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Want to Know Your Clients' Communication Preferences? Just Ask.

A simple questionnaire can help you easily pinpoint your clients' desired modes of learning, listening, and communicating.

Helen Modly and Tommie Monez, 05/10/2012

It's important, we do it every day without thinking, and we could be doing it better. Here are some effective communication ideas that don't require going to a workshop, retreat, or writing a big check. They only require you to ask and listen.

The first financial planning class I took, oh so many years ago, focused on client communication. I learned how to ask open-ended questions, ask for referrals, ("I get paid in three ways…"), make an assumptive close, spend more time listening than talking, and model body language. We all learned that there were certain cues we could use to tailor our presentations to the particular person. Over the years, I realize that some of us are better than others at deciphering subtle clues.

Recently, I discovered a tool that can greatly improve client communication and streamline the process of finding out what a client's or prospect's learning style might be.

Just ask.

Susan Bradley of the Sudden Money Institute has developed a simple questionnaire for clients that clearly brings home the vast differences in styles of learning, listening, and communicating. She gives her clients a list and asks them to circle the communication preferences that appeal to them. Here are some of the items on the list, along with how you--the advisor--should interpret them:

Encourage my input: Your client is telling you to solicit her opinion during the conversation, rather than assuming agreement in your rush to the close.

Be an active listener: Give the client your full attention. Restate, clarify, summarize, and be attentive to the feelings behind the words. Concentrate on what is being said to you rather than focusing on formulating your response.

Remember my need for control: The need to control the situation may be the way your client manages anxiety. Allow them to help set the agenda. Discuss their expectations regarding your relationship and the amount of detail and frequency of information that you will provide. Be patient in answering their questions.

Give direct answers; get to the point: These clients don't really care how the picture gets into the television; they just want it to light up when they turn it on. Don't get carried away with your explanations of how financial markets work. Make your response direct and to the point. If they want more information they will let you know.

Move quickly to the bottom line: Some clients really do want to see photos of your grandchildren in order to get to know you, but the "bottom line" client just wants to analyze the situation based on the facts of the relationship--what will you do for me, how much will it cost, and what is your track record?

Offer options so I can decide: Some clients want you to just tell them what to do. Others need some insight into the decision process and are comfortable with the notion that there is more than one way to design a portfolio or sell a piece of real estate. They require a collaborative role in the decision process.

Allow me time to process my response: The extroverted advisor will need to stifle the impulse to fill every moment with talking. Allow the client time to think, reflect, and process information without jumping to the rescue or trying to summarize what you think the client is trying to say.

Slow down the pace of communication: While some clients may be impressed with a rapid-fire presentation, a colorful slide show, and a tight agenda, others require a slow and gentle approach. Take time for friendly conversation. Instead of moving quickly to the bottom line, you will need to allow time for a relationship to form and for trust to develop. Allow time for them to digest the information that you provide and don't jump to the close.

Use graphics: Pay attention to cues that tell you how your client processes information. People use a combination of learning styles, but for most, visual is the dominant characteristic. Develop a few favorite charts that clearly provide information in a visual format.

Tell me who is involved: Do you work as a team? Will staff members or other advisors handle certain aspects of the relationship? Who will be in my meetings and why? Your client wants to know what to expect. If their experience with you or your firm is not what they anticipated, it can provoke anxiety and make them feel less valued.

Expect me to ask you to provide facts: Some clients need a lot of data in order to feel comfortable. They may be happy delegating their financial affairs to a professional, but they also need to understand the details of your decisions for their own peace of mind. This is not a reflection on their level of trust or confidence in you. Be responsive and be thoroughly prepared to answer those questions.

Look for ways to minimize the risks: Your client is cautious, possibly inexperienced as an investor, and needs reassurance. Be careful not to over-promise, and be sure to explain the features that are incorporated in their portfolio to reduce risk. Also be aware that some clients may not be appropriate for you or your firm.

Susan cautions that this tool can backfire if you don't integrate what your clients tell you into your process. You have to be committed to adapting to your client's style or you may come off as insincere. But if you can accommodate their preferences without compromising your efficiency, you will be more effective with those clients. In many cases, just the idea that you are aware of different styles and that you care enough to even ask will cause your clients to realize that you truly are interested in them. A quick entry in your CRM system will help your entire staff stay on the same page as your clients.

If it helps you just once to prevent that occasional glazed-over look when you tell too long of a fishing story, or to avoid that "deer-in-the-headlights" stare when you ask for a decision prematurely, it will have been worth your time.

The author is a freelance contributor to MorningstarAdvisor.com. The views expressed in this article may or may not reflect the views of Morningstar.
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