How to intentionally build trust with prospective clients

By Shawn Moran


It is vital that when we engage with clients for the first time, that our conversation be more about the values that guide them and the dreams that drive them rather than whether their mutual funds are four star funds or five. Ultimately, clients are more likely to work with an advisor who “gets them” than they are with an advisor who puts together the most attractive looking 80-page plan. Let’s talk for a bit about how we can be intentional in building trust through values-based discussions, and why it is so important.

The old school idea of selling involves taking a considerable amount of time when you first meet a prospective client to “warm up.” This might consist of telling a few jokes, swapping a few stories and chatting about the weather. I believe that trust and confidence in an advisor is built not through backslapping and banter, but through genuine engagement with the client about the things that matter most to them.

It is an odd notion that we might set out on a journey without knowing our destination, but in a very real sense, clients do that all the time when it comes to planning for their financial future. They have a very clear sense that they need to accumulate money for their future, but a very vague notion as to what they actually want to do with that money when the future arrives.

I have successfully completed two marathons, and the reason I was able to do so is also a key component in having a retirement plan that can stand the test of time: We need to properly define our goal. My goal in running the marathon was not to win the race or break any records. I simply wanted to cross the finish line. All of my training in advance and my running the day of the race reflected that goal. I knew what I wanted to accomplish, and I set my sights very narrowly on that goal. This prevented me from over-training and injuring myself, or running the race at a pace I could not sustain.

The materialistic tug of our culture is towards the accumulation of the most wealth, with all of the risks and the stress that might entail. If, however, a client’s objective in retirement is simply to have the financial resources to live their lives in a manner consistent with their goals and their values, then the risks they take and the financial stress they put themselves through can be adjusted downwards. As advisors, we have to know what the client really wants so we can help them get there.

On a very personal and individual level, they need to think through what it is that they actually want to do and accomplish in retirement. With the right questions, we can help them think that through and develop a genuine trust relationship with them when we do. Lee Eisenberg, in his bestselling book, "The Number," wonders aloud about why people do not plan for retirement. He asks, “Could it be that in the end, the reason we don’t plan is because we don’t have anything meaningful to plan for?”
We need to ask clients: What is it that you want to do when you step away from your work? Do you want to travel more, spend more time with your children and grandchildren, or be more engaged in church or with charities? Perhaps you made your living as an engineer, but what you always really loved was art history — do you go back to school to pursue that love?

The late Steven Covey, in his book, "The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People," talked about the need for us to “begin with the end in mind.” Rather than simply stumbling through their retirement years, clients should ask themselves, “At the end of my life, when I look back at my retirement years, what do I want to be able to say about how I spent them?” If we don't have a defined goal for what we want to do in retirement, the years can just slip away as we spend our time engaging in things that do not engage our hearts. To quote the poet Goethe: “Things which matter most must never be at the mercy of things which matter least.”

Here are some great, big-picture, values-based questions to ask prospective clients:
  • "At this time in your life, what is most important about money to you?”

  • “What are three things on your bucket list that you would like to do in retirement?”

  • “Financially speaking, what worries cause you to lose sleep at night?”

  • “Regarding ROI, what is more important to you: return on investment or reliability of income?”

  • “Is leaving a legacy to your children and grandchildren important to you?”

  • “What do the words ‘risky’ and ‘conservative’ mean to you?”

  • “On a scale of 1–10, how comfortable are you with market risk?”

  • “On a scale of 1–10, how risky is your present portfolio?”

  • “If you were to decide to work with me, and three years from now we had an annual review at which time you told me that you were very happy with our progress, what would need to happen in the intervening years to make you that happy?”
Try engaging your prospects and clients on the values that guide them and the dreams that drive them, rather than focusing initially on numbers and plans. The numbers and the plans are important, but we need to help our clients determine the “why” before we help them determine the “how.”