Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Story is the Key to Client Connections

Story is the Key to Client Connections

Story is the key to a truly client-centered practice. As professional advisors, we actually begin to make the transition from transactional to relational when we become willing to meet clients on this common ground of sharing and listening to stories about what the client has been through, what events shaped and influenced his or her values, and what matters most. We shift from trying to get the client to understand why he needs our product or service, to understanding who the client is. This new direction is so basic that there isn’t an area of our practice that isn’t deeply affected by it.

This is true for at least two reasons: First, the stories of our experiences form the reality in which all of us live our lives. Who we each are as a person is defined not by what has happened to us, but by how we remember and describe what has happened to us. We have the inherent ability as human beings to choose our response to what the world does to us and to assign our own meanings to the world’s actions and our responses. Consequently, we are not the events of our lives; rather, we are the sum total of the stories we hold on to and tell about the events of our lives.

Second, story is our native language. Until we were a dozen or so years old, it is how we looked at and made sense of the world. It is how our parents taught us right from wrong. It is how we played (cops and robbers, cowboys and Indians, Barbie and Ken) and how we learned. It is how we connected and communicated with those around us. It wasn’t until later that we learned how to be analytical. Even then, it wasn’t until law school, business school, or professional training that much of our native expression in story was replaced. But a part of us­—and a big part of our clients—still longs for story, this most human of media.

I’ve learned first-hand this power of communicating in our common native language. I have a college degree in Portuguese, which I earned after I had spent a number of years in Brazil speaking Portuguese most of the time. Unfortunately, I subsequently lived for 20 years in places where no other person spoke Portuguese; consequently, I lost the ability to speak comfortably in this second language.

Now I live in the Orlando area and have frequent opportunities to speak Portuguese. But because of that 20-year hiatus, I have to work hard to be fully present in the conversation. I notice how tense I become as I struggle to remember how to express a certain thought, or conjugate a particular verb, or construct agreement between nouns and adjectives. I’m sure that I often miss the meanings of the other person’s statements, and certainly the nuances of tone and expression.

Occasionally the person I’m speaking with, recognizing that his or her English is better than my Portuguese, switches the conversation to English. It’s amazing for me to notice how I immediately relax, begin to enjoy the exchange of ideas, and grasp the whole conversation.

Clients may find that meeting with a financial advisor or attorney can be a stressful situation, especially as we discuss money, taxes, investment, death, or disability. As if this weren’t daunting enough, we often speak to them in our legal-ese, financial planner-ese, or analytical-ese. If we’re perceptive, we may notice how tense they become as they struggle to understand us, and to express themselves in the language of our transactional world. 

But if we switch from the traditional, professional idiom into the client’s native language of story, the whole tone of the conversation changes. They relax, they enjoy the exchange of ideas, and they grasp more of what we’re seeking to share with them. More importantly, they begin to share who they are with us.

I have found that the best way to get comfortable with stories is to begin telling your own to someone you trust. In a truly client-centered practice, the line between personal and professional is not nearly as hard as it has been traditionally among financial and legal professionals. In fact, it’s safe to say that our success as a client-centered advisor will depend on our ability to share our wealth with the client—our experiences and stories, our wisdom and discernment, our compassion and creativity.

Truly client-centered professional service is rooted, first and last, in a rich and meaningful dialogue between two human beings, two equals—not an aloof expert and a passive client. Naturally, there are many things that we and our client will not elect to share with each other for many reasons.

It is, however, essential that we become comfortable with the language of story, and be willing to show up humanly in the truth of our stories. We teach best by example, and by doing this, you demonstrate in the most powerful way possible your qualifications and trustworthiness as a client-centered advisor. It’s hard to overstate the power that story has to create an immediate and lasting connection between any two human beings. One of the things I learned from a project of capturing clients’ life stories on tape and preserving them with the photographs and documents from their personal histories, is how deeply and quickly one person will bond with another, even a total stranger, who demonstrates a genuine interest in that person’s life and experiences.

