Should clients control the first meeting?

“Clients should always control the conversation in the first meeting with a prospective adviser.”

This was the opening statement, introducing a blog post written by Craig Gradidge from Gradidge Mahura Investments entitled “Ask better questions to improve your financial position.”

It’s a good read. The article challenges the idea that the adviser should control the first meeting and is, I think, designed to empower clients.

I get it, but it’s an idea I fundamentally disagree with.

This topic is close to my heart because the first module in our five module Stage 4 Accelerator program for financial planners, is called “Explore” and it’s all about how to create a great first meeting with a prospective new client. I believe the first meeting is a massively important moment in the relationship, and the experience has to be ‘controlled’ by the planner.

Common ground

Like Craig did, let me open with a story about a recent client meeting:

It was another new prospective client meeting for me. He was a bit guarded given some previous experiences with other advisers and after some initial chat, I asked “How can I help you?” He said, “Well, I’m three years away from retirement, I have a large sum of money in the bank, and I want to know whether I should invest it now, or wait until retirement.”

I think that’s a fairly typical question, and if you’ve already read Craig’s article, you’ll notice the similarity. Craig’s experience is the same as mine – and probably yours too, I imagine – prospective clients usually come to us with transactional questions. I agree with Craig when he says there’s an eagerness on the part of prospective clients to dive into the detail, and the timing of the questions is misplaced. Often they just want the answer to what they think is a simple question.

Why is it that clients bring transactional questions?

  1. The financial services industry, and the media generally, has conditioned people to think transactionally.

The industry wants transactions and the media needs a story. Both are financially incentivised to create noisy stories about whether markets are rising or falling and what’s causing it. It’s incessant. It’s financial pornography, and it keeps people focused on the wrong things. Look at the mainstream press. Here’s a cracking example from Moneyweb

2. Most advisers perpetuate the noise

Most advisers are happy to dive into a discussion about the detail and try to give the answers. Why? Because we’ve been trained and incentivised to have transactional conversations, and we’re desperate to demonstrate our value and credibility in the first meeting, by showing prospects how clever we are.

We default to supplying answers to transactional questions because that’s where we think our value is. Instantly we fall into what is known as “The transaction trap” – and once we’re in it, it’s hard to get out.

3. The first meeting isn’t usually a very safe place for prospects

The first questions prospective clients ask are not usually the real questions, and if you ask about their lifetime goals, I can say with some confidence that they won’t tell you, even if they know. Think about how intimidating it is for lots of people to come to a financial adviser’s office to talk about, what for most of us is, a difficult and intimate subject.

That first meeting often isn’t a safe place for prospective clients, and if it’s not safe, why would they make themselves vulnerable?

Control or power?

Craig makes great points around the fact that prospects ask the wrong questions.

All of this I agree with, and I think what Craig is arguing for, is putting the power back in the hands of the prospective client, so they can protect themselves, by understanding how to ask better questions.

So far so good, but then we get to some issues I’m not so sure about:

  • The prospective client should get the adviser doing the talking
  • It is important that the investor control the meeting
  • Investors should be wary of sales pitches

I believe the first meeting should be an experience that leaves both parties clearly understanding the other, so that they can decide whether they want to work together. I agree that prospects should have the power in the meeting, but I doubt that any of them can control the meeting itself. I believe that’s the job of the financial planner, who needs to give up power but not control.

The 4 key questions

I believe that new prospective clients come to the first meeting with four key questions that need to be answered.

These questions may not be immediately obvious to them, but I believe they’re going on inside their minds:

  1. Who am I? (“What do I really want? – Am I going to be ok?”)
  2. Who are you?  (“Can I trust you, and are you any good?”)
  3. What will this experience be like? (“What’s going to happen?”)
  4. What is this going to cost me?

I also believe the responsibility for answering all of these questions lies with the planner, not the client.

The client cannot control the meeting. They don’t understand how to. I believe it’s the job of the planner to ‘control’ the flow of the meeting. Now, let me be clear. When I say control, I don’t mean manipulate or exploit. In fact, it’s the opposite. We need to be sufficiently self aware to make sure the client gets the answers to these four questions, even if they don’t know to ask them, (especially if they don’t know to ask them!).


What this requires is the planner to be vulnerable, which is a big challenge in financial services when many of us have egos the size of football stadiums! In fact, I believe the best results come when the planner is vulnerable first – which isn’t easy to do. Vulnerability isn’t comfortable and it feels risky, but that discomfort is where the magic happens.

