Financial advisors are experts on complex retirement products, abstruse tax laws and countless other rules and regulations. But success also requires the subtler skills of handling clients and their emotional and familial baggage.

So which matters more: the practical knowledge or the softer, interpersonal finesse? The science or the art?

The Case For Art
“It’s 90% art,” says Harold Evensky, founder of Evensky & Katz, based in Lubbock, Texas and Coral gables, Fla. “The practice of the wealth manager is holistic and individually customized,” he adds, quoting from his 1997 book, Wealth Management.

Steven Schacter, an attorney and advisor at Forest Hills Financial Group in Chappaqua, N.Y., puts it another way. “The key to becoming a successful financial advisor is letting the client know how much you care, rather than how much you know,” he says.

“Clients must believe you understand them and their goals,” says Robert Gilliland, a managing director and senior wealth advisor at Concenture Wealth Management in Houston.

The Case For Science
Yet some advisors see the balance of skills a little differently. “Being a financial advisor involves some art and a lot of science,” says Emily Harper, a partner and vice president at Monument Wealth Management in Alexandria, Va.

Advisors, she says, “rely on processes and systems, facts and data.” The psychology involved is really a science, too, she maintains. “Much of what we may think of as ‘art’ in the profession is actually science,” says Harper.

Michael Finke, director of the Granum Center for Financial Security and professor of wealth management at the American College of Financial Services in King of Prussia, Pa., goes so far as to say that calling these interpersonal aspects an art gives the mistaken impression that they aren’t disciplines based in science. “Those aspects of financial planning that are related to psychological and behavioral skills are subject to the same type of rigor as the more quantitative aspects,” he contends.

When The Art And The Science Collide
In truth, both types of thinking are needed. Clients “expect us to be steeped in the academic but feel particularly supported by our understanding and consideration of who they are and what they care about,” says Donna Levy, a managing director at Wealthspire Advisors in New York City.

Problems can arise, however, when the data sciences collide with the behavioral arts. Advisors “must be able to counsel clients so that emotions don’t steer them into making poor decisions,” says John Roessler, senior financial planner at Kovitz in Chicago.

For instance, Kenneth Van Leeuwen, managing director and advisor at Van Leeuwen & Co. in Princeton, N.J., says he has clients who don’t want to wait until age 70 to start receiving Social Security, even though their benefit would be 8% more than what they would get starting at age 62. “People can be very strong-minded about that. So even though you tell them that the science says they should wait, the art is letting them take it earlier if that’s what they really want,” he says.

Still, as an advisor, it’s his job to push back a little—to save clients from their own possible lapses in judgment. “We always show clients the science. We demonstrate empirically that the facts support our advice,” Van Leeuwen says. “But people are people, and we also always try to understand that other piece of it.”

Knowing when to push, and how far—that’s the art that only the best advisors possess. “You might be the smartest technical person in the world,” Van Leeuwen says, “but unless you know the folks, know what makes them tick, you will struggle.”

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