By Elizabeth Jetton, CFP®
"Isolated and alone, we lose courage and capacity, we end up with unending fatigue and loneliness ... Wisdom exists not just in each of us but in all of us. We learn that the wisdom we need to solve our problems is available when we talk together."
Margaret J. Wheatley, author of numerous books on conversation and change and a consultant to the Financial Planning Association.
When times are tough people want to be together. In isolation there grows a sense of frustration and impotence in all of us. When we get together for a rich conversation, we can tap into our resilience, our hopes and our connectedness.
Where can our clients go to have meaningful conversations about what is happening in their lives, to their money and to their dreams? Some firms, including my own, are bringing clients together for conversations and are discovering the amazing impact of hosting simple gatherings "just to talk."
Topic-focused Conference Calls
Gayle and Rich Colman of Colman Knight Advisory Group in Carlisle, Mass., are hosting monthly community conference calls for their clients. Each call is scheduled for an hour and is based on a particular topic. Either Gayle or Rich speaks on a topic for 20 to 25 minutes, then they take questions and open it up for discussion.
Rich has led calls on the global economy and the federal stimulus package. Gayle, a pioneer in integral financial planning, has taken clients in a more interior direction with her call on the topic of "fear in a time of turbulence and how to move through it." The Colmans plan to begin recording the conference calls and uploading them onto their Web site.
"Clients are looking for a place to talk," says Gayle. "It's the conversations with clients that sustain the relationship with us. It's important for us to listen and to be with our clients through this."
Marty Kurtz of The Planning Center in Moline, Ill., hosted big client appreciation events for several years. They were a hit-widely attended and very expensive. But Kurtz recalls, "Two weeks later, I couldn't remember any quality conversations with a client from that event. I got in this business in part because I wanted to have intelligent conversations with people. We got sidetracked with all the aspects of the business and I wanted to get back to that."
Kurtz envisioned having small groups of clients in a particular planning stage (younger, near retirement, etc.) come in to just talk. He discovered that trying to engineer the groups was not effective, so he stopped worrying about who to invite.
"Now we invite everybody and whoever shows up, that's the group, and it has made all the difference," Kurtz says.
Kurtz's firm has hosted more than 15 conversation cafes with an average of 10 clients in attendance. Gatherings are scheduled almost weekly at various times. When one fills up they start another.
The payoff? Kurtz says that clients need to vent and to hear that others are having similar feelings and questions. He has picked up ideas from clients about what they need and want in the way of services and communication, such as a regular newsletter incorporating more advice about health matters.
"I believe our role as planners is changing," says Kurtz. "We don't have all the answers. I am a guide. We are asking the questions and clients are involved with us in getting to the answers."
Benefits of Effective Client Conversations
As a result of these gatherings, Kurtz believes his relationships with clients are more authentic. Clients are sharing more personal information and are more collaborative and engaged. Clients aren't leaving or bailing out.
"I think clients appreciate it when we are vulnerable and take risks, like hosting these gatherings," says Kurtz. "Clients need to know we are with them."
After hearing of Kurtz's success with conversation cafes, our firm, RTD Financial Advisors, jumped in. Our clients enjoy the informal nature of the gatherings, the chance to meet each other, have coffee and visit. There is a great deal of empathy and shared stories.
In one case, a retired couple expressed their compassion for a middle-aged couple in the midst of raising their family, trying to save toward retirement and college while being worried about job and income losses. Clients are satisfied to know that they aren't the only ones scared.
Everyone participates and leaves with greater clarity about what we at RTD Financial Advisors are doing on their behalf. Money is only one resource our clients have with which to meet life's challenges and make dreams come true. What we all discover in talking together is that we still have blessings, such as health, community and faith, and that we should focus on the things we can control, like our spending habits.
For those who shutter at the thought of putting clients in a room together, while there were tough questions about what we were doing and thinking, there was no blame or anger aimed at us. In fact, several clients commented on how courageous we were to invite them to talk with each other, and all of them shared positive comments about working with us.
Conversations can change the world, and they can change your clients' perspectives. These gatherings with clients are energizing, relaxing and bring a sense of relief. It is good to be reminded that we all have to adapt and look toward an uncertain future. Never has there been a time when our clients need us more, or need each other more.
