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Is it time for a personal conversation?

Every year, I sneak away from the office to attend a handful of professional conferences to enhance my skills as a financial advisor so I can enhance the lives of my clients. Like most things in life, some of the sessions I attend are ok, some are quite good, and some are positively and profoundly great. What makes the great ones great? When they resonate with me when I return from the conference and find myself thinking about what I’ve learned and how to put the lessons learned into practice.

This morning, I couldn’t stop thinking about a session at last week’s SSG conference in San Diego where industry guru Bob Veres gave an inspiring talk about what advisory clients really want from their relationships with their financial advisors. Bob highlighted the unique relationship between advisors and our clients, and he spoke about the importance of the top three things clients want (and need!) from a trusted advisor:

  1. Accessibility
  2. Compassion
  3. Competence 

Bob was spot on. Over the years, I’ve learned that accessibility, compassion, and competence are so intertwined that it’s nearly impossible to separate them. The challenge, always, is finding the right balance in this three-legged stool we call ‘financial planning’, but which, in reality, includes a complex combination of number-crunching, family and personal counseling, stress management, grief support, and even best friend. It’s a role I have cherished since we opened our doors more than 16 years ago.

During those 16 years, I can’t remember a year that has been more challenging than this year for our family of clients. There have been many people in crisis. In the past 12 months alone, four clients have died, and serious illness has dealt a blow to the ‘normal’ lives of a half dozen others. One family lost their son. Three couples got divorced. Two of our newest clients are recent widows. Others have been laid off, pushed out, and have had to watch their plans unravel due to unplanned changes in their careers. In every case, I have found that by being accessible, by showing compassion, and by applying my knowledge and skills to do the planning piece of my job as well as possible, I’ve been able to help in ways large and small.

As I think about the challenges we’ve faced together this year, my thoughts keep returning to the importance of listening carefully in every conversation. As an advisor, it’s easy for me to get laser-focused on the problem at hand. Yet time and time again, the most important financial issues are often revealed not during the formal planning process, but through simple conversations:

  • Miriam called the office to request a sizable withdrawal from her retirement account on top of her regular quarterly distribution. In addition to fulfilling the request, I made a quick phone call. Miriam assured me that everything was fine, but that she was having her entire house rewired, and the estimate for the job was huge. After listening, I recommended that she contact a different electrician that I’d met through another client. The new quote saved her almost $10,000, plus it stayed invested in her IRA account, saving her even more money by avoiding the tax from the potential withdrawal.

  • I called Kevin for a quick check-in after tax season. As soon as I heard his voice on the line, I knew something was wrong. Within minutes he told me that his wife had been diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer. The focus of our conversation quickly shifted from taxes to reviewing their life insurance policies, confirming their account beneficiaries, and taking a look at their cash flow to be sure money was the last thing they had to worry about in the coming months. I was so glad I had called.

  • Liz came in for her annual investment review. After we looked at the numbers and agreed on her strategy for the coming year, she asked a question I hadn’t expected at all: “What happens if I get divorced?” Just like that, her strategy took on a whole new focus.

Happily, the year has also been full of positive events for our clients. Some are awash in the excitement of sending their kids off to college. Others are planning weddings, welcoming grandchildren, and (finally!) retiring. In every situation, whether happy or sad, I’m grateful to be providing each person with a safe place to talk. In my office (or over lunch or dinner or an afternoon at the theatre), my clients have my ear for a confidential, thoughtful conversation about life and money—without fear, without judgment, and without shame.

Looking back over the past 12 months, I now can see that I’ve been stretched unusually thin. While compassion may be one of my fortés, I felt like I couldn’t humanly have enough to give. In an attempt to manage my time and my stress, I followed advice I’d received from a respected business coach and started taking only scheduled calls, with Jamie acting as my diligent gate-keeper. I realize now it was a mistake. My attempt at being more efficient made me less accessible to my clients—especially those who may not be in any known crisis, but who may need me nonetheless. 

In the absence of conversation, things inevitably get lost. It’s my job to make time to have the conversations, let the challenges reveal themselves, and then do everything I can to help. If you ever find that I’m not as accessible as you’d like, as compassionate as you need, or delivering the level of competence you expect, please let me know! My passion is to be the best financial advisor I can be—which includes balancing that sometimes-precarious three-legged stool of accessibility, compassion, and competence. With the help of our great team and your valued feedback, my goal is to serve every member of our amazing client family better than ever. (Thanks for the inspiration Bob!)