Your Thriving Practice

Do your clients hear you?

There’s nothing more important than communication. But what if the message isn’t getting through?

Talking to clients has always been at the heart of financial professionals’ business. But the ability to do so effectively is becoming more important — and more challenging.

After years of stock market ups and downs, inflation, global tensions, and a pandemic, many financial planning clients are anxious and worried. “A lot of people are exhausted by volatility in the markets and in the world, and wondering about their savings and retirement,” says Andrew Grimes, vice president of client partnerships at the Storyline Strategies research and communications firm. As a result, he says, they are looking for more and better communication with their financial planners.

However, it appears that many planners may not be keeping up. In a recent study by MQ Research and Education, researchers asked planners and clients how well planners performed in a variety of communications topics. In every category, planners consistently ranked themselves higher than their clients did, indicating some significant gaps in communication. What’s more, these findings represented a profound change from a similar 2006 MQ Research and Education study, in which planner and client responses were very similar, with clients often giving their planners more credit than planners gave themselves. This shift suggests that client expectations for communication have increased, and clients are often not getting what they want.

Fortunately, communication experts and psychologists offer a variety of proven steps planners can draw on to improve their communications. Planners have an opportunity to finetune their interactions so that clients truly hear and retain their messages and follow through on plans—and by doing so, they can do a better job of serving those clients.

Improving the conversation

There are a variety of communication techniques and tools to consider, from newsletters, email, and social media to videos and one-pagers. Still, the most critical communication tool remains direct conversations that allow planners to both learn about and educate the client—and those conversations are not always having the impact that planners want. For example, in the MQ Research and Education study, 80% of planners thought that they sufficiently explained the pros and cons of recommended investments, but only 46% of clients agreed. Clearly, there’s a disconnect, and many clients are not following or retaining what planners are saying to them.

"The most critical communication tool remains direct conversations that allow planners to both learn about and educate the client..."

In communicating, “it’s not what you say. It’s what people hear,” says Grimes. His organization recently conducted research along with Global Atlantic to better understand the language and messages that resonate with clients, and they found that many are turned off by complex industry terminology. “They want planners to talk to them on to them on their level, in a way they can understand,” he says. For many, jargon does not equate to expertise—it just presents a barrier to effective communication.

Producers also seem to have trouble with the critical upfront conversations designed to learn about clients. Indeed, the MQ Research and Education study identified several communication gaps on that front. For example, 90% of planners thought they offered recommendations based on the personal goals, needs, and priorities of clients, compared to just 49% of clients. Eighty-seven percent of planners thought they were open to discussing what the client values most in life, while just 50% of clients agreed.

Here, producers should consider spending more time up front learning about clients, long before making recommendations. “Advisors tend to jump to advice far too quickly—they are trained to find the issues in order to give solutions, and they feel like they need to do it fast,” says Amy Mullen, president of Money Quotient, a sister company of MQ Research and Education that provides tools and training to planners. “In our training, we say, ‘advice kills conversation.’ When you stop to give advice, you're literally stopping the conversation, essentially telling the person, ‘I know all I need to know about you.’” For a person who feels like they haven’t their whole story yet, that can be “unsettling,” she says, and “it will immediately create a kind of a mental obstacle. They will disengage from that relationship to a particular degree.”

“The best advice is given after there’s been a lot of discovery that gets beyond just the basic facts,” says Meghaan Lurtz, a senior researcher at, which offers consulting and education for planners. She recommends that instead of just diving into deep questions about clients’ lives and concerns, planners take a more step-by-step approach. This can start with a focus on the facts—largely, the client’s financial situation. From there, the discussion can move into exploring the context around those facts—what happened previously with the client, what do they see on their financial horizon, why are they looking for a financial plan, etc. And finally, the discussion can explore the clients’ feelings and values—their emotional state, their worries, etc.

As planners cover various points in these discussions, their efforts may not track with clients. “Because things are spoken out loud, the planner will feel that there is a common understanding that ‘I now know this about you,’” says Mullen. But the client—who is after all new to the process—may not recognize the points the planner is picking up. To avoid that, she says, planners should play back what they’re hearing and provide “a summary of here's what I've learned about you, and this is what I'm basing my recommendations on.”

Talking about the plan

When presenting financial plans to clients, planners typically like to be thorough. In terms of communication, however, that can be too much of a good thing. For a client, says Lurtz, “this is often like a firehose,” rapidly delivering more new information than they can readily take in.

“There are lots of studies showing that when you read people a list, they can remember the first two or three things and the last two or three things, and the things in the middle are kind of lost,” Lurtz says. Planners can adjust their presentations to the limitations of human memory by putting a few important topics first and few at the end of the presentation and putting less-important material in the middle—or leaving it out for later discussion. Doing this well, she adds, requires effective upfront discovery: “If you have a good understanding of what’s really driving them from a fact standpoint, a situation standpoint, and a feelings standpoint, you can focus on the what’s important to them.”

"Engagement is key when it comes to helping clients do a better job of implementing their plans..."

It's also valuable to keep the emphasis on how the plan helps the client, rather than on the details of how the plan and investment vehicles work, says Bill Sweeney, assistant vice president at Global Atlantic Consulting. He explains that according to adult learning theory, adults typically need to have a reason to learn something. “Unless you're able to help the client understand the outcomes of the plan and how they will benefit from it, they’re not going to be receptive and they’ll probably retain less of what you’re telling them,” he says.

