Be empathetic to win over clients

February 7, 2014 | Last updated on February 7, 2014
6 min read

In 2010, Todd Peters rescued a client who’d lost everything.

The client’s house had burned down due to faulty wiring, and Peters was her first call; she was 67, single and had no immediate family. She’d even lost her two cats in the fire.

Peters, a Winnipeg-based CFP with IPC Investment Corporation, stepped up. He helped her list immediate needs, such as clothing and food. And he picked up supplies for her from a local drugstore.

He also found her a hotel, and dealt with her insurer. “The task was quite difficult because she’d lost all her paperwork, and she couldn’t even remember her insurer. But I helped her fill in forms for everything from hotel reimbursement to the listing of all her personal possessions.”

The process took more than three months, but it did result in the insurer reimbursing the value of the house and her belongings.

Since then, Peters says the client’s referred 12 more families. And, though she’d been his client for five years and only had about $40,000 in investments back in 2010, she’s now increased her portfolio to about $800,000. He’s also helping her buy a new home: he introduced her to a real estate agent and is working with her mortgage broker to put financing in place.

Conversation starter

Questions to use

Try these questions during meetings to get clients to open up.

  • Why did you choose me?
  • Tell me about yourself and your family.
  • How did you learn about money, and how did your family manage money?
  • Have you ever regretted a financial decision, and why?
  • What’s your past experience with advisors?
  • Do you think your return and saving expectations are realistic?
  • What are you most worried about?
  • How do you see our relationship working in five or ten years?
  • What have you accomplished or what has changed since we last met?
  • What do you think we achieved at this meeting, and what were the highlights?

Sources: Tom McCullough of Northwood Family Office; Todd Peters of IPC Investment Corporation; and Kelly Pather of Assante Financial Management.

This wasn’t a one-off situation. This past fall, Peters travelled more than 2,000 kilometers east to Peterborough, Ont., to visit a client dying of cancer. Though he could have answered questions over the phone, he knew the situation required a personal touch to ensure the client was comfortable with how assets, including a pension, would be transferred to his wife.

Team support is critical to this level of service. Peters works with three advisors and three support staff at his home office in Winnipeg, which looks after 270 families. He also has a business partner in B.C., and together they serve 350 families in the Okanagan area. Plus, he owns part of an office in Toronto, adding another 400 families to his book.

“Having great support staff and associate advisors allows us to tailor services in a real, personal way,” he says.

Get started on the right foot

If you make enough of an effort to connect with a client, you’ll become a core part of his support network.

That’s why the first year with clients should be intense, says Kelly Pather, CFP, a financial planner at Assante Financial Management in Vancouver. During that period, ask lots of questions to determine the best way for you to work together (see “Questions to use,” right).

Also, share stories that highlight your personality, background and expertise. If you’re candid, clients will be more comfortable and honest (See “Get connected,” below).

But if a person’s timid, you may have to ask why several times, notes Tom McCullough, CEO of Northwood Family Office in Toronto. It can take time to get him to open up, but once he does, he can let go of any fears he may have.

After the first year, focus on deepening the relationship. Get to know clients better by providing educational workshops on markets or products, for example.

You can also show you care if you know what’s going on in someone’s life. For instance, Peters offered to speak to a client’s son who was moving in with his girlfriend, and gave tips on co-habitation agreements and paying bills jointly.

Get connected

Sharing personal stories helps clients relate to you.

  • When assisting business owners and introducing wealth-protection strategies, Kelly Pather, CFP, a financial planner at Assante Financial Management, will sometimes tell them her parents lost money during the 1980s recession. During that time, all her family’s money was tied to her father’s business. When profits fell, they lost most of their assets, including their house. This example shows she knows the challenges of running a business, and how important it is to have several plans in place to protect assets.
  • Non-personal stories help clients visualize concepts or strategies, says Tom McCullough, CEO of Northwood Family Office. For example, if a client is near retirement, he tells her to think of building and managing wealth as akin to climbing Mount Everest—growing wealth, or climbing the mountain, seems like the hardest part, but she still has to descend safely. His example clarifies her work is only half done since she has to avoid post-retirement dangers, such as overspending or neglecting to take estate-planning steps early.

Know your boundaries

No matter how well you serve clients, small errors and letdowns, such as missed calls, will stack up against you over time, warns Peters.

So be clear about your services from day one and continually gauge people’s expectations. Peters outlines his background and expertise when meeting prospects, as well as his availability and the roles of all his support staff.

And, he says, maintain boundaries. If you tell a client from the get-go that you won’t make house calls on certain days, or answer calls on weekends, then he won’t be disappointed when you decline a meeting request or fail to get back to him. Most importantly, admit your mistakes. Be open to criticism of your methods, says Peters.

Though rare, he’s had a few clients complain about how support staff have treated them.

When this happens, he’ll ask for every detail, and then repeat the facts to ensure he understands. And he’ll give them the benefit of the doubt. Next, he’ll discuss whether he and his staff have met their requirements. He’ll also stick up for staff if he deems client expectations to be too high.

Regardless, he and his staff are always willing to apologize if they’re at fault.

Changing the point person can also help. Sometimes, as the years pass, a client who initially connected strongly with you may develop a stronger relationship with a member of your team. Don’t be afraid to hand off the file. There’s nothing wrong with being number two.

Lessons from a professional interviewer

Taking advantage of silence can be effective. Jeff Beer, senior online writer with Fast Company, says people are more forthcoming when he’s patient during interviews.

“You can jump from question to question, but you’ll get more information by offering moments of silence.” For instance, if a client pauses after simple yes or no questions, that can be a sign of insecurity, stress or discomfort. Register this pause, rather than trying to coax him to say more.

Beer adds you should start meetings with positive, open-ended questions about a client’s life. Summarizing past conversations is also useful. It shows you’re listening and helps establish a rapport.

When speaking to people with unfamiliar jobs, Beer asks for their help. When interviewing a director of the Institute for Quantum Computing in Waterloo, Ont. Beer didn’t shrink from telling the Stephen Hawking protégé that he’d failed chemistry. That candor encouraged the interviewee to speak in layman’s terms. And, when Beer interviews business owners, he sometimes tells them his dad was an entrepreneur. That lets them know they don’t have to explain the basics.

Katie Keir is content editor of Advisor Group.