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A recent common refrain at conferences is that when done best, financial planning is a process, not an event - meaning that financial planning is not about delivering "THE plan" at the end, but about the ongoing process of continually aligning money with goals as life and circumstances continually change. In turn, this implies that the value of financial planning will be rooted in the ongoing experience that the client has while engaging in the planning process. But how good is that experience, recently? Perhaps not so great... as one researcher's recent focus group described financial planning as feeling "like a mix between a dental visit, math class, and marriage therapy." Ouch.

The inspiration for today's blog post comes from a tweet from the 2011 FPA Retreat conference - a comment utterly by Dr. David Lazenby of ScenarioNow, who said "Why do we make financial planning like a dental visit, math class, and marriage therapy combined? We need a better experience" during his session "21st Century Psychology Meets The Financial Planning Process" where he was referring to the results of a recent focus group he had conducted regarding the financial planning experience.

The parallels do seem clear. Financial planning has a lot of unfortunate parallels to a dental visit, as we provide preventative maintenance to clients that is not always very comfortable or pleasant, while chiding them for bad habits they still need to improve upon. At the same time, it IS often like a math class for many clients, who are often not nearly as well trained in basic mathematics as the average planner; how often are we unwittingly talking far over our clients' heads about mathematics and numbers they don't follow and understand? And on top of it all, we bring out the money dynamics that often exist between couples, unearthing sometimes uncomfortable issues and challenges for the couple and then trying to help them through it.

I think many planners would be shocked by such an assessment of financial planning from the client's perspective. Yet at the same time, an astounding number of planners have never actually been through the financial planning process administered by another planner, to experience the reality first-hand. And why haven't we been through the financial planning process with each other? As Rick Kahler's 2008 award-winning paper pointed out - the reasons are virtually all the same ones our prospective clients give! What does it say about us when we claim the financial planning process is such a positive experience, and so valuable, when we won't engage in it ourselves?

Maybe it's time to better reflect on what the financial planning experience must feel like for a client (or better yet, go through it ourselves!), from the moment we awkwardly ask our clients to get (financially) naked with us, to the way we try to help our clients change their (financial) habits, to whether we're talking to our clients or talk math over their heads, to the sometimes difficult conversations we unwittingly inspire between couples who are going through the process and discover differences in their goals with and views about their money?

And this isn't purely theoretical? I know prospects who have declined to go through the planning process because they were asked to share their most personal financial goals before they were comfortable in a trusting relationship with the planner. I've seen clients fire a financial planner because they felt pressured and judged for the way their planner "beat them up" about their bad financial habits. I've certainly seen a client's eyes glaze over as the conversation passes the point of their mathematical comfort zone (which is often a much smaller zone than we realize!). And I know of more than one couple who decided to bail out of the financial planning process because they were very uncomfortable with the marital stress that the money conversations were creating, in part because they were not handled very well by the planner (although that's not the excuse they gave the planner when they fired him, but that's a conversation for another time!). Think about prospects that haven't become clients, or clients that aren't clicking well with you, or perhaps former clients who left; is it possible some of these dynamics were in play?

So what do you think? Are there things we could be doing to make some of these difficult conversations and personal changes more comfortable and effective for clients, and less like dental visits, math class, and marriage therapy? Is this a fair characterization of financial planning from a client's perspective? If you said "no" - are you sure? What can be done to actually make the process of financial planning itself a more enjoyable experience?

  • Nathan Gehring

    From personal experience, I can attest to the gruesomeness of the financial planning process.

    My wife and I went through the process several years before I entered the industry. While we appreciated the advice and guidance we received, the meetings were so long and boring that it became a constant joke for my wife and me. Whenever we needed a quick laugh, one of us would simply utter the words “the power of compounding” and the joke was made.

    When it actual came to meeting, we would have chosen to be anywhere but that office.

    I actually wrote a blog piece about this experience not long ago:

    Personally, the dread was created by the stuffy, formal atmosphere; the suits and ties; the large conference room table; and the droning on and on about the power of compounding and the power of dollar cost averaging.

    I’m not certain what would have made it better, but I do think an entirely different way of communicating is needed to change this. We need to engage our clients senses, not just with words but also sights and sounds and smells. We may need to give up some of our aura of professionalism.

    I’ve considered on more than one occasion having a freshly baked bread (bread-making is a passionate hobby of mine) to offer my clients. How might that smell and taste impact the meeting? Not only might it change the dynamic of the meeting, but it would also be an offering of my authentic self removing some of the professional lacquer.

