Decades ago, the line blurred between stockbrokers and financial advisors. The public often saw advisors as fast-talking salespeople. Today, the best advisors’ communication skills are far more refined.
They know how to listen attentively and overcome distractions so that they focus on the client. When they speak, they’re clear, succinct and sensitive to client concerns, hopes and fears.
Sonya Lutter is a financial therapist and former professor at Kansas State University. She recently became director of institutional research and education at Herbers & Co. Academy, where she’ll develop training programs for advisory firms to enhance client experience and communication skills.
Building Communication Skills Starts With Building Relationships
In an interview with Investor’s Business Daily, Lutter discussed how advisors can polish their communication skills, pose questions that trigger more revealing answers and manage stressful conversations.
IBD: What communication skills do successful advisors need to master?
Lutter: It’s all about empathy and developing strong relationships with clients. That’s really a hard brain shift to actually imagine the life of a person, really make eye contact with that person and mirror their behavior.
IBD: What do you mean by mirroring their behavior?
Lutter: Subtle behaviors like mirroring their posture can strengthen the relationship and (increase) your empathy. It’s easier if you’re in the same room. But even on Zoom (ZM), you can still make eye contact and show that you’re interested in what the person is saying.
Connect Through Video Chats
IBD: Is it harder for advisors to connect with clients over video chats?
Lutter: Advisors may be more easily distracted when they’re talking over video. They may look away more or not look as engaged. But it’s important to make an effort to understand clients and really listen to them, whether they’re in the room or you’re meeting over Zoom.
IBD: How can advisors learn communication skills and mirror others without going overboard?
Lutter: Practice with friends or at home with your partner or your kids. Start mirroring their behaviors when you are talking with them. See if they open up more to you and don’t notice your mirroring. On see if they do notice and ask, “Why are you mimicking me?” That shows you need to practice more and make your mirroring subtler.
IBD: Advisors often lead “discovery meetings” to dig deep to get to know a client. Any tips to spur more revealing conversations?
Lutter: Advisors know to ask questions. But try not to ask too many where it’s like an interrogation approach. You don’t want to seem like you have to get through a list of 10 questions. It’s better to frame questions as statements.
Top Financial Advisors Know To Ask Questions
IBD: Can you give an example?
Lutter: “Tell me more about that … ” or “I wonder what that’s like to be in that situation … ” can work well. Making those kind of statements are a way of letting people continue to tell their stories and engage in the conversation. It takes away the defensive (tone) and they can feel more comfortable opening up.
IBD: For those advisors with a mastery of communication skills, what would you notice if you shadowed them for a day?
Lutter: I’d notice their eye contact. They use eye contact to convey trust with clients. They don’t seem distracted, and they really try to listen and understand. And I’d notice that they don’t do a lot of marketing. They get lots of referrals simply because they are seen as trusted advisors by their clients.
IBD: It’s easy to listen when the conversation is positive and affirming. But how can advisors remain attentive when tensions rise?
Lutter: I know an advisor who’s acutely aware of subtle differences in how he communicates with people. He’s really listening to them and following up the right way with statements such as “Tell me more … ” And he’s not judgmental, even when there are plenty of opportunities to cast blame. Instead, he will say something like, “It is what it is. Let’s focus on your goals going forward.”
IBD: How can advisors assess to what extent they’re good communicators? Are there self-tests they can administer in real time?
Lutter: Be aware of your own physiological stress. That’s a fabulous indicator of what we project outward.
IBD: Any tips to monitor your physiological stress level?
Managing Stress Levels Using Communication Skills
Lutter: When we’re nervous or scared, our body wants to either fight or run away. Our skin temperature can change. If you notice your fingers getting cold, that might be a sign of stress. You may also have clammy or sweaty hands, clench your jaw or immediately forget something that was said to you. So the question becomes, “How comfortable are you in a given situation?” If you’re not comfortable, you can’t do all the things we’re talking about like making eye contact and showing empathy.
IBD: So if you’re aware that you’re in fight-or-flight mode, what can you do to remain calm and attentive to clients?
Lutter: Just being aware that it’s happening helps you remember to be more empathetic right now in the moment and focus your brainpower. That simple awareness helps you redirect some of that energy back into your brain so that you’re indirectly reducing the stress.
IBD: Can you suggest any relaxation exercises?
Lutter: Tighten and then loosen each muscle in your body, holding for about three seconds each. Start with your toes and move up toward your forehead. For example, curl your toes, hold for a count of three, release. Then tighten your calves, hold, release. You can do much of this while talking to someone without them noticing, at least until you get to the shoulders and facial muscles.
IBD: Are there other ways advisors can stay calm during difficult client conversations?
Lutter: You also want to do the things we all know to do when under stress: Take a deep breath. Close your eyes and count backwards from 10. Get outside for a few minutes; the sights, smells and change in climate will help you refocus.
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