That reality underscores the importance of having life-planning discussions, as well as financial discussions, around plans. Doing so has a strong correlation with a range of outcomes, including increased client openness to sharing information and client follow-through, according to an MQ Research and Education study. “As a client, now I'm more emotionally engaged in the conversation than if we're just talking about whether I need insurance or what do I need to do with my tax planning,” says Mullen. “When you get into conversations about designing a life that's going to be enjoyable, fulfilling, with purpose and meaning, I have far more motivation to understand and implement the strategies to help me get there.”

Engagement is key when it comes to helping clients do a better job of implementing their plans, as well.

“It’s important to be very specific about what is going to happen and who is going to do what—the planner’s and the client’s responsibilities,” says Lurtz. Clients may need help understanding what they need to do to open an IRA, update an estate plan, or change beneficiaries, or even with knowing what questions to ask their employer’s HR department.

Once the necessary tasks are assigned, planners should help clients commit to action. “You might say, we talked about the things that need to be done today,” Lurtz says. “On a scale of 1 to 10, how are you feeling about doing these two by the end of next week? If they say 10, great. If they say 4, you can ask how can we take that 4 to a 7? What do you need from me? Or are there things going on in your life that are making this difficult?” In general, she adds, it’s important to remember that "most people don’t retire multiple times or open lots of IRAs, so they don’t get a lot of practice with these things. You need to help them know how to do it.”

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Asking the right questions

Posing effective questions is essential to effective planning discussions—there are many ways to ask questions to elicit good responses without making the client uncomfortable.

For example, open-ended questions are commonly used to prompt clients to answer broadly, rather than provide brief yes-or-no answers. But they should not be so broad as to be unanswerable. For example, Lurtz says that instead of asking “if you could go anywhere in the world on vacation, where would you go?’ it might be easier for the client to answer, “what sort of travel are you considering in the next year or two?” Open-ended questions not only help planners dig deeper, they can also be less threatening than closed questions, which “tend to make clients nervous because it feels like there’s one right answer,” she says.

Asking focused follow-up questions can also be valuable. “If somebody says they don’t really like their tax situation, you don’t want to just ask what their tax situation is and stop there. What was their tax situation was last year? How long have they felt that their tax situation was not so great? Have they gone through an IPO and are now worrying that this is going to be a tough tax year?” Good follow-up questions should build insight into client concerns and be focused on learning more about clients, without hidden agendas to talk about yourself or another topic.

None of this is to say planners should relentlessly pepper clients with questions. “Ask two or three questions and then stop and say, ‘I have heard this and this.’ Get some feedback,” says Lurtz. “If you just keep asking questions without pausing to summarize, it will feel like an interrogation.”

Better questions can also help people envision options and possibilities. “Asking a lot of questions can actually help people change,” she explains. What’s more, clients tend to like it. “There is plenty of neuroscience that shows that when people talk about themselves, the pleasure center of their brain lights up,” she says. “It feels really good to have other people be interested in you, especially when we're talking about things as difficult as money.”

Ultimately, then, asking questions in a more effective manner can help build rapport and trust. At another level, the same is true of better planner-client communication in general. By improving their interactions with clients, planners have an opportunity to put themselves and their clients on the same page and build connections that strengthen relationships. “We are all human, and we are wired for connection,” says Lurtz. “It’s just important to recognize that there are better and worse ways to create connection.”

Mapping success for annuities

Building trust can be difficult. Global Atlantic’s research shows that distrust is a default mindset for many people, with 6 out of 10 people distrusting things until they are shown. And, says Bill Sweeney, assistant vice president at Global Atlantic Consulting, “financial services ranks lower than many other industries in trust.” That problem can be especially acute when it comes to annuities. “They can be complicated, which makes people uncomfortable, and they have a bad reputation, based largely on some annuities that were developed years ago that were expensive and had hidden fees. It’s not really accurate, but that’s the press they’ve had.”

To succeed with annuities, producers need a targeted communication strategy. To that end, Global Atlantic Consulting has developed a comprehensive Message Mapping program. Based on research with producers and clients conducted by Storyline Strategies, this program encompasses four Message Maps that corresponding to four stages of the selling processes:

  • Map A: Listen and learn. Get to know the client and establish relationship preferences.
  • Map B: Inform and educate. Introduce strategies for broader financial goals.
  • Map C: Identify opportunities. Gauge interest in products or strategies.
  • Map D: Propose the strategy. Position products or strategies as a response to client goals and desires.

Each map includes checkpoints for specific actions to consider, questions to ask clients, words and tactics that the research has shown to be effective, and so forth. While these are all important, says Sweeney, the program is more than the sum of its parts. “What is groundbreaking about it is that synthesizes all these concepts and research insights into a soup-to-nuts program for professionals working with annuities,” he says.

“The program brings the client along a journey that starts from a place of listening and understanding, gradually moving deeper,” says Andrew Grimes, vice president of Client Partnerships at Storyline Strategies. “It helps you take them along the right path to solutions, with a sense that you are arriving at conclusions and solutions together.”

“Really, the Message Mapping program aims to flip the old cliché that annuities are sold, not bought,” says Sweeney. In the end, he explains, it provides a repeatable, disciplined process for helping clients build their own understanding of the concepts involved and the value of annuities, and of how an annuity can help them personally—key elements in building trust and making a sale.

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