    • Michael Kitces

      I have to admit, I struggle in my own mind about that balance between “professionalism” and “stuffiness”.

      On the one hand, I think it’s easy to make the case we’re often “too professional” and formal and stuffy, and make the process more unpleasant for clients.

      On the other hand, professionalism seems to often go hand-in-hand with trust-building, and if you can’t establish trust as an expert with clients, they likely won’t rely upon your recommendations anyway.

      Where exactly you draw that line, I’m not certain…
      – Michael

      • Nathan Gehring

        I agree that this can be a very difficult balance to find. And there is certainly a significant element of personal preference in the equation.

        I’d rather sit with someone dressed down in a couple comfortable chairs and talk lightly. Yet I know for many people, that would not be what they expect nor want. I’ve even had one occasion where a client asked me to wear a coat and tie to the next meeting!

        My children’s pediatrician may offer a good example of how to balance this well. He has the ability to be “there” as a person yet allow his expertise to show. He never wears a lab coat, always a simple sweater and a pair of comfortable slacks. He speaks with you as an equal. He simply has the medical knowledge whereas you have a different knowledge base.

        It’s a remarkably delicate balancing act, but when done well it is tremendously powerful. I wouldn’t question his professionalism for a moment, it’s evident in his composure and confidence. But he also emotes empathy and caring through that confidence.

        Interestingly, we have run into him a couple times in town, and he’s exactly the same way outside the clinic! Maybe that’s the real trick, be your authentic self instead of a professional alter-ego. If you’re a caring and professional individual, it’s going to show anyway.

    • Bryan M. Totri


      We have on several occasions scheduled a new prospective client meeting over the lunch hour (convenient for the prospect) and then ordered lunch for them (not homemade bread but I’m going in the same direction). We sit around the table together and have a conversation. Sometimes about planning, sometimes not. Eating is a very personal experience especially among strangers…so it can go very well. Or, not so well. Some personality types are going to have a sensory overload experience. However, those lack-of-fun-loving types probably aren’t going to be great clients given our culture at the firm so we all find out over the cost of lunch how things may or may not work out. Doesn’t work for everybody and we don’t do it all the time but it has generated some interesting moments and cool clients.

  • Steven Barrett

    In a lot of ways, financial planning is like a trip to the dentist. No one likes going to the dentist but you know if you don’t go, your teeth might fall out. Likewise, people don’t like spending hours thinking about money but they know if someone doesn’t go through their plan with them, they might run out.

    As we are only new to the area of financial planning, we are still trying to perfect our presentation skills. We have decided to ask clients what we can do to improve the presentation so it is better for them. Most of them have difficulty coping with all the detail presented to them, so we have to look at ways of cutting it down. But all of them have recognised that what we do now is much better and more relevant to our old model, which was trying to sell them something.

  • MSherman

    Hi Michael,

    Excellent question. I’m not sure what the answer is, but I think that part of it might be how the client feels when they leave the meeting. Even if the meeting itself was difficult, if the client leaves feeling empowered, in control (or at least more so than before) and positive about his or her financial situation, I think that will probably go a long way to impacting their overall opinion of the process.

    After all, I never leave my dentist feeling anything other than glad it’s over and thrilled that I don’t have to have flouride anymore.

  • Joe Pitzl

    Great post Michael. Ever since I entered the planning profession, I have had a real distaste for the way we, collectively, deliver planning. Frankly, it seems like we insist on hammering clients with details, walk through every element of their IPS, make sure they understand how hard we worked and how much time we put into their analysis, all in the name of (1) covering our own asses and (2) insisting that we are providing value for the fees our clients are paying us.

    I’m not sure I agree with the suit & tie thing. When we throw on a suit & tie, hold our meetings around a big conference room table, and scour over details and documents that might as well be written in Latin, it looks and feels an awful lot like the way “financial advice” is delievered by the folks on Wall Street that we all insist we are so different from.

    There is a delicate balance between too formal and too informal. Your office can’t look like a tornado just ripped through it and a tee shirt is probably a bit too casual. But I can assure you I don’t get any smarter when I put on a tie, nor does the quality of the conversation diminish!

    I have no idea where that line is, but I think anyone would be selling themselves very short if they sincerely believe that wearing a suit and tie builds trust. You can be professional, and portray an aura of professionalism without dressing like you are going to a funeral.

