Financial Advisors, Are Your Clients Telling You What They Really Want From You?

Do you really know what your clients want from you? 

For that matter, do your clients really know what they need from you? 

And should you be delivering the same services to your regular clients as to your High Net Worth (HNW) clients and affluent investors?

Read several articles about what clients really want, and you’ll notice a lot of overlap and what might pass perfunctory advice. 

Dig a little deeper, however, and you might start questioning the conventional wisdom.

But scratch even harder and you might wonder if clients and advisors ever share the same planet, let alone converse. The disconnect can be that obvious. 

So what’s the answer?

A review of the literature will take you on a journey through The Good, The Bad and The Ugly of thoughts and opinions on this subject. Some of the findings may frustrate and discourage, even possibly leave you confused. But stick with this thread until the end because there just may be light at the end of the tunnel.

The Good: Conventional Wisdom

This section requires little introduction. Quite simply it represents a compilation and categorization of the general points that come up in the literature. This is the conventional wisdom as to what clients want and expect from their financial advisors:

  • Understanding—Like most people in the world, your financial clients want to work with someone who understands them as individuals—not statistics and not lumped into groups. You can achieve a certain level of understanding by first asking the right questions. Unfortunately, too often the questioner fails to be a really good listener.

If you want to make points with your clients, ask personal questions that help you understand what they most want their financial planning to accomplish, such as a legacy, secure retirement or philanthropy. In other words, you want to be able to make their investment strategy reflect their personal values as closely as possible.

Equally important is to understand what terms like “financial freedom” and “financial security” mean to the individual investor.

  • Respect—This is another general term. Who doesn’t want respect? But this is more than Rodney Dangerfield’s lament. Your clients want to feel that you respect their financial position, regardless of the value of their assets, their age or even the fact that they might have waited until just a few years before retirement to get serious about their financial situation.

Clients need to like working with their financial advisor. They need to feel comfortable sharing personal information. They expect their advisor to be human and show empathy (even sympathy) as the situation warrants.

Respect comes from building a good relationship, one that ideally has grown and deepened over many years of service. Sometimes a personal friendship develops, but it’s not required. First and foremost you’re an advisor…not a BFF.

  • Integrity—This is the core, the essence, of the client-financial advisor relationship. You are someone who is honestly working on behalf of the client. You fulfill a fiduciary role. You’re not some sales rep with a quota of financial products you need to move this month.

Also be transparent. Explain your fees clearly so there are no surprises, then earn those fees with your strong value proposition.

  • Accessibility—Whether it’s a case of a client trying to reach you or you proactively reaching out to the client, be the financial advisor who stays in touch and is available in good times and bad. When a client calls or emails, respond in a timely fashion.

And communicate often—send out a monthly or quarterly newsletter, or drop an occasional email with timely information. If you see a new law that may impact your clients’ financial position or if you are detecting a change in market forces, help your clients take advantage of the opportunities and avoid the setbacks.

  • Education—Any time you can provide clarity by making it easier for a client to filter through financial information or economic news, you are providing a worthwhile service. And this extends to your client’s family. Perhaps you can help your client explain financial decisions to other family members or begin to help older children get up to speed.

The trick, however, is to know how much education your clients really want. At some point, they’ll probably figure that’s something they hired you to solve. Finding that right balance will probably differ from client to client.

  • Holistic Problem Solver—While clients have always looked to their financial advisors to be trustworthy problem solvers, the range of potential problems is becoming more inclusive. Today’s clients want a financial advisor that can help with tax issues, work with them on estate planning, discuss charitable giving and philanthropic goals and even collaborate with other financial services professionals, such as a tax attorney, estate planner and/or accountant.

To meet the needs of today’s client who is looking for one-stop financial shopping, you probably want to be the financial advisor who offers a holistic value proposition that covers investment, retirement, business, tax, estate planning and more.

  • Competence—It should go without saying that financial advisors need to have the financial acumen to do their job. That means balancing risk and managing market volatility while helping clients achieve their stated financial goals. Your job is to make their life easier so they don’t spend their waking hours worrying about the future. They want to be in good hands with you.

The Bad: Confusion and Cross-Purposes

While the conventional wisdom is fairly logical and probably reflects what a lot of financial advisors try to deliver, some studies suggest that clients are not really sure what they want, which may lead to more confusion than dissatisfaction.

A recent Natixis survey of 750 individual investors with a minimum of $100,000 in investable assets serves as a case in point. Respondents shared their interest in purpose-driven investing, and specifically in ESG (environmental, social and governance) funds. At the same time, their desired financial outcome was often more in line with conventional investments.

In truth, their responses to questions about returns, performance and safety are often at odds:

  • On average, these investors reported that they needed annual returns of 8.9 above inflation in order to meet their expenses. As such, 69% claim that they are comfortable taking risks in order to meet their goals.
  • But here’s the problem. In this same survey, 81% placed their needs for safety above performance, and 57% reported that they believed that volatility in their portfolio could reduce their chances of reaching their financial goals.
  • Well over half (63%) claimed to have strong investment knowledge, and yet fewer than half (45%) completely trusted themselves to make their own investment decisions.

