Exploration - The First Stage of Life Planning

Occasionally, as a financial adviser, I would conduct a client meeting in a café or at their place of work but, mostly, the meetings were held at the client's home.

This practice stemmed from the era in which I first became an adviser - a time when most financial advisers had simply bolted on some hastily acquired (and not always complete) investment knowledge  to their previous jobs as life assurance salesmen who, according to a long tradition, would always visit the client rather than vice versa.

Nowadays, most financial advisers encourage clients to attend a meeting at the office of the adviser. This is based largely on the assumption that it is more financially efficient for the adviser. It is also part of the attempt to make the financial advisory profession look more professional by adopting the same practice as lawyers and accountant who would rarely make a house call.

I believe the economics of the case are rather more complex although further discussion of that particular issue is not the purpose of this article.

Anyway, my predominant experience was that, by visiting the client's home, I felt I was better able to fulfil the first rule for financial planning - "know your client." Clients tended to be more relaxed in their own home than in a professional office and had ready access to any of their financial details which might be required during the meeting. Sitting in the client's living room or kitchen I was able to gain a far better insight into their lives, what was important to them and what was blocking their aspirations.

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Since 1986 every financial adviser has had to complete a "factfind" for each client  - an increasingly long form (or set of forms) detailing the client's assets and liabilities, income and expenses as well as their attitude to risk and other matters. The trend has been towards advisers sending the forms to their clients to complete before the first meeting although, in the early days of factfinds, advisers generally produced the document from their briefcase at the first meeting and started to complete it in a question and answer format with the client.

Completing the factfind was really just the bare bones approach of the work despite the regulatory importance attached to it being on file.

In my experience, what was much more important was to begin by asking a question along the lines of "so what can I do for you?" and then listen as the client explained their circumstances and what they wanted.

Listening to the client's story was perhaps the most crucial aspect of the whole advisory process. Time and again, in different areas of life I find that what many people most want is someone who will simply just listen to them. No interruptions, no views expressed, just listen.

Through this process, the simple empathetic witnessing of one person's story by another person, a bond of trust can be created whether between adviser and client, therapist and patient or warring partners in the office of a divorce lawyer.

Only after I had heard the client's story would I fill in the boxes on the factfind.

Perhaps the most moving version of this phenomenon which I have encountered is the story told by Auschwitz survivor, Viktor Frankl, in the biography of him by Anna Redsand, A Life Worth Living.

A patient of Frankl's phoned him in the middle of the night to tell him, calmly, that she was about to commit suicide. He kept her on the phone for two hours, giving her every conceivable reason to live. Eventually she said that she had changed her mind and would not end her life. He was curious to know which of the reasons he had given her to live had brought about the change of heart and asked her this when he next saw her. None of the reasons he had given had been the cause - it was simply that someone had been prepared to listen to her for two hours in the middle of the night that convinced her that life was worth living after all.

The story is retold by Jonathan Sacks in a piece which includes a number of other profound examples of the power and sanctity of active listening.

In the first stage of Life Planning -Exploration - we invite you to tell us your story. We prefer meetings to be held at our office not because we want to appear professional (although we are) or for reasons of economy but because we want to give you the best possible service and we are sure you will find the office from which we now operate to be much more welcoming than many others you may have visited.

We find it helpful for a client not to be distracted by children, pets, callers, tenants or anything else. Of course, there may be occasions when it is better to meet at the home of a client and we have also done consultations by Skype but the most important factor is that this is your time when we listen without making judgements or suggestions - it may be the best conversation you have ever had.

© Jonathon Clark 2016