A few years ago, I had the opportunity to work on a fascinating communication research project that was co-sponsored by FPA and partially funded by CFP Board. The study examined a large number of communication variables and surveyed both planners and clients. The goal was to identify specific elements of communication that influence higher levels of client trust and commitment as well as other important indicators of highly successful client relationships such as client retention and referrals.
After reviewing the findings one area in particular, “comfort with emotion,” struck me as being a serious communication challenge for most financial planners. Specifically, 55 percent of FPA members who participated in the study either “agreed” or “strongly agreed” with the statement, “I am very uncomfortable when my clients express strong emotion (for example, cry or get angry).”
Responses to the planner survey failed to demonstrate statistically significant correlations between “comfort with emotion” and the development of client trust and client commitment. However, in stark contrast to the planners’ perspective, client responses indicated a direct and positive relationship between higher levels of planner comfort with emotion and higher levels of client trust and commitment. In addition, client responses revealed statistically significant correlations between planner comfort with client emotions and higher level s of these five “business case” variables:
1. Client retention
2. Cooperation with financial planning recommendations
3. Openness in disclosing financial information
4. Openness to sharing personal goals, needs and priorities
5. Client referrals
It appears that financial planners underestimate the value clients place on having a planner who is comfortable and skillful in dealing with emotional and sensitive issues. Planners also seem to underestimate the potential rewards in terms of developing more successful and satisfying long-term client relationships. With these powerful incentives in mind, how then does a planner go about building his/her comfort level with client emotions?
The first step is to accept the fact that money and emotion are inextricably intertwined—it is simply unavoidable. It is also important to accept displays of emotion as being “normal” and rarely a symptom of dysfunction. In fact, emotions are an inevitable component of long-term client relationships. In Lighting the Torch, co-author Susan Galvan explains, “We all experience grief over losses, anger and frustration, fear and anxiety as part of our ongoing life experience. Emotions are not pathological; they are in fact essential to healthy human functioning.”
The second step to broadening your “emotional comfort zone” is to increase your aptitude and knowledge in this important area of client communications. At FPA conferences, seek out sessions that focus on developing successful client relationships and understanding clients’ emotional needs. In addition, organizations such as Kinder Institute, Sudden Money Institute and Money Quotient (my company) provide in-depth training opportunities focused on navigating the emotional terrain of client relationships. Always remember that as you address the financial implications of major life transitions—such as relocation, job loss, death of a loved one and divorce—your clients will undoubtedly experience strong feelings such as fear, anger, anxiety, sadness and even profound grief. Therefore, it only makes sense to be prepared to handle these situations with confidence and grace.
[Editor’s note: Find the report, Research: Communication Issues in Life Planning: Defining Key Factors in Developing Successful Planner-Client Relationships by Carol Anderson and Deanna L. Sharpe, Ph.D., CFP®, here.]