Before he questions his clients about their financial goals, Chad Hamilton poses a brainteaser.
A Denver-based Certified Financial Planner, Hamilton starts by saying, “Imagine a puzzle with 1,000 pieces scattered on a table. What’s the single most important piece of the puzzle?”
Few clients answer correctly that the picture on the top of the box matters most.
He uses the riddle to make a point: To build a financial plan, he helps clients see the big picture of how they want the future to unfold. And that process entails a series of questions.
Hamilton, 42, organizes his inquiries into three categories. He’ll ask data-gathering questions to learn about one’s current situation (example: “Do you have long-term-care insurance?”). Diagnostic questions help him probe to uncover problems (“What happens to your business if you’re unable to run it?”). Discovery questions spur clients to explore their aspirations, priorities and values (“What kind of legacy do you want to leave?”).
Seasoned advisors like Hamilton master the art of asking questions. They demonstrate empathy, patience and good timing to boost the odds that clients provide full, revealing responses. And they listen raptly to ensure they capture the entire message.
“With some questions, like discovery questions, you have to allow for awkward silence,” Hamilton said. “People might need to pause for several seconds before they answer. Newer advisors tend to jump in right away, but a lot of meaningful responses come only if you stay silent.”
Limit Your Speaking
Reflecting on his early years as an advisor, Hamilton credits his more experienced colleagues for teaching him the ropes. About 15 years ago, he worked with a financial planner who concluded every client meeting by asking, “Is there anything else you’d like to talk about?”
“The client’s answer often turned out to be the most important thing that was said in the whole meeting,” Hamilton recalled. He likes to pose the same question today.
To ask penetrating questions, arouse your curiosity. If you’re too focused on educating or explaining, you can miss opportunities to let the client open up.
Savvy questioners stick to neutral wording. They avoid hinting at the type of answer they want or expect to hear — or letting their biases creep in.
“It’s all about getting clients to self-discover what their challenges are and letting them be the architect of their own answer,” said Paul Jordan, a Certified Financial Planner in Fairfax, Va. Jordan, a vice president at Edelman Financial Services, manages a team of planners.
Over his 24 years as an advisor, Jordan has learned to limit his speaking and increase the time he spends listening in client conversations. He says that newly minted advisors tend to talk too much (often to educate, explain or show off their knowledge) and skimp on questions.
“Early on, I’d speak about 75% of the time,” he said. “But I’ve learned it’s better if the client speaks two-thirds of the time and the advisor speaks the other one-third.”
When posing questions, signal your interest in listening. Strike an attentive posture so that your nonverbal cues reinforce your intent to learn. If you’re fidgeting and glancing at your computer screen, your questions can fall flat.
“A kind, encouraging demeanor elicits better conversation,” Jordan said. “You want to elicit clients’ feelings and motivations by asking open-ended questions” and devoting your full attention to their answers.
Careful listening paves the way for richer discussions. If you sense fear or hesitancy, you can gently probe to uncover more information. If someone makes a startling or intriguing comment, follow that strand and see where it leads.
“Inexperienced advisors will ask one question after another as if they’re holding a clipboard,” Jordan said. “An experienced advisor can engage in a fluid conversation in a nonthreatening environment that they set.”
Voice tone and tempo also influence the effectiveness of your questions. Strive to speak clearly and radiate sensitivity when broaching delicate personal matters.
As a training exercise, conduct a simulation with a colleague playing the role of your client. Record the dialogue so that you can assess your vocal inflection and speed.
“Many advisors speak more quickly than they realize,” Jordan warned. “How you speak is second nature to you. But if you talk too fast, it can be frustrating to your clients.”
When conferring with couples, make sure to direct your questions to both individuals. Jordan likes to kick off meetings with couples by asking each of them, “What would you like to discuss today?”
“You should only reply after both of them get a chance to answer,” he said.
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