I’ve heard it estimated that out of all the financial and estate planning recommendations that advisers make, their clients ignore more than 80% of them. If there’s even a shred of truth in this stat, it represents a monumental failure of the financial advice industry.
To explain why, let me tell you a story about a financial planning client I worked with a few years back. In one of our first meetings, she and I were reviewing her three most recent tax returns. As I discussed them with her, it became clear that the accountant who had prepared those returns — an accountant who had been recommended to her by her father — had filled them out fraudulently. A bag of old clothes that she had donated to charity became, on her Schedule A, a $10,500 cash gift. She also deducted work expenses for which she had already been reimbursed.
The client, a young single woman, wasn’t aware of these problems, as far as I could tell. So I gave her my best advice: Turn yourself in — and turn in the accountant, too. Tell the IRS about this before they come after you. “You’ve got to do this,” I said.
That was the last I ever saw of that client. I tried getting in touch with her, but she never communicated with me or my firm again.
Upon reflection, have a pretty good idea why.
Her accountant had been doing her father’s returns for even longer than he’d been doing hers. By telling her to turn in her accountant, I was also telling her to turn in her dad — the person who recommended the accountant and who, perhaps, had fraudulent statements on his own returns. I had crossed a line. And she, I assume, had decided to pretend that we had never had that conversation.
So why did she ignore my advice — or any of the advice I never got to give her? For the same reason that so many clients ignore so much of their advisers’ advice.
To say that clients are just not good at follow-through is a cop-out. I think the real problem is that advisers fail to apply the key discipline I learned early in my training as a financial planner: Know Your Client.
For Certified Financial Planner professionals, of which I am one, a key part of the Standards of Professional Conduct is to “Gather client data and establish goals.” It’s primarily in that step, when we gather client data, that we have the opportunity to get to know our clients. The standard-setting CFP Board offers some further guidance in that area:
The financial planning practitioner and the client shall mutually define the client’s personal and financial goals, needs and priorities that are relevant….
Please note that the CFP Board specifically mentions both a client’spersonal and financial goals. While I’m confident that planners are well-equipped for the collection of tangible, financial information, I’m less sure that advisers are effectively gathering intangible personal information about our clients.
So how do you gather and apply data about your client’s personal life, goals and values? The CFP Board offers further guidance:
…the practitioner will need to explore the client’s values, attitudes, expectations, and time horizons…
OK now, this has gone a little too far, right? I mean, how exactly am I supposed to explore a client’s values, attitudes and expectations?
Most advisers relegate this warm and fuzzy talk of exploration, values and attitudes to a niche within financial planning called “life planning.” These advisers picture an entirely different breed of Zen planners meditating on a yoga mat with clients, and discount the practice entirely. According to the CFP Board, however, knowing our clients on a deeper level is just plain good, by-the-book financial planning.
So back to my client: Maybe if I’d gotten to know her on a deeper level, I could have helped her with her tax returns — and the rest of her finances. But I’ll never know. I may have been pleased with myself for uncovering her problem, but my recommendation didn’t bring her relief. It went the other way.
Since then, I’ve learned that planners, myself included, can have a more meaningful impact on the lives of our clients by recognizing that personal finance is more personal than it is finance.
And I believe that better understanding our clients’ intangible hopes, dreams, values and goals is also the key to higher implementation rates. So how do we do that?
That’s another story.