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The hard facts on soft skills

How the Financial Adviser School is meeting demand for soft skills training

Old Mutual Wealth’s Financial Adviser School is preparing to launch a standalone soft skills course next month as it continues to expand its range of qualifications and training courses.

Some advisers may feel that such skills need to be learned on the job over time rather than taught through a training course. However, the Financial Adviser School came across demand for soft skills training while developing a new mortgage qualification. It had been asked by advice firms with qualified but less experienced advisers if it was possible to separate the soft skills element out from its core level four training programme and offer this as a course in its own right.

“Soft skills training has not been offered in the general market place,” says head of the Financial Adviser School, Darren Smith. “We built it into our core programme. For example, we do regulation and ethics training and there is a requirement to know your customer. It’s about doing a fact find that could be seen as just asking questions. But the skill is about communication – there are soft and hard questions, probing beyond what is said, understanding body language and where to elicit further information. Someone could know about the fact find but may never had training on open and closed questions.” 

Smith says the course will cover the use open or closed questions with clients – questions where the answer will be more than yes/no or those where a yes/no is enough – body language and how to ask clients for referrals. “There will be self-study, face-to-face days, webinars, field work and one-to-ones with students and employers. We have found that working across different mediums helps to cement the learning,” says Smith. 

Adviser view 

Martin Bamford, managing director, Informed Choice 

Soft skills were historically seen as something you developed on the job and viewed as closely linked to your existing personality strengths. Professional training to develop and improve your soft skills as an adviser is increasingly important as we make the shift towards financial planning, which requires a bigger skills toolkit. 

Soft skills training should appeal to all advisers, whether they are new to the profession or already experienced advisers. We can all learn and improve when it comes to coaching skills, listening and questioning, and providing a better service. It’s really positive to see the next generation of advisers making the effort to learn these skills from such an early stage in their careers. It can only result in a generation of advisers who are better equipped to provide suitable advice and great service.

The course is expected to take around five to six months to complete and will cost sponsoring advice firms £1,500. The Financial Adviser School is run on a not-for-profit basis and Smith says by far the biggest cost is the three face-to-face sessions, due to the cost of the trainers’ time.

The course will be structured in a way that tries to avoid people learning the theory without putting what they have learned in to practice. Smith explains: “After the first face-to-face day there will be a number of prompts over the next two months before the next face-to face day. There will also be webinars reflecting back on what’s been learned and exercises about doing things differently so you take what you’ve learned from the training and put it into practice.

“Then the Financial Adviser School will say: have you tried it, has it changed the way you engage with clients?” says Smith.”If there is a different way of doing things it could make you more conscious when you have a conversation with clients – did they understand what you said to them, did you miss an opportunity, did you listen to the client or just to particular questions?”

The Financial Adviser School is currently looking at whether some form of assessment is feasible for this course. Smith says that as it teaches students to try different approaches so they can find what works best for them, assessment is not an easy thing to do. “We’re building the final things into the course as we’re not yet live – and we don’t know if it’s something we can assess,” he says. 

Adviser view

Mark Dolby, director, Beaufort Financial (Reading) 

Some advisers don’t listen very much. They want to tell clients everything they know but it’s a given that if you’ve qualified you’ve got that knowledge. It’s the relationship and understanding clients that makes a good adviser.

I think you can be guided in terms of soft skills but I don’t think you can teach people how to relate to someone else. A lot of it is intuitive – you either connect with someone or you don’t. It’s almost like a friendship because if the personalities don’t work the relationship becomes a lot harder, if it progresses at all. My gut feeling is that you learn a lot of soft skills on the job and from life experiences, both good and bad, because you can relate to people more if you’ve been through that experience yourself.

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