Today is my 40th birthday. I should be writing to you from a plane on the way to Disney World with my wife and daughter to enjoy our vacation and celebrate another of life’s milestones. However, as it often does, life presented us all with a situation over which we have very little control. So for the time being I will have to put down my mouse ears and put on my thinking cap to consider what, if any, small contribution I can make to providing some perspective to financial professionals in the midst of an unprecedented event. If the recent and coming days have done nothing else, it has undoubtedly reaffirmed my conviction that financial advice is, above all else, a helping profession. While it may seem we have very little control over the ultimate outcome of our current situation, there are always mindful actions we may undertake to serve both ourselves and our clients well now and in the future. There is one primary action all financial professionals can exert control over during uncertain times: a commitment to a sustainable and repeatable planning process.
As the late, great baseball player/philosopher Yogi Berra once said, “If you don’t know where you are going, you’ll end up someplace else.” As of today, I would wager that even if your clients did know where they were going, their biggest fear is they are now going to end up someplace else. As financial professionals, we can pull out every chart and graph available to explain the nature and history of economic downturns, bear markets, and subsequent recovery, but as always, it feels different this time. The first item we should be reaching for at this point for all client conversations is our most recently updated financial plan. I cannot recall a time when so much has changed for so many over such a short time span. As a financial professional, you owe it to each and every client to continue, or in some instances, begin the planning process now. We must address how our ongoing process of planning will allow us to combat the present, and more importantly, the future. When conducting planning conversations in such a volatile environment there is a definite order of operations that must be followed to ensure we get our clients where they need to go.
Emotional discussions: first we must confront how our clients are feeling (both emotionally and physically in this instance), validating their fears and concerns as normal, and gaining a sense of their perspective on likely future outcomes. The humanness of our client interactions is more vital than ever. Expressing empathy and validating client concerns is the top priority. As you’ve probably heard hundreds of times before, “no one cares how much you know until they know how much you care.”
Psychological discussions: What are our current priorities? Has anything has changed due to the pandemic (health issues, job loss, caring for family members, college-age children temporarily moving home, etc. are all relevant issues)? Have their time horizons or risk tolerances changed since you last spoke? Have they changed their minds about anything that prior to this event they would have considered non-negotiable? All financial professionals are part psychologist. Taking the time to talk through what needs to change to satisfy your clients’ psychological concerns will reduce their anxiety and ultimately lead to much more productive conversations.
Analytical discussions: Only once your clients’ emotional and psychological needs have been satisfied can you begin to address any strategic and tactical changes that may need to occur to keep the financial plan on track. The client should be willing and able to make more logically rooted decisions at this point, but we cannot prematurely offer up solutions. Stay in discovery mode as long as possible. Longer than you may feel necessary. It will serve you well in the long run as this final piece of the discussion leads to the most important step in the planning process: taking action.
Remember, planning is a verb. It must be continuous and it must be proactive. Our aim with these, as with all client conversations, is to continually move through this process to establish the highest probability of achieving our clients’ financial objectives. How we conduct these conversations ensures we are not omitting any critical details that could potentially alter future outcomes. Your clients are unsure, they are vulnerable, and they are worried. You are the one that can tell them with confidence, “we know where we are going and we are going to get there despite this unforeseen detour.”
Most of the people in my life have been greatly humbled in confronting a force of nature that is well beyond our control. We can choose many different paths right now in dealing with a very challenging situation. I choose to walk the path of empathy, gratitude, and servitude as I hope and trust many of you will as well. As President Dwight D. Eisenhower stated, “In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.” Commit to your planning process and control that which you can control. Someday in the near future it will lead us all back to our own “happiest place on Earth”.