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The Three Key Words in Client Conversations

December 24th, 2013

by Dan Richards

  1. Look for hidden meaning

    By staying at the surface of what you hear, you miss important messages. When you make a request of clients for action, be alert for soft letdowns and probe for more information, of course without having clients feel like they’re experiencing the third degree. For example, suppose you’re involved in a fundraising drive in your community for a new hospital. You ask someone to participate on the fundraising committee and you get this response: “I really like and admire what you’re doing; however, right now I’m just too busy to take on another commitment.”

    Perhaps they really are too busy, or perhaps they’re not inspired by the cause. You’ll only find out by digging deeper. So for example, you could respond “I absolutely understand and appreciate your honesty; it’s much better to know upfront that someone is too busy rather getting a yes and then be disappointed. Just out of curiosity, if you had more time, what kinds of charities would inspire you?”

  2. Focus on what people don’t say

    The HR consultant I mentioned above said that when doing reference checks, if an employee was really outstanding, references will generally try to find a way to let you know through their tone or nuanced words, even if corporate policy limits their ability to give details. Getting curt confirmation of employment shouldn’t eliminate a prospective hire from consideration, but is a red flag that needs further investigation.

    Along the same lines, if you ask a client about their experience with their accountant or lawyer and they answer with tepid “my accountant is fine” or “my lawyer does an okay job,” that’s a signal to dig deeper. Don’t focus just on what people say – how they say something is often as important as the words themselves. Listen for any sign of hesitation and tentativeness – and when you hear that, give clients the opportunity to elaborate.

The next time you meet with a client, focus on reading between the lines of what you hear – and see if you don’t walk away with insights you would otherwise miss.


conducts programs to help advisors gain and retain clients and is an award winning faculty member in the MBA program at the University of Toronto. To see more of his written and video commentaries, go to www.clientinsights.ca. Use A555A for the rep and dealer code to register for website access.

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