While a financial advisor may have trouble understanding what clients want in this study, they can take comfort that 88% trusted their financial advisors (more than any other source, including family or friends) to help them sort out their financial decisions.

At the other end of the spectrum is a 2018 SEI study of HNW clients. When asked about their satisfaction, 85% said they were either “somewhat or very satisfied.” Of those, 47% were very satisfied with the work their advisors were doing on their behalf. In particular, they felt their advisors 1) provided a level of personal advice that suited their situation, 2) were trustworthy and sufficiently transparent, and 3) generally provided a consistent customer experience.

An earlier 2016 Capital Group and Marketing Strategies Survey also found similar results. According to the study, 85% of respondents said they believed that their advisor worked “in their best interest,” and 77% reported that their trust had “improved over time.”

Apparently HNW clients want much the same thing that other investors seek. Or do they?

According to the Capital Group study, the difference has more to do with the expectations and sophistication of HNW clients.

The Capital Group broke its findings into three reveals:

  1. HNW investors typically are successful; they often own their businesses. They are used to surrounding themselves with competent advisors in all aspects of their business. They expect the same from their financial advisors.

If you are a financial advisor to HNW clients, expect to be tested. They watch, ask questions, listen and observe. They’re sizing you up and deciding how much of their trust you deserve.

If you want to get HNW individuals to open up more and give you greater insight into their real thoughts about their financial planning and expectations, engage them away from the office (yours or theirs). Meet over lunch or dinner, and draw them into a deep conversation.

  1. HNW investors are strategic. They usually have the courage of their convictions, and they seldom make a move out of desperation or jump on emotion. They are disciplined investors. And that often doesn’t stop in retirement.

These are highly accomplished individuals want to maintain their edge. As their advisor, your best bet is to learn how to work with them rather than try to override them. Listen, respect their ideas and, when necessary, provide sound counterpoint.

  1. Expect your HNW client to have more than one advisor. In fact, it’s estimated that about a third work with multiple advisors. In this way they feel they can mitigate risk and have access to best-in-class financial products across the board.

You may not be able to dissuade your HNW clients of this practice. But perhaps as you build trust you can win over more responsibility. Also, the time to broach the subject is usually during a critical business or financial change—such as a move to a new job, buying property or a significant change in their personal life.

The Ugly: The Disconnect Revealed

Regardless of background or net worth, most clients and investors want much the same things from their advisors—trust, competence, integrity, respect and understanding. The conventional wisdom, it seems, is good advice. But there is a disconnect between clients and advisors, and it’s one that financial advisors need to take seriously. 

In 2017, Investing Media Solutions asked investors and financial advisors about their investing priorities. Investors felt equally strongly about growth (54%), wealth preservation and risk management (51%) and income (50%).

But when financial advisors were asked, they had a clear first, second and third priority and they weren’t in alignment with the client responses. Advisors listed wealth preservation and risk management (74%), retirement planning (62%), and retirement income (54%).

That’s the quantitative disconnect. What about the qualitative?

Financial advisor Sara Grillo, CFA, queried with both advisors and HNW investors about client wants and needs. The advisors’ list is pretty standard. In their opinions, clients their want advisors to listen, be trustworthy and ethical, evoke confidence, and provide direction and leadership.

When Grillo asked HNW clients the same question, they responded not in generalities, but with specifics:

  • Stop selling; start advising.
  • Provide individualized assessment based on specific situation, not boilerplate.
  • A desire to be pushed out of one’s comfort zone.
  • Good enough so the client can stop worrying about finances and focus on other things.
  • Be a fiduciary.
  • Take a holistic, strategic approach to the entire portfolio, not individual products.
  • Be someone who stays current on trends and products.

The Best: Takeaways That Ensure You Remain In Sync with Your Clients

So do you need to rethink your entire approach to working with your clients? Probably not. If you’re delivering on the conventional wisdom, you probably have most of the bases covered. What is clear, however, is that you can’t give lip service to the conventional wisdom.

Top advisor and Advisorist member Paul Bufty—founder and president of The Financial Group of Philadelphia—sums it up well: “We’re dealing with people…with families. We’re not dealing with account numbers and assets and spreadsheets.”

He explains that when a client comes in and sits down with you, that person not only has a story, but that story is going to tell you a lot about the investor sitting in front of you. It is our individual experiences that shape who we are and provide the foundation for our philosophy about money, family and values.

As Bufty so elegantly explains, “If all I’m doing is looking at your statements and I’m just another spreadsheet guy, then I’m doing a disservice to you. And I’m doing a disservice to myself.”

And one closing point: The basics never change—respect, understanding, listening, integrity, competence, etc.—they’re timeless. It’s the times—new technologies, services, even investments—that come along and change things.

To stay at the top of your game, you need to know what’s coming. More importantly, you need to know what your clients believe is important and build them into your value proposition.

In a word… listen!

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