The Best Question to Engage Clients

Dan Richards

Every advisor knows the importance of asking the right questions. Recently, an advisor named Michael asked my opinion about asking clients a question related to the value that advisors provided. In our conversation, I provided a framework for thinking about questions. Based on that framework, I concluded that explicitly asking about the value you provide won’t advance your relationship with most clients – but an alternate question might.

The three qualities of a good question

There are three key qualities of an effective question:

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It needs to engage clients and get them talking without having them feel under pressure. For that to happen, it has to be easy and comfortable to answer.

It needs to lead you to additional insight and information about the client. Ideally, that question also is thought-provoking and gets clients thinking differently.

Finally, it needs to position you as a professional. I’ve written in the past that to be viewed as professionals, advisors should operate the same way as partners in law and accounting firms or as private bankers. If a question isn’t appropriate coming from a lawyer or accountant, don’t use it with clients.

What value do I bring?

Over the years, I’ve come across advice from self-styled “referral coaches” saying that advisors should ask clients about the value that advisors have brought or how clients are better off as a result of working with that advisor. The underlying thinking here was that focusing clients on the advisor’s value would open the door to conversations about friends and family members who would benefit from working with that advisor.

The response to that question will obviously vary with the client, but as a general rule it fails a number of the tests of a good question. For many clients it will not be easy to answer in a comfortable fashion. Because it’s not easy to answer, you won’t walk away with new insights. Finally it risks undermining your positioning as a professional – it’s hard to imagine a partner in a law firm asking clients how they’re better off as a result of working together.

Recently I came across this question in a different context. An advisor wrote about how her relationships had been enhanced as a result of asking about the value that she provides towards the end of a meeting. Here’s an excerpt from her article.

Before I ask the big question, I usually start off by saying that I’m looking to make some changes or add some services to my business. Then I ask, “What value do I bring to you and our relationship?” From there, they just take it and run with it. Like I said, I have a good relationship with my clients, so they’re fairly open in sharing their thoughts with me. They have to share everything else when we do financial planning, so it’s a very easy question to ask.

This advisor wrote that the answers were illuminating. Sometimes clients talked about how she had helped them achieve peace-of-mind; in other instances they described how she was helping them reach their dreams or how introductions to her network were helping them. While this question might be helpful in advancing this advisor’s relationship with some clients, it risks putting other clients under the gun. Further, unless the advisor outlines how she will alter her interactions with these clients based on what she hears, there is a risk that clients will walk away wondering about the purpose of the question.

An alternative question to ask

I did suggest an alternative question to Michael that does meet the criteria for an effective question.

In my articles, The Key to Successful Reviews and Three Steps to Effective Client Conversations, I described how a meeting agenda can help make client reviews more productive. That agenda helps crystallize the benefit of the meeting for clients and keeps both advisors and clients on track. When calling clients to book a meeting and set the agenda for an upcoming review, I suggested that Michael add one item at the conclusion of the call:

I think you know that I am committed to doing the best possible job for my clients. Given that, if time permits I’d like to add one final item to the end of our agenda for the meeting. I’d be interested in finding out what one or two things I could change in the next 12 months that would improve your experience working with me and my team.