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The Significance of Listening

What is your client really trying to tell you?

A while back I wrote a blog called Skills Pay The Bills, about the importance of asking great questions at first meetings with new prospective clients.

Neil Bailey, a very experienced adviser at Fortitude Financial Planning emailed me after reading the blog and said:

“Really enjoyed your blog and agree with your point that asking great questions is so important in building a long-term relationship with a client. At the risk of stating the bleeding obvious though, the great question is only half the challenge. Advisers must also have the ability to listen with empathy.”

He’s right. It does sound like stating the bleeding obvious, but clearly it’s not.

When I do role-play work with advisers on asking great questions, some participants are able to ask questions with a subtlety and skill that makes them super effective. However less experienced advisers can sometimes make a list of interesting questions feel like a police cell interrogation, which is not so great.

There are two clear issues here:

  1. The first is the skill issue around asking questions. How you ask is just as important as what you ask.

  2. Listening carefully to the answers and having empathy for the vulnerability people may exhibit as they respond to your questions, is also a key component of building genuine trust at the beginning of a new relationship.

If for any reason you feel (or suspect) that you could be better at the listening and empathy part, don’t worry; everyone takes some time to develop this skill. When you start asking better questions, you can be so focused on the new skill (the asking), that these other important areas play second fiddle for a while. As you become more familiar with your new approach, you don’t need to use as much brain power on the questions themselves, so more of your capacity becomes available for focusing on what the client is actually saying.

Really getting to understand a client’s issue and how they feel about it ensures you don’t put your foot in it, either by jumping in too early with a statement that’s contrary to what they were trying to tell you, or (even worse) jumping in with a proposed solution only to find that you’d not really heard the point they were trying to make.

Neil’s email also included a great quote from Henry David Thoreau:


“The greatest compliment that was ever paid me was when one asked me what I thought, and attended to my answer.”


The Importance of Acting

Another issue I see from time to time is a failure to act on the information that clients have provided via their answers to your great questions. This one’s a killer.

Here’s an example. A client says that if they had all the money in the world they would move to the countryside and write a book.

When asked what they would do if they went to their doctor and were told they only had 5 years to live, they tell you they’d sell up, move to the country and write a book.

When asked what did they not get to do, if the doctor told them they only had 24 hours to live, they say, “I didn’t get to write my book”.

So what they really want to do with their life is to move to the country and write a book. This seems pretty obvious right?

However, in the ensuing conversation with them, you discover the whole idea of moving to the countryside and writing a book is part of their future plans; they tell you they’ll do it in 5-6 years time when they retire from full time work.

What should you do as their adviser?

Often in these instances, I believe the client has pushed the goal out because they can’t see how they could possibly do it now. This is a safety mechanism. If it’s in the future they don’t have to do anything about it right now.

If a client gives you these answers, you should be trying to find a way to make that goal happen yesterday. What can you do to help this client start to live their dream right now?

Yes, there will be some hurdles to overcome (there always are), but the skill of a great adviser is to listen to what the client really wants and find a way to make it happen. In many cases, the barriers to doing something are not insurmountable. Even if you could bring the date forward by 12 months, you would have added incredible value to the client.

How often do retired clients tell you that ‘in the future’ they would like to take that world trip? All advisers have encouraged people to book it now and take it while their health is good. You never know what’s around the corner. The same type of thinking can apply to less obvious, but equally important goals.

So make sure you listen closely to the significance of people’s answers to your great questions, and then do something to make them happen. Right now. Today.

Listening and empathy are a vital part of your advisory skillset.

When combined with the skill of asking great questions and your technical abilities, you’re in a brilliant position to really change the lives of the clients you choose to work with.


As it was Neil Bailey who inspired this week’s article, I asked him for some thoughts on the subject.

Here’s what he had to say:

Early in my career my boss told me “This job is 5% technical and 95% people. You might know 100% of the 5% but if you don’t know people you may as well pack up and go home”. How right he was! Listening with empathy is the most important people skill of all. Like most skills it does not come naturally to many of us; we must learn it and practice it in order to become proficient. If we take the time to do so we will find that we improve our ability to:

  1. Build trust.

  2. Create a safe environment for the client, which improves their experience of the financial planning process.

  3. Facilitate a collaborative approach where the planner and the client are working together to create an effective plan.

Clients need to know that you care before they care about what you know; the ability to listen with empathy is the best way to prove that you do.


Tweet: *How* you ask is just as important as *what* you ask. @brettdavidson

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