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​By Robert Sofia

Becoming a better listener is one of the most important—and lucrative—skills you can develop as a financial planner.

Don’t believe me? Just look at Facebook. We post about our kids, vacations, and opinions in hopes others will like, comment, and react. We want to prove people are listening.

If your clients didn’t want to be heard, they wouldn’t have taken time from their day to travel to your office and sit in your waiting room. They would be online, working with a robo-adviser. The most successful financial planners know this. They provide amazing, personalized client service that more than justifies a reasonable fee. How? By listening.

Here are four listening skills that can help you boost your bottom line, plus three tips on how to become a better listener.

Skill No. 1: Listen for Information

You’re helping a client prepare for retirement and it comes up that she loves to travel. Your typical response might be to say, “Oh, me too,” and start swapping stories about Paris and London. But doing that misses the point.

Instead, ask her how often she travels. Where does she like to go? Does she stay in five-star hotels or self-catering apartments? What destinations are on her bucket list?

Doing this allows you to build a travel budget into her retirement plan. Instead of giving her a set of numbers and talking about risk and liquid assets, you’re giving her a path to realizing her travel dreams. Try getting that from a robo-adviser.

Skill No. 2: Listen for What Isn’t Being Said

You’re meeting with a couple and one person starts squirming when the other mentions their son. The savvy financial planner notices this, digs a little deeper, and discovers Johnny Jr. is an ungrateful jerk who tries to bilk them for everything they’re worth. Because one parent is an enabler who can’t say no, Johnny usually gets what he wants.

An average planner misses the issue entirely. A good planner may come to the next meeting armed with projections that show how the couple won’t be able to survive in retirement if they buy Johnny one more iPhone or car. A great planner may offer to call Johnny to help break the bad news.

Skill No. 3: Listen for Non-Rational Motivations

This one is often the hardest for some financial planners. Our brains are typically wired to think in terms of facts and figures, debits and credits. But understanding clients’ non-rational motivations is vital to delivering a financial plan that reflects their values.

Humans aren’t completely rational beings; they approach money and financial planning with a little logic and a lot of emotions. Sometimes it’s not just about getting XY performance, it’s about investing in companies they believe in. 

Would your clients accept a lower performance, and a higher fee, if you develop a portfolio that supports their non-rational motivations. If so, you can only learn what those are by listening.

Skill No. 4: Listen to Build and Protect Your Business

Being a good listener isn’t just about your clients; it’s also about you.

Say a new client mentions that their last financial planner “didn’t work out.” The planner asks why not and learns the client sued because they were promised a 10 percent return and only got 9.7 percent. The savvy planner who has been listening runs for the hills.

Another client mentions they love the Chicago Cubs. You enter this into your CRM and when the team is doing well, you send all Cub-loving clients a branded fleece blanket. These clients now have a literal advertisement for you on their couch. You did something they will never forget.

Become a Better Listener

We think listening is easy. It’s just a matter of sitting there and nodding along, right? Wrong. Listening is hard work. Here’s how to do it right.

Pay attention to body language. Remember ungrateful Johnny? The planner picked up on that because he or she noticed one of the parents looked awfully uncomfortable while the other was talking about their kids. Pay attention to your clients’ movements and facial expressions. If their body language relays a different message than their words, you may want to dig deeper.

At the same time, it’s also important your body language shows you’re actively engaged in the conversation. Maintain eye contact. Tilt your head to show you’re listening. Don’t cross your arms (it looks defensive), lean forward and nod and laugh to show your clients their words matter.

Build rapport with empathy. Stephen Covey, author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People wrote: “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.”

We’ve got to change that. 

The best, most successful financial planners check their egos at the door. They don’t try to prove their intelligence by finishing clients’ sentences. Instead, they are fully present for the conversation.

They also show their clients they’re listening by building empathy throughout the conversation. If the speaker looks happy, their facial expressions will reflect that. If the speaker is talking about something sad, they’ll be more somber.

Putting yourself in someone else’s shoes takes energy and focus, but it pays dividends.

Ask open-ended questions. Another way to be a better listener and build rapport with your clients is by asking open-ended questions, such as: “Tell me why this is important to you,” or “Why do I sense some tension when we talk about Johnny?”

Studies have shown that people who ask open-ended questions are perceived as better listeners. You’re not simply nodding along while the other person speaks; you’re showing that you want to learn more about how they think and feel.

Ask questions and then actually listen to your clients’ answers. Rather than sitting down with your client and asking the standard questions to deliver a standard financial plan, use good listening skills to deliver a plan that addresses clients’ hopes, insecurities, and dreams. And gain a long-term client in the process.

Robert Sofia is a martech entrepreneur and marketing consultant who has served more than 1,000 companies since 2005. He is a co-founder of Snappy Kraken, which won the 2016 FinTech Competition by XY Planning Network.

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