“You cannot truly listen to anyone and do anything else at the same time.”
These are the thoughts of American psychiatrist Morgan Scott Peck.
We’re so busy that we rarely drop everything to be fully present and listen. Yet it’s the greatest gift you can give to your clients.
A slightly less profound view on 'active listening' comes from the Chris Ostreicher character in the film American Pie. On discovering an apparently simple strategy to distinguish himself to the opposite sex, he says:
“All you have to do is ask them questions and listen to what they have to say.”
To which his friend Steve Stiffler replies: “I don’t know man. That seems like a lot of work!”
Apologies for such a base frame of reference. But if you’re genuinely able to apply the same strategy to your clients, then you will distinguish yourself from others.
Granted, as applied here the advice is wholly self-interested.
In the real world, being this disingenuous will most likely scupper any chances of building trust as people pick up on this. There's more on this in our article on the 'trust equation'. You have to mean it when you listen - it’s not about you, it’s about them.
Being present with clients
In actual fact, Steve Stiffler is right. Listening - really listening - is not all that easy, especially in today’s world. It’s extremely difficult to put aside the clutter in your head to be fully present and devote all your attention to the person that’s speaking.
Pause for a moment. How often are you genuinely present in life, let alone with clients?
How present are you reading this article even? Have you managed to switch off the buzzing thoughts in your head?
The reality is we spend so much time in our heads, thinking about what’s just gone, or mentally preparing for what’s to come.
We think about how that presentation went this morning; what you should have said during that client meeting; the email you need to send; how the journey home’s going to be a nightmare because of problems on the line.
So if you’re honest, how often are you truly present with your clients?
If you could do better, this doesn’t mean you’re a horrible adviser that couldn’t care less.
Life puts us under a lot of pressure and throws up a fair few distractions, both of which pull focus from the present. This can often be the person opposite, talking to us.
When financial planners talk about the service they offer clients, 'bespoke' is a term that comes up a lot.
The language on their websites always centres around putting the client first and providing tailored solutions for them.
Now, I don’t doubt for one minute that there isn’t a genuine desire to offer this kind of service. But I do refute the ability to provide this service without a serious commitment to active listening.
This means listening to understand your clients, rather listening in order to reply.
It means listening empathetically to grasp where they're coming from, rather than imposing your own perspective.
Avoid skipping to solutions
If you’re so keen to provide the right solution, especially if it’s only from your perspective, you can’t be listening.
If you’re too busy formulating the financial plan and 'getting the job done', then you may miss out on the sometimes nuanced information that would allow you to really make that plan bespoke.
Putting clients first isn't really about you completing a task. It’s about delivering security and happiness to clients as best you can. Think less return on investment and more return on life.
Don’t be in such a rush to deliver answers that you skip the all-important work of asking the right questions, and truly listening to clients in order to understand them better.
Here are three simple tips to apply before, during and after your next client meeting to stay present and actively listen:
1) Before: Breathe
Take some time out just before your next meeting to clear your head, to stop thinking and be present. Focusing on your breathing can really help here.
I recommend the Headspace app. It’s free to download and comes with 10 free starter sessions. I’ve found it hugely helpful in training the mind along these lines, and in discovering a sense of calm within the frenzy of day-to-day life.
Your clients will really benefit from this ability to shelve the clutter in your head. I hope you will too.
2) During: Listen to understand, not to speak
The listening and understanding parts are just as active as the advice and planning parts. You can’t do the second parts very well without having done the first ones. In the meeting, try to keep the channels of communication open before jumping to conclusions.
3) After: Find solutions
Focus on what you can do to deliver maximum happiness for that client based on all the information you’ve gleaned. You may start this process during the meeting, but it’s often best to stay open before retreating into your head for answers.
Disclaimer: Do not skip to step three.
All of the emotional intelligence is in step two. This is where all the empathy, understanding and intimacy lies. It's also very effective for building trust and strengthening the relationship.
This can be a difficult transition to make from day-to-day life. We’re always busy doing things or thinking of things to do.
Step two requires you to stop this, be present and listen. Step one is how you prepare.
This is perhaps the biggest challenge of all. There is a barrage of communication we get every day from many sources, few of which are face-to-face.
The pressing need to answer these leaves us little down time, and little space to be open and responsive. This space is what’s needed for that next client meeting.
Ultimately, clients are trusting you with their happiness and security and that of their loved ones, both now and in the future. The least you can do is give them your undivided attention.
Make every effort to understand your clients. Stop what you’re doing, and listen to them.