Want to keep client relationships fresh? Questions are the key

Financial advice expert reveals different types of questions can unlock new possibilities and revitalize relationships

Want to keep client relationships fresh? Questions are the key

While getting comprehensive information is an important piece of the holistic wealth puzzle, that’s not the only thing financial planners should keep in mind when it comes to asking their clients questions, according to one expert.

At the recent Financial Planning conference held virtually by FP Canada, Meghaan Lurtz, senior research associate at Kitces.com, emphasized that planners should be mindful of how they ask clients questions.

“A lot of times when we ask a question, the client believes – or their brain believes, anyway – that there is a right answer, and this can give people a lot of anxiety,” Lurtz said.

As an alternative, Lurtz suggested phrasing questions to clients as open commands or prompts. Telling clients to share their thoughts on something rather than posing a question, she said, lowers the anxiety level, which is crucial when considering and obtaining financial information.

She also underscored how different questions can spark different brain responses. Close-ended questions can be answered flat-out with pre-defined responses like “yes” or “no,” which means they can be answered with minimal brain activation. Open-ended questions, meanwhile, can take the brain longer to answer, but they typically yield higher-quality information.

“In the prospecting meeting, before [someone becomes] a client, we're wanting to activate some influence,” she said. “People have to be emotionally ignited to actually get something done. Emotional activation can be enhanced or … bubbled to the surface, if you will, through asking questions and commands.”

One way to help drive emotional activation, Lurtz said, is to use projective questions. Questions like “what if..?” or “what would …?”, which are very broad and have no objectively right answer, can help build relationships with clients, particularly when it’s time to envision goals and financial-planning possibilities.

Lurtz also pointed to scaling questions, where clients rate their situation on a scale from one to 10, with 10 being “totally amazing.” When a client answers “8,” she said, planners can seize on that positivity and direct the conversation towards making things even better, moving the needle to 8.5. In case the client answers with a low score, planners can take the conversation in a positive direction by asking why it’s not lower, thus putting the client’s focus on positive things that they can build on.

For more established relationships, she said, advisors can consider swing questions. Structured as closed-ended questions, they probe gently for information, but also present an implied invitation for clients to open up conversations on issues that can be very intimate or sensitive.

“’I wonder what you'll do with this potential inheritance?’ is slightly different than ‘What do you intend to do with … ?’ or ‘Tell me what you’re doing with … ‘”, Lurtz explained. “We want to think about how to craft our questions, commands and invitations for information, so as to reflect the relationship and the type of emotion that we wish to solicit.”

To emphasize the point, Lurtz talked about the different types of meetings that may occur over the course of an advisor-client relationship:

  • The pre-engagement meeting;
  • The “understanding circumstances” meeting;
  • The “identifying goals” meeting;
  • Presenting the financial plan and getting feedback; and
  • The monitoring meeting, which involves keeping track of a client’s progress.

Advisors should also take care to avoid certain pitfalls in asking questions. For example, immediately following up an open prompt (“Tell me about your investing experience”) with a close-ended question (“Has it been positive?”) can prime the client’s brain to answer the second question, which can effectively stop them from talking further.

Another trap, Lurtz said, could come from incorrect pacing of questions. If a planner gets into a rhythm and asks too many questions in succession, it may start to feel more like interrogation rather than sharing. To avoid that, she suggested that planners ask no more than three questions before breaking it up with a reflection – repeating back information they’ve heard, or an action or emotion they observed.

More broadly, she stressed that asking questions – whether it’s to solicit information, gauge how a client is feeling, envision goals, or prompt action – is important for advisors to create real staying power and keep their client relationships fresh. As human beings, she said clients are primed to enjoy the process of working towards something, which gives planners the perfect opening to keep the positive vibes going.

“It’s about learning about their current needs, and then choosing to learn about them again and again and again,” she said. “[Considering] the things that people have gone through in the past few years, nobody is the same person that they were two years ago … This is an amazing opportunity to [say] ‘I’m different, you’re different. Let’s talk about it.’”