The financial advisory profession has done a great job getting quantitative information from clients, processing that information, and then analyzing it for reports or plans. But when it comes to finding qualitative information—knowledge about our clients’ experiences, principles and deepest hopes and fears—the industry often leaves it to whim or chance.

To fix this, we need to have a biographical mindset. The good news is that’s natural to learn. In fact, we already do it: It’s the same way we build the most satisfying relationships in our lives, which is by following natural curiosity. It means asking people about the following things (in the following order):

• Their history (where they’ve been);
• Their transitions (where they are now); and
• Their goals (where they’d like to go).

When I speak with financial services firms and ask about their qualitative inquiries into clients’ lives, I’ve found most professionals focus on the clients’ goals. But turning to goals first is premature and problematic. These should actually be the last thing you delve into. Before that, you need to ask clients about their history, the transitions they’ve made and the ones they anticipate.

Why? Because the past matters.

How often have you seen clients who will never reach those goals because of the patterns and habits they’ve already set with their money in the past? You can find this out yourself in your history inquiry. How often have you seen clients whose lives are filled with so many problems impeding their financial progress that their goals will never materialize? It’s likely you see this quite a bit.

I’m not saying that the goals questions aren’t important, but they should be at the caboose of the train. They are not part of the engine.

Besides their pasts, we also need to have a comprehensive knowledge of our clients’ present life circumstances and challenges. We’ll find great opportunities to help if we get our clients to articulate the way money affects them now.

Opening The Broader Conversation
You’re probably wondering how you even begin this conversation. In the first five to 10 minutes of your talk with a client, you should explain what you do and the role you want to play in their life.

Imagine you have a 200-piece puzzle in front of you. Are the corner pieces the most important thing to find or is it the picture on the front of the box?

I’m asking because there’s a bigger picture you have to see, and when you ask questions, your client is going to demonstrate what I call “contextual curiosity.” Think of this as something housed in the right side of their brain. They want to know, “What are you going to do that fits within the larger context of my life and my goals?” When the right side of the brain sees a shard, it wants to know what the entire relic looks like. When it hears beautiful lyrics, it wants to know the story behind them. When it sees a puzzle piece, it wants to see the whole image.

This is context. Smart communicators know that you have to address it up front, because once the audience understands context, they pay more attention to all the pieces of information that follow.

So you should ask yourself: Are you speaking to this larger context in your client presentations or are you majoring on specifics and individual pieces? It’s not enough to just explain your services. To extend the puzzle metaphor, this industry has been doing little else other than simply moving pieces around on the table for far too long without letting people see what the whole landscape is.

Take questions like these: “What rate of return are you getting?” That’s just a piece. “How much are you paying for that?” That’s just another piece.

So how do you get them started talking about the bigger things? One advisor I know asks his clients to send in a family picture before their scheduled meeting. He then has it converted into a small jigsaw puzzle and uses it to open his conversation.

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