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Give Your Clients Permission to Dream Big

August 29, 2014

This week FA-IQ interviewed Joyce Cole, president of J. Cole Financial Advisers, a financial-planning and investment-advisor firm in Gansevoort, N.Y. Cole talks about the importance of taking a client’s “impossible” dreams seriously.

I met with a couple of new clients, two men in their early fifties. We were meeting to come up with a financial plan, and as part of our conversation we spoke about retirement. One of them wistfully said that he’d love to retire now. “Of course, that’s not possible,” he added quickly.

Over the years, I’ve learned to latch onto these moments. When a client shuts down and declares something “impossible” it may be he’s right. But sometimes, if you dig a bit deeper, you can get to know him better — and you may discover his impossible dream just may be achievable, in one way or another.

That’s exactly what happened here. A quick glance at their balances told me they couldn’t retire now, not if they expected to maintain the same income level. So on that level the dream was indeed impossible. But I decided to slice and dice the numbers a bit more finely, just as an experiment. After doing so, I told them that they could retire today — if they were prepared to live on a significantly lower income. They laughed, and we moved on to talk about other things.

The next time I heard from this couple, I was surprised — and also a little thrilled — to hear that they had decided to retire after all. They’d looked into selling their home in the U.S. and buying a property in Mexico, where they’d determined they’d be able to comfortably live on the amount I’d quoted them. That was 10 years ago; they’re still down in Mexico, and they have a beautiful life down there. I’ve seen them quite a few times since they moved, and every time they tell me how grateful they are that I helped them make their impossible dream into reality.

Since then, I’ve worked with a few clients with similarly impossible dreams. One woman revealed she dreamed of not having to go into the office; we worked to find a way to make that into a reality. We spent a few years working out a plan for her to telecommute to her existing job, and her employer signed off on it. Another client told me that she daydreamed about quitting her job because she felt that it stifled her creativity. I asked her what did fulfill her creative ambitions, and she cited her volunteer work with a local environmental group. I helped her through the process of leaving her job for a new position more aligned with work she loved.

None of these clients came to me with these goals in the forefront of their minds. Often, they only brought up these dreams at the very end of the meeting, once we’d gotten through all the facts and figures. Some advisors think that once the business is taken care of, the meeting is essentially over. I think that’s a mistake; you can sometimes get the most open, truthful answers from people once you close your folder, put your pencil down and push your chair back. When you’re shooting the breeze at the end of the meeting and chatting about hobbies or vacations, pay attention.

Having speculative conversations about dreams — asking a client if she’s ever considered turning a beloved hobby into a business, for example — is important to do at the end of the meeting, because it gives the client something to muse on during the car ride home or to talk about with her spouse over dinner. Many times those dreams will never become a reality, either because they’re too impractical or because the client prefers that they remain a fantasy. Even then, I think it benefits clients’ well-being by giving them a hypothetical escape route. It reminds them that there’s not just one way of doing things, but there are many possible paths to leading a successful, happy life.