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Sam Rees-Adams: Mastering the art of communication

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Financial planning, like any other people business, relies on communication and the power of the exact words you use should never be underestimated.

The planning process affords many different opportunities to communicate with clients, both verbally and in writing. Some forms of communication you have complete control over (website, client brochures) while others have information you must include (letters of engagement, key facts) but afford some flexibility in how it is presented. In many ways, verbal communication is easier, as its two-way nature enables questions to be asked, points to be clarified and cues to be picked up on. Written communication is largely one dimensional, requiring you to assume the role of recipient and writer, trying to meet the needs of your audience but without the ability to change tack if you realise your approach is not working.

When presenting information to clients, a great deal of thought is given to how to convey often-complex information in a client friendly way. Getting the level of detail right can be tricky: too much and clients can feel overwhelmed and be likely to stop reading; too little and they may feel frustrated and even patronised. Once you have met the clients, you will have a better idea of what is likely to work for them.

When it comes to capturing clients’ goals, aspirations and objectives, the most successful and engaging plans reflect the actual words used by the client. How many clients come to you asking to “minimise IHT liabilities”? Do they talk about estate planning and protection, or do they talk about making sure their loved ones will be looked after if something happens to them? Terms like “estate planning” or “protection needs” may be widely used across the industry but if clients do not use them why would you include them in a financial plan? If you reflect the clients’ actual words, they will recognise them and this recognition is an immensely powerful thing. If they can see, right from the start, you have not only listened but heard and understood what they are looking for, what better start to a relationship could you have?

A lot of financial services’ vocabulary cannot be changed but there is an equal amount within our control and it is important to make the most of that opportunity. One small example is how, in your firm, you refer to annual client meetings. Are they financial planning meetings or review meetings? What is the overriding impression each term conveys? Looking forward or looking back? Many planners have strong objections to the word “review” whereas others are more relaxed about it. The crucial thing is to be comfortable with the terminology used and ensure it contributes positively to the impression you are trying to create. 

Next time you are at a conference, branch meeting, seminar or networking event keep your ears open for that magical phrase you can borrow and use with your own clients. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery after all….

Sam Rees-Adams is director of professional standards at the Institute of Financial Planning 

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