In my story mentioned above, when confronted with the prospect’s opening question, I observed that I thought he was asking me whether the market would rise or fall in the next three years, and what I felt would be the best investment case. He confirmed that, broadly, yes that was the question, and I responded with the candid truth… “I don’t know” – I think my actual words were “I haven’t got the faintest idea.” He was quite surprised by that admission, but it allowed us to create the conversation that was really needed.

It’s very disarming being in the presence of someone prepared to be vulnerable first, and it’s one of the most uncomfortable things I’ve ever convinced myself to do. The truth is that we’re all flawed in some way, and trying to pretend that we’ve got all the answers is just an illusion. Better to be honest, and focus on what you believe, not what you know.

“I became more uncomfortable with the bullshit, than I was about the discomfort of being vulnerable”

This isn’t a ‘sales technique’ to be learned and used to disarm people by the way. It needs to be authentic. That’s not to say that, if you’re uncomfortable being vulnerable you can’t learn to be. I was a different person and a different financial planner 15 years ago, but somewhere along the line, I became more uncomfortable with the bullshit than I was about the discomfort of being vulnerable.

My point here is that the experience must be created by the planner, not the client, and that’s where I part company with Craig’s idea that the client should control the meeting.

Let’s go a bit further into the first two of those four questions and see why the client cannot possibly control the first meeting.

Who am I?

Avoiding the transaction trap means the planner needs to be able to switch the conversation to more important issues. This requires skills around asking better, deeper, questions and getting to the crux of what people really want, and what they’re really worried about, so that they can identify the real issues for themselves. It’s unlikely that you’ll get to the bottom of that in the first meeting, but planners can scratch the surface sufficiently for people to realise that, working together accomplishes something  much more valuable than their initial transactional question.

This is important because people won’t pay much for a transaction, but they will pay to have important problems solved. And important problems usually sit way below the shallow surface of transactions.

There’s a time for a planner to do the talking and there’s a time for the planner to do the listening. I believe most of the first meeting should involve the planner asking questions and the prospect talking. The purpose of the first meeting is to understand each other, and reach a point of deciding whether we want to work together. That’s a two-sided equation and there needs to be a good fit for both parties.

Since the planner is the professional, the planner should guide that discussion by asking brilliant questions that helps the prospect uncover the things they struggle with, but can’t articulate. The planner also needs the patience not to jump into the conversation. I fail at that… a lot.

Who are you? – The pitch

When I ask planners what they do, most can’t tell me. Typically, they tell me they are a financial planner, which means they tell me what they are, not who they are or what they do. This is a problem because it’s difficult for prospects to work out who’s who in the zoo. Mostly, planners talk about their regulatory status (that’s the fault of compliance) their great qualifications or their years of experience, or how big and well established their business is.

Are your clients really interested or impressed by how much AUM you have?

What planners need is a pitch. Again, let me be clear, this is not a product pitch, or an elevator pitch. It’s a carefully thought through, crafted explanation of who we are, the problem we’re solving in the world, who we’re solving it for and why we’re doing it. You don’t need a fancy brochure or a powerpoint presentation. You need clarity.

What you need is a 2 minute pitch that clearly articulates what you’re really all about and what you’re up to.

This requires thought, trial, error and practice, and huge amounts of vulnerability because it requires us to bare our souls, which is probably why most planners don’t do it.

The purpose of the pitch is not to convince people to work with you (although that will happen when the message lands with the right person), the purpose of the pitch is for the recipient of the message to get total clarity about what you’re up to.  Not everyone will get it, and that’s as it should be, but when the right people come along, it’s a beautiful moment.

Without a great pitch, we all sound the same. Again, the language we use is important, but this is not an opportunity to manipulate people with fancy words. It’s an opportunity to really express who you are and what you believe, because that’s what people are buying.

Final thoughts

I agree that we need to put the power into the hands of prospective clients, to ensure they better understand who they’re working with, and why it’s going to be valuable for them, but I have no doubt that financial planners should be at the controls in that first meeting.

Hopefully, there was something useful in my ramblings, and hopefully Craig will accept them as an alternative view with the same overall purpose.

If you want to know how to have better conversations, and deliver a financial planning experience your clients willingly pay for, check out The Stage 4 Accelerator program.

Let’s transform the conversation!


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