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Financial Advice

Don’t Let Communication Errors With Clients Become Dealbreakers

Learn how to prevent the little mistakes from adding up.

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Issues in communication can often be seen as inconsequential, which is reflected in how we talk about them—”verbal flubs,” “slip-ups,” “lapses in communication,” and so on. But these little turns of phrases belie the reality that miscommunication can be costly.

In a recent study, we found that numerous faux pas that financial advisors may view as minor actually damage their relationship with their clients, and many of these mistakes were rooted in miscommunication. There were issues related to how things were communicated (like how fees were broken down), and there were issues related to what was communicated (like how long it would take an advisor to complete a task).

Miscommunication is common and impossible to eradicate altogether, but understanding it allows advisors to better prevent and resolve these issues when they happen, helping mitigate the amount of damage done.

You will miscommunicate with clients.

Miscommunication is inevitable because language itself is ambiguous. If I told you, “I emailed the woman with an idea for a project,” you might interpret it as: 1) I sent this woman an idea I had for a project, or 2) I reached out to a woman who had an idea for a project. There is more than one valid way to interpret this sentence.

This issue with communication is compounded by the foibles inherent to the human mind. For one, we tend to think egocentrically when we talk. That is, our default is to treat our personal, private knowledge as common ground with the person we’re talking to, even when it’s not. This is especially troublesome for professionals, so much so that it is considered a “curse” (the curse of knowledge). When we know something, it’s hard to imagine not knowing it. This issue is further exacerbated by our tendency toward overconfidence. We often talk about overconfidence in decision-making, but people likewise think they have communicated their point to others better than they actually have.

We can see both behavioral biases come into play when we look at those faux pas. When telling a client the next steps you are going to take with their investments, you may fail to communicate an expected timeline with them because you know the estimate but fail to consider they might not have a frame of reference. Furthermore, you may think you have successfully communicated with clients about how your fees break down because you touched on it in a meeting but fail to see how this breakdown was unclear to the client.

What can you do about it?

Now, I’ve given you the bad news about miscommunication being both costly and inevitable, but I will not leave you hanging on tips for dealing with it.

1. Practice clear and concise communication.

For our purposes here, practice makes automatic. We are more likely to make those egocentric communication mistakes when our brains are working harder. This is because, when taxed, our brains turn to automatic ways of thinking to help complete tasks. Since multiple things can be taxing your brain on a given day, you should make clear and concise language your default for explaining important and complex topics—from how fees work and the best interest standard to the different investment vehicles and which ones are (or aren’t) right for your client.

First, take the time to nail down your messaging. You need to strike the balance between relying on industry jargon and knowledge and being too patronizing. Start by writing out an explanation for a topic and then read it over; ask yourself if there is background knowledge that a well-respected friend who isn’t in finance would need in order to understand you. If so, add it in. When sufficiently revised, practice these explanations with yourself, your colleagues, or your dog until they are second nature.

2. Create frameworks of written communication that you can deploy with your clients.

Sharing information with clients in a way to ensure they extract the important information is not easy. Advisors often have to convey a lot of information to clients, but done improperly, this can lead to information overload (where the amount of information breaches our capacity to process it). However, creating and deploying standard frameworks for written communications can help by scaffolding how that information is processed by your clients.

For example, you can set a standard for client emails that subject lines must all contain the same information (such as the purpose of the email and whether action is required by the client). For longer emails, you can also include a key summary section that includes things like next steps and expected timelines. How you standardize your communication can be specific to your practice and clients, but setting up guidelines for doing so can help ensure you’re providing clear information to clients and that they know how to find it.

3. Follow up with clients to check on comprehension.

This is not a test for your clients; it’s a test for you. Following up with clients will help you determine if you need to communicate better. One way you can do so is by sending clients a postmeeting survey, checking to see whether there was miscommunication. We have developed one based on the most common faux pas financial advisors make, but you might want to develop your own.

It’s important here to not just send out this survey and wash your hands of it. Instead, you must follow up with clients and clarify any miscommunication that happened. This practice gives you the twin benefits of mitigating damage that miscommunication may have done to a particular relationship and of helping you identify your communication weak points.

The author or authors do not own shares in any securities mentioned in this article. Find out about Morningstar’s editorial policies.

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