    More than anything, if we can simply provide a space to have real and intelligent conversations about money with people, the process will inevitably become more enjoyable. We have to focus the delivery more on what our clients really want and need than what we think they want and need. We have to work harder at co-creating financal plans than dictating financial plans. And we have to focus more on making financial planning fun. After all, we are in the business of helping clients use money wisely to support the life they want…that ought to be a very enjoyable conversation.

    Joe Pitzl, CFP®
    Intelligent Financial Strategies

    • Steven Barrett


      You’ve hit the nail on the head with:

      We have to focus the delivery more on what our clients really want and need than what we think they want and need.

      I was discussing this blog with my boss this morning and I said that we have to move away from telling the client what they want to asking them what they expect from us. It’s the only way of getting your client to engage with you. Look at what they want and come up with solutions and ways to make these things happen.

  • Don Martin, CFP

    Excellent post and replies. My opinion is that financial planning, is in the eyes of clients, inherently boring and puritanical, and results in the recommended purchase of additional insurance products, estate planning attorney’s fees, etc. instead of a recommendation to “save” money by terminating those things.
    The client may have been dreaming that a fee-only planner would cut costs by recommending switching to a cheaper insurance coverage and then they find that instead the recommendation is to get more coverage, so they become disappointed.
    Regarding wearing a necktie, etc. I feel I owe it to the client to maintain an air of gravitas and professionalism. I let them know they are welcome to dress casually if they show up casually dressed.
    When I make recommendations to clients I try to use diplomatic words like “I know you may find this to be boring and is extra work, I understand how you feel, but you really need to take care of these matters”.
    The delivery of most financial planning topics except investments is somewhat of an inherently puritanical exercise where a client is going to be told that they failed to buy insurance, failed to save, failed to get an estate plan by an attorney, etc. Unfortunately the act of delivering financial planning is an act of delivering bad news, even though it is needed. If you doctor says you have cancer you may get mad and say you don’t want to hear it but it is better to get the diagnosis and treatment while there is still time.
    I have joked with clients that I’m like a dentist except I can’t give them Novocain.

    • Joe Pitzl

      What I find particularly interesting about your comments, Don, is something that I have speculated about and has concerned me for years. I believe that many planners literally do not feel like they are doing their job unless they can point out something wrong and how to fix it. This attitude has to change.

      The idea that the act of delivering financial planning is an act of delivering bad news is precisely why clients hate the process. It saddens me to read these words.

      When working with new clients, in particular, planners love to jump on every element of the person’s financial life and show how they can “provide value”. In reality, we do not even take the time to explore whether the decision to save what they are saving, buy insurance, write their Will a certain way, was, indeed, appropriate several years ago when the decision was made. Humans are creatures of habit and the fact they did anything in the first place ought to be commended. Instead, we simply point out people’s faults and state that the person is incorrect for being positioned the way they are.

      One of the biggest problems with the delivery of planning today is the neglect to ask the question, “why?”. Why do you own the things you own, why do you have the insurance you have, whay are you handling your cash flow the way you are handling it. Something inspired them in the past, yet we ignore that. We make people feel stupid. The number one reason people fear working with a financial planner is the fear of being judged. If we believe that our role is to point out faults, errors, and justify our value by insisting that our own biases are in the best interest of our clients, then people are correct to fear a meeting with a planner and hate the experience. I can’t blame them.

      A person in the planning industry that I have a great, great deal of admiration for once posed the question, “do you view your clients as someone to work with and help through the complexity and uncertainty of life, or do you view them as a problem to fix?” Unfortunately, it seems that the majority of our industry treats clients as the latter.

      I have been in numerous client meetings throughout my career where a client proudly outlined how much progress they have made toward paying down debts, increasing savings, etc. Yet the response of the planner running the meeting was essentially that it wasn’t good enough and they need to do more. Imagine sitting on the other side of that table. You just told your advisor that you have been working your ass off and successfully paid down several thousand dollars of yet since the last meeting, only to be scolded that you should have done more. I wouldn’t want to come back either.

