Lots of people have qualifications but what is it that makes a client leave the office thinking that he or she has been dealt with by a true professional?
Last week, my wife and I attended a parents' evening at our son's school. His teacher started by apologising that we had only two minutes together. She then talked at us about how things had been going for him – a friendly boy who contributes to classroom discussions, good at maths and English, doing very well, thank you. “Here are his targets for next year. Any questions? No? Well, thank you, goodbye.”
Has my son's teacher been trained and is she qualified to teach? Yes. Did I receive an update on my son's education and receive his targets for next term? Yes. Did I feel she understood what I want for my son's education in his formative years? No, I'm afraid I did not.
What exactly is my point here? I have the utmost respect for teachers. I admire their dedication and ability. We are fortunate in society to have people who are willing to do the job as it is not always easy. But being knowledgeable and dedicated are not sufficient to be truly professional.
What has this to do with financial advice? For me, the parallels are clear. Most advisers are knowledgeable and most care about their customers and their industry. They provide accurate information and give advice that cannot be criticised. But do their customers leave the office feeling all their needs have been met, including the emotional needs?
Isn't it important that customers do feel that way? If their real needs have been met and if they feel that they have been dealt with thoroughly and professionally, isn't it less likely that they will later complain about the advice they received?
In addition, the quality of client relationship that results from that kind of experience is likely to lead to more business and more referrals.
The missing ingredient is effective communication between the professional and his or her customer. In particular, there is a failure on the part of the professional to recognise that effective communication is a two-way process and that to communicate means to listen as well as talk.
Effective listening is difficult for many of us. We are far more interested in what we have to say than what the other person has to say and often, instead of listening, we are thinking about what we are going to say next. The most important skill in listening is being genuinely interested in what the other person is saying.
In the example of my visit to my son's school, the teacher demonstrated little skill in listening. An important part is to ask questions and by your responses to let the other person know that you are really listening. Because she did not listen effectively, there is no way she would have found out how we felt about our son's progress, whether we had any concerns or whether he had any special needs at that time.
Unfortunately, in my experience, the same can apply with financial advisers. In conducting a fact-find with a customer, many will manage to gather full financial details. However, significantly fewer will really understand what is motivating the customer, his or her hopes and fears, doubts and concerns.
If the adviser is not good at asking questions, probing when appropriate, looking for tell-tale signs and really listening to what the customer has to say, then the adviser will not be able to understand fully what that customer wants to achieve and why. That information is fundamental to effective financial planning.
Advisers who can ask meaningful questions and really listen with commitment to their customers enjoy two advantages over those who cannot. Not only will they understand customers' wants, needs and desires but they will be able to present their advice in a way that connects with customers.
Every basic sales course teaches you to sell benefits. The only way it can be a genuine benefit is if it relates directly and personally to the customer and the only way that the adviser can possibly know that is genuinely to know the customer.
Some readers may well now be thinking that this talk of selling is a little unsavoury. As professional financial advisers, they may feel that they give advice, they do not sell a product. Well, that may be true but they do sell their service, they sell themselves and they sell their advice. If they do not, customers will not buy the protection and financial security that they need.
The adviser will not be providing a worthwhile service and eventually will not earn a living. If you doubt that there is a need for advisers to sell their service and the benefits of their advice, imagine the situation, post-depolarisation, when IFAs will have to justify explicit fees.
I read with interest the recent article in Money Marketing by Financial Services Skills Council managing director Teresa Sayers. She implied that advisers will be expected to demonstrate, in examinations, greater levels of knowledge and understanding than they do currently. I was disappointed that she did not mention the development of the communication and professional selling skills of advisers.
If you are an adviser, work hard at communicating with your customers. Invest in developing your skills. I believe that what this industry has to offer its customers is valuable. Let us make sure that the customers know that.