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Advising the Affluent Client: It’s All in the Questions

A fellow Million Dollar Round Table member recently told me about a challenge he faced. He had a great relationship with a particular client, but was intimidated by their wealth level. He doubted his ability to help this client and he assumed the client was collaborating with other advisors.

This is a common occurrence for advisors working with the affluent market. We imagine that affluent clients have the best legal and tax counsel, and that they constantly are being courted by major financial institutions. This may be true, but we often fail to consider the client’s true desire, which is to work with an advisor who understands what they want for themselves and their family, now and in the future. The trusted advisor is the one who takes the time to ask the right questions to determine specifically what the client desires.

Ask Intuitive Questions

The most critical step is to have confidence in the questions you ask your clients and prospects. One important question to ask is: “When was the first time all of your advisors got together to understand what your role is for yourself, and what you want now and in the future?” The second important question is: “When was the first time your advisors worked in a collaborative team to create a structure and a plan to get ‘it’ done?” In too many cases, the answer to both questions is “Never.”

An example of a simple non-intrusive question is: “Describe the house in which you grew up.” The client’s answer will give you tremendous insight into what’s important to them. Not only does the rest of your conversation flow from their answer, they remember you because of your interest in them. You have the opportunity to ask numerous follow-up questions, depending on the answer to your first question. For instance, in answering the question above, the client may share how their family struggled financially. Your next question might be: “How specifically did the financial needs impact the family?” Or: “What life lessons did you learn from that experience?” The answers they provide will give you insight into how they view money, how they handle adversity and how they make decisions. By asking intuitive questions that require a thoughtful answer, you can discover your client’s underlying motives and core values. You just need to ask.

You do not need to be in a formal business setting to uncover a person’s values. You can have a productive conversation over coffee. Once you have a conversation that uncovers these hidden guiding principles, where do you go from there?

Listen Carefully to Their Answers

Most people don’t articulate their core values directly but, if you know what to listen for, those values will be easier to identify. If they describe a family gathering, extended family or siblings, then family togetherness may be a core value. The client may articulate a strong work ethic in the way they discuss their parents or the chores they had as a child. Some will describe a person of influence who encouraged them to pursue their passions or dreams. Charity can be depicted by how their parents helped others. Honesty and ethics may come from a family story.

Put the Plan to Action

At dinner with four men at the MDRT Annual Meeting, I asked one of the four, “I grew up in a small town in Texas. I wonder how our childhoods differed. Can you describe the house you grew up in?” The conversation at the table stopped and everyone listened to his answer. I followed by asking him to name and describe someone who had a major impact on him growing up. Then I asked what qualities that person possessed that impacted him. When he was done speaking, I asked those at the table to tell me what the man’s core values were. They named all eight of his core values. I asked the man if at any time during our conversation he felt uncomfortable. His answer was, “No.” He said he felt energized by sharing his childhood experiences.

When you ask questions, listen for the qualities the client identifies in the people they describe. The values you recognize in others are the values you possess. By asking a simple question and listening intentionally, you can learn much about your client and prospect. Having these types of conversations, especially with your high-net-worth clients, will help put all parties at ease. Rather than fearing the big cases, focus on the potential that comes with them and the opportunity to expand your expertise. 

Thomas E. Fowler, CLU, LUTCF, is the president of The Fowler Group, Bellevue, Wash. He has more than 40 years of experience assisting owners of closely held and family-owned companies with their estate and business planning. He is a 24-year member of the Million Dollar Round Table (MDRT) with three Top of the Table and nine Court of the Table qualifications. Contact him at [email protected].

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