that conversation, that's very rich."
    Sullivan, a student of the human brain, elaborates as follows: "People want, first, a sense of direction ... a path that guarantees they'll be all right. Second, they want confidence. They're lonely. They feel isolated. People work and live in different places and have fewer relationships, so they're no longer talking to people where they live. And, third, they want capability. People want to have tools. They want a plan."
    The R-Factor Question and the D.O.S. Conversation are powerful, Sullivan told me, because the question immediately determines whether the person on the receiving end actually wants to have a relationship with you. "If they don't, they'll never answer the question," says Sullivan. "It's a very confronting question. We find that people usually size each other up in about ten seconds and decide whether they want to pursue a relationship." The R-Factor Question facilitates the sizing-up process.
    "It's a profound tool and the epitome of what Dan's done," says Dave Diesslin, owner of Diesslin & Associates Inc. in Fort Worth, Tex., who's also been with Sullivan for ten years. Diesslin's incorporated the R-Factor Question and D.O.S. Conversation into an eight-step process that constitutes his initial 90-minute meeting with a prospective client. "The very fact that we guide them through this process dramatically raises our profile with prospects so that, even though they may still interview other advisors, they usually come back to us."
    Diesslin not only has a 90% close rate, which he attributes in part to what he's learned from Sullivan, but he charges prospects for the first meeting. "The whole coaching concept gave us the courage to charge clients for their initial meeting, which everyone said couldn't be done," says Diesslin. Interestingly, he finds most clients, if they're coming in prepared to deal seriously with their issues, feel relieved to pay for the experience.
    What is it that prospects or clients get from this process? Clearly, it helps them frame their thinking and see possibilities in ways they could not do for themselves. Says Ron Roge, owner of R.W. Roge & Company Inc. in Bohemia, N.Y., and a four-year veteran of Sullivan's program, "We ask the R-Factor question and then we just sit and take notes for the next hour. When the prospect is done talking, he'll usually say something like, 'Why hasn't anyone asked me these questions before?' And all we've done is listen."
    Sullivan, himself, tells this story of a prospect for his coaching program: "I asked him the R-Factor question and he took 23 minutes to tell me about his past, including his struggle with alcoholism. When he was finished, he thanked me for telling him about our program and he became a client. I didn't tell him anything about the program. He sold himself on Strategic Coach."
    Sullivan elaborates further: "People think in terms of three emotions. First, there's fear. We're all scared of losing something. Second, there's excitement-excitement about what can be gained in life. And, finally, there's confidence, which comes from having a sense of strength ... from having various resources."
    According to Sullivan, most people aren't taking care of their dangers. Nor are they taking advantage of their opportunities or pursuing their strengths. They need a plan to do these things, and that's where the financial advisor comes in. As the financial planning process continues to evolve beyond products and selling, beyond number-crunching and into real human interaction, advisors become increasingly more indispensable as their clients let them see more and more of their innermost selves. That's where D.O.S. comes into play. If the client really wants help and understands the interaction between emotions and money, then he'll respond to the advisor who asks the R-Factor question. "It has nothing to do with having a license [to sell products],"says Sullivan. "It's all about a human being having a great conversation with his clients."
    "When you take someone through the process of articulating dangers-whether you call them 'threats,' 'concerns' or something else-you're dealing with their fears," says Janiczek. And if you can get them to talk about their fears, which Janiczek says most clients have little trouble articulating, you can help them lessen those fears. This is one goal of the financial plan and it's powerful in its bonding effect.
    But fear and danger are just part of the equation. "If they're not fearing something," says Sullivan, "they're feeling excited about something [opportunity] or they're feeling confident about something [strength]. It's a really bad day when fear dominates. It's a much better day when opportunity and strength dominate. However, all three of these emotions-fear, excitement and confidence-can be paralyzing. The job of the advisor is to take these three ingredients from paralyzing emotions to motivating emotions."
    The question is, motivating for what purpose? And the answer comes full-circle back to the R-Factor Question. Explains Sullivan, "What we're doing is we're getting them, on an intellectual level, to say what the framework for measurement is over the next three years. The advisor takes the paralyzing emotions from fear, excitement and confidence and transforms them into motivating emotions that direct the client toward his goals."
    Again, listening-the most basic and, some would say, the most powerful of all advisory skills-is the key to making this work. "All the advisor does is make a note of each of the dangers that the client tells him and then feeds them back to the client," says Sullivan. "Say, 'Well, you told me this, this, this and you told me that.' Part of the power of this conversation is that, oftentimes, this is the first the person's ever thought about it in a clear-cut way. What you're doing is getting the person on the other side of the table to actually respond to his own information."
    According to Sullivan, then you say, "'If you had to pick three of these five concerns that you've given me, which would be the most important one, the second most important, the third most important.' And you put his other concerns aside by saying, 'Would it not be true that if we eliminated these three most important concerns, we'd probably eliminate all the others?'"
    Then you do the same thing with opportunities and strengths such that, at the end of sometimes several hours of conversation, you have a client who is very clearly defined. "All along, what has been happening is that you're totally differentiating yourself from anyone else that they've ever had in their life, and at the same time you are the recipient of information that no one else in this person's life has ever received."
    If you're an advisor who's never learned these skills, who tries to impress clients with your analytical capabilities or your technical knowledge, think about the power of this process. We've all been told for the last half decade that "life planning" is important. Those advisors weak on interpersonal skills have found reasons to dismiss the life planning phenomenon. But do you have a choice?
    Sullivan wouldn't call what he does life planning. Yet, his tools facilitate the same outcome, namely that we get to dig much deeper than most of us have been trained to do if we truly want to serve-and keep-our clients. What other process have you heard of lately that gets your client to divulge secrets he didn't even know he had, lays the foundation for a truly meaningful financial plan and creates an almost indestructible client-advisor bond? 

David J. Drucker, M.B.A., CFP, a financial advisor since 1981, now writes, speaks and consults with other advisors as president of Drucker Knowledge Systems. Learn more about his latest books at