This article is the fifth in a six-part series on best practices for wealth advisors. You can read the previous column, “Building Business With the Found Money Commitment” here

Sometimes we’re fortunate enough to have prospects walk in with clearly defined financial goals that they are deeply committed to. At the other end of the spectrum, we have those who know they should be doing something differently but don’t have even a vague idea of a plan. 

Whether a prospect is one of the ends of the spectrum or falls somewhere in between, goal development is important. 

Goal development is the foundation for commitment, and commitment is the basis for action. Without goal development, clients are unlikely to move forward with your recommendations. Those that do will have a high likelihood of slowly fading away. 

And even for those who come with their own clear picture, your development of the goals and client commitment will reap rewards in deeper penetration and greater persistence.

Defining Financial Goals for Your Clients

A common scenario is that your prospect has come to you for help with their retirement goal. The further they are from the goal, the less likely they are to have a clear picture of what they want. That’s ok. 

If the goal is within five years, they should have a reasonable picture of what they want. Outside of that, it’s not that important — not if you handle it correctly.

Always start by asking about their vision for the goal. Sometimes they’ll surprise you. There are people in their 20s and 30s who have a clear and compelling vision of what they want for retirement. They’re rare, but they exist. 

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Asking the Right Questions

When you probe about the clients’ vision, you do one of two things.

If they have a vision, you find out what that vision is — you should go ahead and ask questions to show your interest and to get a real clear picture of what they want.

If they don’t have a vision, this should be abundantly clear to both of you. Ask a couple of open probes about their wants, but don’t go overboard. No judgement; it’s all good. 

But the starting point should be that we all know the client doesn’t have a strong feeling for what they want. The likelihood of this scenario should diminish with nearness to the goal. But sometimes retirement is a year out and the client has no idea what they want. 

Again, that’s fine. The key is to have a starting point where both you and the client have on the table exactly what they do understand about their desires. That’s something to work with.

Clarifying Hazy Goals

If the client has no clear goal, you have your own clear direction. This is going to be commonality and clarity. You’re going to accomplish this with a positioning statement or statements followed by a reflective probe. 

The positing statement is something like: “Mr. and Mrs. Client, many of my clients who don’t have a clear vision of their retirement are looking for similar things. 

They’re looking to maintain their standard of living and retire comfortably free of financial concerns and protect themselves from unforeseen events like changes in tax law or unforeseen medical expenses.”

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 This is immediately followed by a reflective probe to check for agreement: “Mr. and Mrs. Client, does this sound like what you are looking for?” Then you shut up and wait.

They’ll tell you something. Usually that is exactly what they are looking for, they just had no idea how to articulate it. Other times it’s not. 

Ask open probes for clarification. Once you think you have clarity, test again with a reflective probe.

“If I understand you correctly, you’d like XYZ. Does that sound about right?” Repeat as necessary, but you’ll generally find common ground quite quickly. 

The approach of commonality and your input of what most are looking for will be the norm for those with a good deal of distance to the goal. You could add in travel or some such thing if they’ve mentioned it, but you can do it pretty generally.

Discussing Retirement

A quick aside on the never-going-to-retire crowd. They do crop up, professors and the like who may see themselves working forever. 

The scenario is that when questioned about their plans they respond with a snide “never gonna quit working” of some form. You have two things happening here. 

One is fear. Many people of this type are used to being in control and don’t like to admit they’re clueless here.

And they also would like to never retire. That would be their preference. On some level they know that’s not completely in their control. 

That’s why they’re in your office. You just need to do the same thing, with a little tweak. Your commonality is narrower and the question is just slightly different: “Many of my clients in your profession would prefer to never retire. They’d prefer to continue to contribute for as long as they can. But they also recognize that forever isn’t always possible. 

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Health issues and other issues outside of our control crop up. Often they’re looking to know that they’ve achieved a state of financial independence by age 65, one in which continuing to work is a choice and not a financial necessity. Is that how you would see things in your situation?”

You’ll get confirmation or you won’t. Most likely you’ll get confirmation. You can probe a bit to narrow it down, but again don’t overdo it.

 If they don’t want financial independence, you can ask more open probes, try to get them to describe their goals and what they would like happen. And, more importantly, what they don’t want to see happen. Never be afraid to ask your clients what their biggest fear around a goal is. And develop that in depth. Powerful stuff.

A One-Size-Fits-All Strategy

This approach works for any goal. You just may need to seed things a little differently. Using their children’s education for example, if they have no ideas. 

You can seed with questions of public or private, paying the full shot or a portion, etc. 

The key is to work out the issues in your head so that you have your own commonalities and summaries and reflective probes for any goal. 

Once you have some practice, it won’t matter what goal they throw at you, it’s all the same. 

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Develop all the goals they have. But make sure they’re goals, not a lengthy wish list for what they would do if they won the lottery.

Once you’ve developed all the goals, you need priorities. This is where they would first allocate their money. 

You ask in the form of:  “If you had the resources to achieve only one of your goals, which would you choose to work on?” Keep asking that, in the form of next, until you have a prioritized list.

Now you need to do a reality check. You need to know how important this really is. You need to ask the clients how they would feel if, when the time came, they didn’t have the money. And you need to give them as much time as they need to answer. 

If the goal’s important, there will be a lot of emotion on the table, possibly some tears to go with it. That’s ok. Tears are beautiful. They tell you the clients are passionate about their goal. 

Be empathetic. Spend a little time. Don’t make them feel horrible; you want to come out of this with everyone on the same page and the clients feeling that you’re empowering them to achieve their goals. 

The Bottom Line

Often there’s not enough resources to be on track for all their financial goals. Sometimes not enough to be on track for one of them. 

You want to influence change in a positive fashion. 

Be supportive. Talk about walking before you run. Talk about using found money and moving in a positive direction. 

This article is the fifth in a six-part series on best practices for wealth advisors. You can read the final column, “Tax Hierarchy for Retirement Products” here

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