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Small Talk With Clients Can Take You Places

June 27, 2014

This week FA-IQ interviewed Chris Currin, president of Pegasus Advisors in Dallas, Texas, who recalled how an unplanned conversation changed the way he viewed his role.

I had been working with this particular couple — a husband and wife with college-age kids — for two or three years, when we had a conversation that made me completely reevaluate our relationship. And it started with just a simple piece of small talk.

I had an appointment scheduled with both clients, but the wife showed up first. Her husband was coming from work, and he had gotten stuck in traffic. The wife and I began talking casually as we waited for her husband to arrive. She started telling me some of the ways that working with a financial advisor had helped their family. She and her husband had taken several vacations as a couple and also gone on some trips with their kids. These were things they wouldn’t necessarily have felt comfortable doing before, because they would’ve considered them extravagant. Previously, they couldn’t have taken these trips without spending the whole time worrying about whether or not they could afford them. But thanks to our work together, they had felt free to do so — and they had made some really valuable memories.

I was surprised to hear all that, partly because I hadn’t known about these vacations, and also because the client seemed to value something in the advisory relationship that was different from what I would typically think of as being my deliverables. As advisors, we tend to think of the value we provide in terms of enhancing investment performance or identifying tax-saving opportunities. What she seemed to value, though, was how the plan we’d come up with both freed and empowered her and her family to make good choices about how to spend their time and money.

It was also striking to me that I never would’ve known that these trips were important to her and her family if we hadn’t had this casual conversation. Instead of being aimless small talk, our discussion actually taught me something both about my clients and about my work.

Since then, I’ve made a point to ask questions that encourage clients to talk about what’s important to their “real life,” and not just our work together. There’s a question I like to use that I pulled from Appreciative Moments by Ed Jacobson: “What’s been going well for you since we last met?” It’s a way to bring up things that might not ordinarily find a place in a standard financial planning conversation, but that may nonetheless be an important part of a client’s life.

Furthermore, opening up the conversation to take a peek at what's going on in a client's life often uncovers changes that need to be incorporated in the planning process. You can think of it as personal due diligence — although to clients, it just seems like you’re checking in with them.