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Let Go of Your Personal Attachment to Client Goals

January 26, 2018

This time we hear from Laurie Kane Burkhardt, a wealth manager at Modera Wealth Management in Boston. She recalls learning how to handle clients who may not always agree with her suggestions -- and to honor their progress along the way.

Sometimes I think of my process as mirroring that of a doctor’s: listen to challenges, deliver a diagnosis and create a treatment plan to help clients reach their goals. Having been an advisor for more than 10 years, I have seen many unique situations; I have also learned that people make decisions emotionally and that what I believe is best for the client is not always what they choose to work toward.

I have been working with a couple who are committed to paying for both of their children to attend private universities. They do not want their kids to have to take out any loans or use financial aid; they want to fund the entire experience. When we met five years ago they had one child in middle school and one beginning high school. This year the reality of the situation has hit; their older child is finishing her second year of college and their younger child is in high school.

During the first analysis I showed them that their goal of fully funding their kids’ educations was going to dramatically impact their ability to retire. They’d have to save more, spend less, and work many more years than originally anticipated. I laid out some alternative options -- student loans, financial aid, financing certain parts of the college experience -- but they did not budge on their decision.

I tried to walk the fine line between making recommendations and appearing nonjudgmental. I felt like it was my fiduciary duty to tell them the extent to which that could impact their other goals.

I tried to convey the realities of the situation, reminding them that their kids can take out loans for school but they can’t take out loans to fund their retirement. But when they stayed firm I ultimately realized that at the end of the day it was their money and their call. It didn’t matter that my preferences differed from theirs; I had to meet them where they were, not where I wanted them to be.

Once I had accepted that I wasn’t going to change their decision I started closely analyzing their spending and helped them figure out ways to increase savings while lowering expenses. We designated a specific amount that would automatically transfer from their checking account to the brokerage account on a monthly basis. They’ve managed to save over $140,000 in just three years -- a tremendous success, yet a far cry from two full rides to college.

I have also come to realize that it’s not just about accepting clients’ goals, but also about honoring their progress along the way.

Laurie Kane Burkhardt

Last time we met, the couple was having trouble grasping how much longer they would have to work in order to afford the education and fund their retirement. The original goal was to retire in five years, but I explained that it would be very hard to live the way they wanted to live if they stopped working that soon.

"We have been working so hard to save," the wife told me. "It’s discouraging that we are still so far."

I realized that I had not taken enough time to recognize their progress. Instead, I'd jumped to talking about the game plan and what they still had to accomplish.

After the meeting I called to apologize, reminding them that they have made real progress, and that we will continue to work together towards their goals. Instead of leaping to further solutions, I am now acknowledging where they’re coming from and recognizing that the choices they’ve made have not come easy. They want the best for their children, and their efforts are worth celebrating.