I know you can hear me, but how do I know you’re listening?
Last week we held a mastermind discussion with some of our most ideal clients – high quality financial planners who are focussed on supporting their clients through coaching and planning. The topic for the day was adviser charges – what are fair rates for advisers and clients, are ad valorem fees becoming outdated, are fixed fees the way forward?….Unsurprisingly there were many differences of opinion on the answers to these questions, but the one element over which there was no dispute is that, regardless of how they pay, all clients really care about is the value they receive. Perception of value is the key factor for achieving client satisfaction.
So how do advisers create this sense of value? We often talk about coaching clients through the rollercoaster of emotion that comes with investing in capital markets.
When a client is panicking at the bottom of a market trough, the conversation with the adviser that provides reassurance, steers them away from selling and locking in losses, keeps their financial plan on track and allows them to sleep at night, is priceless. Abbie Knight, Financial Services Marketing Consultant, tells us:
The way firms deal with their clients, employees and the broader community in a crisis will leave lasting memories in consumers’ minds
Authenticity has always been important to client relationships, but even more so throughout the global pandemic with 63% of consumers now stating they prefer to do business with a brand they view as more authentic than its competitors.
So how can advisers show they are genuinely interested in how clients are feeling and cultivate a relationship that means clients trust them when they are at their most vulnerable?
I’d like to recommend a very effective, cost efficient strategy, requiring almost no preparation time or tools and available to all - listening. You might be forgiven for considering yourself a pretty accomplished listener, after all you’ve been doing it since you entered the world. But how often do you find yourself thinking of the next question, or even wondering what you’re going to have for dinner while a client is speaking?
Good listening – or active listening to use coaching terminology – is a skill that can be acquired, practised and honed. Just like other forms of communication, such as writing and presenting, which you are far more likely to have formal training in.
Empathic listening inspires openness and creates trust. In “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People” Stephen Covey recommends we seek first to understand, then to be understood – in other words, prioritising our understanding of the client above the client’s understanding of our own message. This means listening without judgement and providing the speaker with the time and space to explore their thoughts. Having complete focus on what the client is AND isn’t saying to understand the meaning of what is said. Hearing and accepting the client’s concerns, values and beliefs.
What does this mean in practice? There are some strategies for active listening that are fairly easy to implement and can become second nature:
· Limit distractions – this seems obvious, but limiting distractions lets your client know that what they’re saying is the most important thing to you right now. Put your mobile out of sight – a mobile on the table says something more important might come along!
· Mimicking – this is a basic step, but you can simply repeat what the client says back to them. It shows you’re paying attention. This alone can sometimes be enough to release tension and put a client at ease.
· Re-phrasing – retell the story the client told you, use some of their own vocabulary but also your own words. This demonstrates you’ve listened and also allows you to ensure you’ve understood correctly.
· Reflect feeling - take paraphrasing to another level by adding in your perception of how the client is feeling - “I can tell you’re feeling very anxious about the markets right now”. Pay attention to how your client expresses themself – for example, are they visual or auditory? If someone uses phrases such as “it looks like equities are collapsing”, respond with visual vocab, “I can see you’re nervous”. Alternatively, “it sounds like equities are collapsing” might be better responded with “I can hear you’re feeling a little nervous”. Using language that fits with the client’s personal style creates a sense of empathy.
· Give time – having listened effectively and shown your understanding of what the client has said and is feeling, now give them time to explore their thoughts. Allow silences, don’t feel obliged to fill any pauses. Never finish anyone’s sentence. When the client has finished speaking, ask if there’s anything else they have to say on the subject. As they work through their own thoughts and feelings they may well come to their own conclusion and formulate the objective you’ve been trying to tease out of them.
If we can make the human aspect as important as the financial and the technical, we can forge strong relationships based on trust, and create the authenticity that clients truly value. As Nancy Kline tells us:
Giving good attention to people makes them more intelligent
And who doesn’t want intelligent clients?
 Cohn and Wolfe Study, Abbie Knight International Ltd (September 2020)
 Nancy Kline, Time to Think, Octopus Books (1999)