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What to Do When Clients Give You “the Look”

October 17, 2014

This week FA-IQ interviewed Amy Sehayek, founder of Prism Financial Planning, a fee-only firm based in Issaquah, Wash. Sehayek recalls a client who didn’t understand what she was saying, no matter how many different ways she said it.

I recently met with a new client, a computer programmer who had never worked with a financial planner before. He told me he was looking for general advice and investment recommendations, which I provide on a fee-per-hour basis. I could tell right off the bat that he was a very intelligent guy. He was very engaged in the planning process, asking lots of questions along the way. But as I was explaining one part of the recommendations I’d put together for him, he gave me what I call “the Look.”

Any planner who’s been in the business for a while has seen the Look. It’s difficult to describe exactly — it’s sort of like a blank stare, but with interest behind it. When clients look at you that way, you know they’re not following what you’re saying; but you also know they really want to understand. There’s a piece missing that’s not allowing them to grasp the concept.

In this particular case, the client seemed to be confused about why I was recommending different asset classes for different investment vehicles. For example, I suggested he keep most of his fixed-income products in his retirement plan to minimize the tax burden on the income. As I was explaining this, he got very quiet. Then he gave me the Look. I knew something wasn’t connecting, so I tried to frame my explanation in a slightly different way. But he was still quiet and still giving me the Look.

I tried explaining it from a different angle once again, hoping things would click. When I asked if my explanation made sense, he said, “I think,” which I took to mean “no.” There was clearly something he didn’t understand, but he wasn’t able to articulate what it was. I couldn’t think of any other way to make things clearer; and I worried that if I tried repeating the explanation I’d already given, I’d just frustrate both of us. Instead, I told him to take the plan home and look over it closely. I let him know that I expected him to have a least a couple further questions, and I encouraged him to follow up via phone or e-mail so I could answer them.

Sure enough, a few days later he sent me an e-mail with a few specific questions. He had finally figured out how to articulate just what was confusing him. Once I read his e-mail, I could jump on the phone and answer his questions relatively easily. This time, when I heard him say, “Oh, I see,” I could tell he meant it. A couple weeks later, he e-mailed me to let me know he’d implemented my recommendations; and he thanked me for my patience.

Every client is different. Some are verbal thinkers, while others are more visual. Some can tell you what’s puzzling them right there in the meeting, while others need more time to think through what they’ve heard and figure out what part isn’t making sense to them. To provide truly great service to your clients, you need to assure them they can contact you even after the meeting is over. It’s not enough to say something vague like, “Let me know if you have any questions.” Instead, tell them you expect to hear from them. That makes it much more likely they’ll feel comfortable about getting in touch — which means they’ll have a better chance of understanding and implementing your recommendations.