My Top Five Insights from 2021

Beverly Flaxington is a practice management consultant. She answers questions from advisors facing human resource issues. To submit yours, email us here.

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Dear Readers,

Just as we thought we had mastered surprises and changes in 2020, there were more in store for us this year. As we close out the year, I’ll provide my top five advisor observations from my work with large and small practices. I hope one or more of these will give you some ideas and insights for your focus in 2022:

1. Learning is constant and no matter how many years you have been doing this, there is always more to learn. In many cases, firms will tell me their advisors are seasoned, or they don’t need new ideas or skill training but the world changes, clients evolve, generations are different, products and services come in and out of favor. In this industry, even if you have 10, 20 or 30+ years, there is always something new. It doesn’t mean you need to get additional credentials, or go back to school and get another masters or doctorate degree; it does mean you need to stay open even though you might think you “know it all”. And even if you know it, you might have forgotten it or not be practicing it as much as you should and could. Stay open. Learn. Evolve. Grow.

2. Connections can be made in the virtual world, and they can be fulfilling ones. Many advisors tell me they have to be in person with a client to read them, to relate well and to understand the client’s needs. The last 22 months have taught us we can have relationships with people on screen wherein they reveal personal details, break down in emotional ways, and open up about their thoughts and feelings. The key is the advisor must ask the right questions and listen well and get over the idea they are less successful when not in person! This perspective – that in person is better and more effective – is about the advisor, not necessarily about the client or the interaction with the client. Yes, I know there are older clients who are not comfortable online or on screen so you can’t see how they are receiving information. Yes, I know you think you are better when you can read someone and see how they respond, but many times what you are reading isn’t necessarily accurate. You can deepen relationships over Zoom and even over the phone. It requires asking good, open-ended questions and actively listening to the answers. It requires being more curious and asking the question behind the question and then the question behind this. It takes more energy and focus but it can be done if you are willing to put in the effort and not assume you won’t be as successful in the virtual world. More and more clients will likely want to stay virtual so continue to work on your skills and get better with every interaction.

3. The stress is real – for you, your team and your clients. If there is one thing COVID and living in this disconnected world has taught us is that it is okay to talk about stress. Financial worries, worry about the future, concerns about health and family are all real for many people. It doesn’t make you or your team weak or problematic to express the human side occasionally. Insert levity into meetings. Schedule time for conversations that aren’t about the work that has to get done. Find ways to support one another and share experiences. When clients express their fears or concerns, address them but don’t take it personally. Let them know you are hearing concerns from others and ask them what you can to do alleviate their concerns when you don’t control the market or the country’s politics. Try and keep in mind that the difficult clients who are angry, or questioning you or at times lashing out are likely scared and stressed out underneath it all. Rather than getting defensive and reacting, try and understand fear is most often the driver and work to find ways to be empathetic and caring, not defensive and focused only on the numbers to prove the good work you are doing. Stress takes its toll, and many people remain stressed with no outlet or end in sight to deal with it.

4. Advisors continue to tell the same stories in the same ways using the same words. Every time this year I embarked on a value proposition project with an advisor or firm serving advisors, I was amazed at how consistent everyone is in their storytelling. The same words. The same themes. The same pictures and the same concepts. Step out of the traditional mold. Get rid of words like “fiduciary” and “fee-based” and “answers developed around you” and “customized” and find new ways to talk about what you do from the human element side of things. Think outcomes, talk solutions, paint the picture for the journey the client will take with you. Bring your team to life so a prospect or new client knows what they will think about, and how they will feel working with you. The things that matter to those of us in the business really don’t matter to your clients in most cases. What do they care about? They care about their experience, the care and concern for their family and how they are going to get to a place where they don’t have to worry about their financial life anymore – or back to Insight #3, at least worry about it less than they have. Don’t focus on marketing-speak, focus on human-speak in all your communication and interactions. Especially in these times, people want to know it is a caring human being on the other side of the equation. Drop the formality and get real in all of your prospect and client experiences.

5. Be outcome-oriented. It is easy to get stuck in the day to day addressing issues and responding to client and team member concerns. With the virtual world, and the return to the office, it has been even easier to put head down and forge ahead dealing with whatever is right in front of you. Sometimes advisors lose sight of where they ultimately want to go, and what matters to the client. I had a conversation today with an advisor who needs coaching. when I asked him and his partner for their combined definition of success, there was silence. They hadn’t thought about it. They just knew how much they didn’t like and needed to fix. This is often the case on the small things and the big things. Make sure with clients you are always establishing their view of successful outcomes. Do this with your team and for yourself. Humans are always either moving toward something or away from something. Too often you won’t even notice you are moving away, you are just trying to get stuff done. Pick up your head from time to time and consider your desired destination. In everything you do – every communication, every meeting, every interaction and all of the big things – know the end goal and how you, and/or your audience measures this. Try to avoid getting caught in all the weeds and instead make sure you can see clearly to the other side of the overgrown garden to the successful outcomes you hope to achieve. At a minimum this gives you, your client, or your team something to acknowledge and celebrate and at a maximum it allows you to have the right steps to move in a productive manner toward those end goals.