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Mastering the softer side of advice

While the value of attaining level 6 status and beyond should not be ignored, the less tangible, softer skills are often the most beneficial

When I trained to be an adviser back in the late 1990s, I was put through an intensive course to study for my FPC level 1. But the remainder, and clear majority, of my training time was spent on developing and focusing my soft skills.

Financial advisers have a unique skill set, which consists of technical knowledge, adherence to regulation and ethics, business skills to remain profitable and interpersonal skills. Many would say the latter are the most important in determining whether an adviser is successful or not.

The largest part of the relationship between advisers and their clients is based on trust. As we all know, money is an emotive subject and customers will have an extra-sensitive radar when discussing their financial affairs with anybody.

The hard facts on soft skills

However, there are other interpersonal skills that are also hugely important. For example, clear communication with clients is essential in order to fully understand their objectives and their attitude to risk. The ability to use other skills such as empathy, assertiveness and showing a sense of humour will also help build lasting connections with clients.

Many advisers do not know quite how they have built successful, long-term, trusting relationships with their clients. But these advisers are just naturally good at engaging with people and creating familiarity.

Such traits may not come so naturally to others, who will therefore need to be more consciously aware of their interpersonal skills and practice various methods that result in better relationships.

There is no simple recipe for developing rapport with clients, and any behavioural psychologist will amaze you with the complexities of the dynamics involved.

Should soft skills be formally assessed?

Clients will make an assessment of whether they trust their adviser and whether they believe the adviser is suitable for them, through a whole range of judgements. These judgements can be as basic as appearance, eye contact or body language, through to more complex assessments around confidence in their adviser’s knowledge and their different forms of communication.

The good news is that these skills can be developed and fine-tuned. Those advisers who are natural at forging client relationships can become more conscious of their skills and be even better. Those who are not as naturally gifted can pick up ideas and tips, and practice these skills with clients until they become more confident and the relationships start to build more naturally.

Of course, we need to remember that clients are all individuals too, so what works with one may not necessarily work with others. With this in mind, a large part of interpersonal skill development is around understanding what judgements clients are likely to make and adjusting to these accordingly.

With trust being such an important element to clients when dealing with their financial affairs, I find it unlikely that the demand for face-to-face advice will significantly diminish in favour of online or robo-advice solutions. That said, certain generations of customer may begin to put more faith in online solutions – but only those that have met the approval of their trusted adviser.

There are currently very few soft skill training options available for advisers; they were much more common in larger advice operations of the past. However, I really cannot recommend highly enough the value of finding and attending such events.

Advisers can and should continue to develop throughout their career and, while the value of attaining your level 6 status and beyond should not be ignored, the less tangible, softer skills are often the most beneficial.

Tom Hegarty is managing director at NMBA

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