We show how much we value another person simply by asking what we at SunBridge call “story-leading questions,” then listening generously, with undivided attention. In this simplest and most natural of human exchanges, we can create amazing and lasting trust and friendship in a matter of a few minutes.

A client’s stories drawn from his or her most meaningful experiences are a gold mine of understanding for the attentive advisor. The client’s values and priorities are laid out for the discerning to see and appreciate, far more effectively than can be achieved through the most cleverly designed questionnaire.

Story provides a context within which the client’s concerns and problems can be identified, pointing the way, often immediately, to deeply human and gratifying solutions. When the client and advisor share the language of story, they become more fully human in each other’s eyes. The client who is invited to share his or her life experiences as part of the advisor’s search for answers to the client’s problems feels valued, heard, and understood. And the advisor’s counsel acquires a correspondingly greater value, in every sense.

Since the prospective client has usually come to see the advisor about some issue related to finances, I’ve found it helpful, after learning something of who the client is, where he came from, and how he ended up here, to invite him to share with me what I call “meaning of money” stories. These are experiences that have helped the client define what money means to him (a meaning that’s deeply personal and individual), which in turn dictates what types of planning the client is open to considering.

Often those stories are about something that happened early in the client’s life when he discovered­—often dramatically—what money meant in the family or community in which he grew up. Sometimes the story takes place early in the client’s married life, when he abruptly learned that money meant something entirely different to his spouse. To get this ball rolling, I often share one of my experiences, when a new pair of shoes helped me understand the meaning of money in the Farnsworth family.

I grew up on a small dairy farm in northwest New Mexico, one of thirteen children. Our place bordered the San Juan River across from the Navajo Reservation. Things were difficult for us financially with so many mouths to feed, but we raised most of our own food. We had dairy cows, chickens, pigs, a beef cow, gardens, and orchards, so we were able to provide for ourselves that way. Shoes and clothes, however, posed a real challenge for my parents. Fifteen pairs of feet were a lot to keep in shoes! 

One of the many blessings we had was our Uncle Jack, who had a trading post on the Navajo Reservation, where we could buy clothes and shoes wholesale. Every month or so our family went out to the trading post and got the things we needed. A trading post is not exactly Saks Fifth Avenue; it’s a store stocked with only the basic things of rural life, a general store with sheep and goats, and rugs, jewelry, and the like.

Before we went to the trading post we invariably had a family meeting to decide who would get what. My father was not one to brook any sort of “confusion,” as he called it, when we got to the store. I remember when I was eleven, I’d decided that I was due a new pair of shoes, but the family council had decided that I was not going to get a new pair of shoes, and this left me anything but pleased. I can still remember sitting in the back seat of the car in the driveway, the whole family ready to go, and we couldn’t leave because I was throwing a fit.

My father stood in the driveway reasoning with me through the open window of the car. Finally, after some minutes of unsuccessfully trying to persuade me to be happy about what I was going to get, he did something unexpected. He lifted up his shoe and laid it on the window seal of the car, then turned it over to show me the bottom. These were his good Sunday shoes and the bottom was totally broken out. There wasn’t enough leather there to re-sole them, even if we had had the money, and he, the inclination.

He looked me straight in the eye and he said, “Scott, we can’t afford to buy me new shoes today, and we cannot afford to buy you new shoes, either. Do you understand, son?” Did I ever! In an instant, through the image powerfully conveyed by that single, unforgettable, moment, I understood what money meant in our family. That moment was indelible. It still shapes the way I think of money; it still affects the way I respond when my children ask me for things.

Each one of us has had experiences that define what money means to us. As truly client-centered advisors, we take the time to understand what money means to our clients by listening to their stories. They also have stories about their family, community, heritage, and many other important facets of their life. Indeed, every person has many stories, however unwitting, unformulated, or even forsaken they may be. Hidden within each story is a compass heading for deeply fulfilling financial choices and directions. These are the keys to client connection and client understanding.

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