Elizabeth Jetton, CFP®, is a former president and chair of FPA. She is affiliated with RTD Financial Advisors and provides consulting to financial planning firms and coaching to advisers. Contact her at email@example.com.
Preparing for a Conversation Café or Conference Call
The Invitation. Whether a conference call or a conversation café at your office, the event begins with the invitation. It can be sent via e-mail, but it should have the appearance of an invitation that reflects the informal and conversational nature of the gathering or call.
Hosting. The adviser is the host and facilitator. You're job is to provide a comfortable, attractive space for conversation; lead with open questions; guide the conversation gently; and capture the 'a-has' and discoveries.
Direct questions will come up, such as, "What are you doing regarding changes to asset allocation?" You might address these kinds of questions in a 10 to15 minute Q&A session so it doesn't distract from the conversation.
The Space. At the Atlanta branch of RTD, our reception area is set up like a living room that can accommodate seating for 12 in a circle. Others use a training room or a large conference table. Keeping the size small enough for a circle conversation (10 to 14 people) allows for rich conversation. Groups larger than 20 will result in a different format and experience.
Have light refreshments, flowers and a warm greeting. Use name tags with just first names. The phones should be sent to voice mail-no interruptions!
The Time. Conference calls tend to be one hour, conversation cafes one and a half to two hours. Consider offering several days and times to choose from-10 a.m., 4 p.m. and 6 p.m. seem to be optimal times, and Fridays seem to be good days. If not enough people sign up for a session, cancel it and try to shift them to another gathering. It's important to have at least six people at any session.
Conducting a Conversation Café or Conference Call
Energy. The energy will be positive overall. It's important for you to come in with an upbeat attitude.
Welcome. The conversation begins with a warm welcome. Invite everyone to introduce themselves and explain what prompted them to accept the invitation.
Set some context for the conversation. Mary Kurtz emphasizes the need we all have for community as the world becomes more technical. He states that he is a host, not the leader of the gathering, and that the event isn't about his having the answers but about talking about what's on our minds. He reminds his clients that they share certain things in common:
- Everyone is invested in the same way.
- Everyone appreciates the financial life planning process.
- Everyone has a financial planner, including Kurtz! That is the glue that binds them.
Ground Rules. Assure people they don't have to speak; they can pass and just listen. Encourage listening with an open mind and heart. It might be prudent to suggest that politics be left aside.
Questions. We found that in the beginning, attendees needed to vent. Let's face it, folks are nervous, scared, angry and frustrated. Before they can really have a great conversation they have to get some of that off their chests. Allow time for that; clients will appreciate that they are not alone in their feelings.
Kurtz likes to start with, "Share a highpoint for the last year." We might start with, "What is foremost on your mind?" or "What question is coming up for you now?"
Other conversation starters include:
- What are some things you could do today that you would look back on and appreciate?
- What excites you most? What scares you most?
- What is emerging that is actually positive and maybe unexpected?
Listening and facilitating. Your role is to keep the conversation flowing. Clients may ask tough questions that you may not know the answer to, and that's OK. Being truthful is critical. But, you should be prepared to address the questions clients may have about your firm's philosophy or processes.
Themes. At RTD, a theme in the "what scares you" category was a general feeling that Wall Street and the regulatory functions were broken. Clients needed to hear about our structure, our thinking and our perspective, and they wanted to be kept informed about pertinent legislative issues.
At most meetings, clients also expressed the need to teach their kids about money, and asked us to offer programs for their teenagers and young adult children.
Closing. Highlight some of the themes that emerged at the session and any useful takeaways.
Feedback. Ask for feedback: How was the event? Would you participate in a conversation café again? What were the highpoints for you?
Kurtz has attendees complete an evaluation form. Other planners simply ask for feedback. A number of our clients sent e-mails to thank us for hosting the gathering and telling us how good it was to be part of it. Kurtz has been inspired by clients to begin other types of meetings: a lecture series; a series on specific issues like health care; an introductory gathering for new clients and prospects to learn about the firm and just talk.
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