      Clients view planning as boring and puritanical only because we make it boring and puritanical. That, too, has to change. If we focus our existence and our value proposition on reigning in our clients’ current lives and emphasizing the bottom line, their experiences with us are going to be sour. However, the financial planning process can be incredibly inspiring and liberating when used properly. It ought to be an appreciative process, not a depreciative one. The act of delivering financial planning ought to be an act of delivering hope, inspiration and freedom. It ought to acknowledge and emphasize our clients’ successes, but most importantly, it ought to be an act of helping our clients recognize what matters most to them, an act of recognizing what provides energy and inspiration, and an act of helping them effectively align and use their resources in a way that supports those things.

      If we believe our delivery is boring and admit that our delivery is boring, there is nothing in the world that is going to stop it from being boring. It doesn’t have to be.

  • Nathan Gehring

    I find it hard to believe that there is any profession out there that views itself as being only the bearer of bad news. I would assume even palliative care physicians see their role as delivering comfort, compassion and peace, not being the embodiment of the dark angel of death.

    Certainly as financial planners we find ourselves dealing with difficult issues, and often in a position where we might have to tell our clients something they don’t want to hear or help them explore a mistake they may have made in the past.

    But this is being done in the context of helping our clients pursue what is important to them and helping them make good decisions along that pursuit. How could doing this, when framed properly, be bad news? If we are able to show them that a recommendation or idea supports their pursuit, it’s a good thing regardless of past decisions.

    And it has to be fun. Maybe not always, but there needs to be fun involved. We (financial planners, educators, government, you name it) are colossal failures in terms of reaching and teaching people.

    We struggle with clients not implementing things they have agreed to. We wonder why the plan sits on a shelf and most of the work is ignored or requires significant prodding on our parts to complete. A large part of this is due to our very poor understanding of how to communicate about money and financial issues.

    We ask obscene questions like “What do you want to happen with your money when you die?” How many people give a damn? And of those who do, how many are willing to entertain the question when asked in such a manner? And if they’ve entertained the question, how many are willing to answer honestly after a verbal assault on their mortality?

    We can do better than this. We can have fun and allow our professional image to be squeezed. We’re talking about things that should be exciting and energizing and fulfilling. There will be difficult choices for us to help clients make along that path and that’s a part of the excitement. We can have fun and enjoy our clients and allow them to enjoy us.

    Nothing has been more fulfilling in my professional life than the day I got to sit with an older couple who described a gazebo down to the finest detail, from the flagstone path leading to the gazebo to the pattern of the lattice-work, that they had wanted to build along the river behind their home for a couple decades but never thought they could because of the expense. And I got to sit with them and know their financial situation and watch their excitement describing having coffee together in the morning watching the wildlife pass, and then telling them “You can build it.”

    It was fun…for me and them. And they chose to give up on another goal because they valued this more. And giving up on the other goal was not bad news.

    • David Wargin


      I agree with your take on this. The responsibility to make it an enjoyable experience falls on the planner not the client. Some people will inevitably see it as a painful process and you have to work harder with them to make it, if not enjoyable, at least not painful. Your analogy about your children’s pediatrician states how I feel about working with clients. I’m not a suit and tie guy and the culture at my office is business casual as far as dress goes. This fits my style and makes me feel more comfortable with the clients and they, for the most part, respond in a positive way. The initial perception of a person and a companies professionalism is important but the true trust building and demonstration of professionalism comes through in the dialogue between the you and the client.

      The majority of our clients laugh, cry, celebrate, and mourn with us and that to me says there’s trust. That trust wasn’t built on what we’re wearing or how fancy our office is but how we relate to them as people.

      This may hurt you with the clients who see a suit and tie and a dedication to the numbers side of planning as the only way to be professional and don’t really seem to care about the personal side. But I think it balances out in the end and may help you more in the long run to just be yourself instead of putting on a facade you think the client will respond to. So If you’re a suit and tie person and that’s who you are go with it and if you’re not that’s fine too. To me that’s where the line is, it’s finding what works for you and how that carries over to the client.

  • Hugh Massie

    Great discussion here. I agree that planners should focus on making the financial planning process more client-centric in order for the client to have a positive advisory experience. It is also important to understand that the truly enjoyable experience will be different for each client, and therefore will need to be customized for each client. Knowing the client’s communication preferences, behavioral style and preferences (and how they differ from the advisor’s) can make a world of difference in developing a positive advisor-client relationship and will eliminate some of the negative outcomes described in this post i.e. knowing which clients will need more/less information and which clients won’t naturally “click” with the advisor.

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Michael E. Kitces

I write about financial planning strategies and practice management ideas, and have created several businesses to help people implement them.

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