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Establish Open Dialogue Right Away

By R.A. Monroe January 15, 2016

This week we interviewed Zaneilia Harris, president of Harris and Harris Wealth Management, an Upper Malboro, Md.-based wealth management and financial planning firm serving professional women. Harris recalls how encouraging a client to open up during an initial meeting provided crucial information.

Over the years, I’ve found that my initial meeting with new clients really sets the tone for our subsequent relationship. Even though we’re just getting to know one another, that first hour or two is where we set the foundation for the rest of our interactions. For that reason, I try to keep my schedule fairly open so those meetings can last anywhere from 75 minutes to two hours, depending on where the conversation goes.

Recently, I had a meeting with a client that once again showed me how critical that initial meeting can be. I met with a woman who came to me as a referral. I specialize in working with professional women, and she fit the bill — she was a single woman making six figures, but she lacked a certain confidence in her ability to manage her own finances.

During our initial conversation, I took very detailed notes about everything she said, which is a typical part of my process. When I typed up those meeting notes later on, I noticed a few key themes. Looking at my notes more closely, I realized that she made several mentions of how money was handled in her household when she was growing up. Her father had managed the family’s finances, while her mother hadn’t paid much attention. I recognized that she had inherited her mother’s attitude toward money, even if she didn’t realize it.

At our next meeting, I went through the notes I’d taken during our first meeting to make sure I had captured the story correctly. I mentioned the theme I had noticed, and I could tell from her body language that that insight resonated with her. What’s more, since I was able to identify this tendency that she’d never before been able to put in words, she was finally able to take concrete steps to address it.

Zaneilia Harris

I was only able to pinpoint the problem because she’d felt comfortable enough in that initial conversation to bring up small details that may have felt irrelevant to her current situation. In order to create that kind of open atmosphere, I’ve prioritized creating a comfortable space that puts my clients at ease as soon as they walk through the door. I want them to feel like they’re at home. My office is decorated in warm colors, and I always have music playing in the background — just something soothing and not too distracting. Before a client comes in, I’ll light a candle. All these things help set the tone for the meeting. For some women, talking about their finances can be extremely stressful. I’m trying to counter that by creating a cozy feeling.

Establishing an open atmosphere can be draining, too. As people open up, they might cry or get extremely emotional. Sometimes I’m drained after these meetings because I’ve been listening so hard. That’s another reason it’s important to be very careful about your scheduling. If I know I have a meeting that has the potential to get emotional, I try to give myself a little space afterward so I know I have time to recover, and so I can give my next client my full attention.