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Tell Your Clients What They’re Doing Right

September 22, 2017

This time we hear from Catherine Hawley, an independent financial planner based in Monterey, Calif. She recalls the moment she realized the importance of giving clients positive reinforcement.

Earlier this year I met with a couple for the first time. They were in their late thirties and had two children. One of the first things they told me was that they been so busy with their lives and careers they hadn’t really explored investment opportunities. They had a small amount of money in a company 401(k) but had just chosen the default option. They felt they were behind schedule when it came to preparing for their future, which is why they came to see me.

Their lack of investments was clearly a point of discomfort for them; I could tell from their body language they felt some tension even bringing it up. But when I reviewed the other aspects of their financial lives I saw they were actually in much better shape than they thought. They owned their house free and clear, they had good-paying jobs and they’d been good savers. Compared to many people I speak with, who may have significant mortgage or debt payments, they were actually ahead in many respects.

When I told them this I could see them both visibly relax. After I had taken the time to point out what they had done right so far, the rest of the conversation proceeded much more smoothly.

A few weeks later I attended an event that made me think of this couple again. The speaker was discussing some of the psychological aspects of advising clients, and said the best way we can motivate our clients to make real lasting change is through enthusiasm, empathy and genuine compliments. I realized those three things were exactly what I had given this couple without even thinking about it.

As advisors, it’s easy to get caught up in telling clients what they can do to improve their financial lives. That’s where our value-add comes from, after all. We want our clients to make better decisions with our help. But this experience made me realize that when we only focus on what could be better, we miss an opportunity to connect with our clients by telling them what they’re already doing right.

Since then, I’ve made a point to talk to clients not only about areas that need improvement or important action steps for us to take, but also to find something they’re already doing right. I’ve made it a formal point of my process to find something with every client that I can be enthusiastic and empathetic about, or an area where I can offer a genuine compliment. It’s easier with some clients than others, of course — but I’ve managed to find something positive to say about every single situation I’ve been presented with.

Underlining what clients are already doing right helps them feel empowered to tackle those areas that need improvement. It reminds them they aren’t starting from square one, even though it might feel that way. It’s a way to put people at ease and to get them feeling motivated. If you only focus on what hasn’t been done yet, you risk discouraging your clients.

There’s one other nice thing about building these moments of positivity into my practice: It makes my work more enjoyable, too.