When Clients Get Too Personal, Advisors Rein Them In
Top advisors excel at listening. They crave information and love to learn about clients’ lives.
XAutoplay: On | OffBut sometimes they learn too much.
It’s great when clients open up about their money-related fears and concerns. And when they share their career goals, family dynamics and health scares, it can help advisors gain a better understanding of their overall situation.
Yet when clients get too personal, it makes some advisors antsy. Opening up about their religious or political views — or admitting marital infidelities or other indiscretions — can put advisors in a bind.
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“They may not have a psychiatrist, so we may be the next best thing,” said Ryan Marshall, a certified financial planner in Wyckoff, N.J. “It can get uncomfortable as you think, ‘I don’t know how to handle going down this road.'”
Advisors apply different strategies for clients who disclose boatloads of irrelevant, private information. Some planners take it all in, listening attentively and staying silent.
Others pounce on the first opportunity to get back to business. While remaining polite and respectful, they will gently urge the client to stick to more pressing issues rather than veer off course.
For many advisors, the key is whether a client’s over-disclosure has any bearing on their finances. When someone rants about politics or proselytizes about religion, that’s far afield. But mention of, say, a possible divorce can impact one’s long-term financial plan.
Compliance And Confidentiality
Rumblings of marital friction pose a particularly thorny challenge for advisors. Hearing intimate details about a couple’s travails may lead advisors to want to cover their ears. But the gist of the conversation has relevance as they weigh the best financial moves to make in the client’s best interest.
“It’s a delicate balance,” said Matt Cosgriff, a Minneapolis-based certified financial planner. “It’s especially tricky if you have a couple signed up as the client and, in a pending divorce, one of them does not want the other to get access to an account.”
In such situations, advisors must navigate among a thicket of compliance requirements and client confidentiality rules. Seeking guidance from a compliance expert or attorney can help.
For Cosgriff, careful preparation reduces the likelihood of clients engaging in unrelated, overly personal disclosure. He likes to distribute an agenda beforehand that outlines topics for discussion.
“Setting clear expectations at the beginning of the meeting and getting the client’s buy-in” creates a more productive, structured session, he says. Individuals are less apt to raise inappropriate topics if they’ve acknowledged the importance of covering higher-priority items and extracting the most value from the advisor’s time.
Advisors also try to find a tactful way to exert conversational control, without appearing insensitive or domineering. They know that interrupting clients who stray off-topic can be perceived as rude.
Stick To The Agenda
Cosgriff tries to dignify his clients’ comments, even if they occasionally fall outside the scope of the agenda. Rather than cut them off, he might say, “Let’s come back to that issue, maybe over lunch.”
“Listening is our most important job,” he said. “But it also comes back to an advisor’s ability to manage a meeting and stay on task.”
While few clients might take him up on his lunch offer, it signals that he’s receptive to listening to them — in another setting.
“It’s a way to recognize the validity of their viewpoint, particularly if it’s personal and not part of the agenda,” he said.
An agenda also serves as a silent reminder to stay on track. Cosgriff likes to kick off a meeting by asking, “What do you want to accomplish today?” He then incorporates the client’s answer into the list of items to discuss.
“That way, if they veer off, we can bring them back” by referring to what they said they sought to achieve in the meeting, he says.
Like Cosgriff, Marshall drafts an agenda for client meetings and uses it to direct the dialogue. He highlights the printed agenda if they venture off track for too long.
Marshall recalls a divorcee who expressed anger about her former husband. Her feelings remained raw and she needed to vent.
When Marshall discovered that her ex-husband was still listed as a beneficiary on one of her retirement accounts, she urged him to change it right away. And that led to a mini-tirade as she reflected on her years of marriage.
“She started in with ‘he did this’ and ‘he did that’ and it got into too much information for me,” Marshall said. “I assured her I’d get the change in beneficiary taken care of for her and added, ‘Let’s go to the next item on the agenda.'”