From the planner's perspective, the data gathering meeting is a core part of financial planning. As the 6-step financial planning process itself stipulates, you can't begin to analyze a client's situation and formulate recommendations until you have the client's data in the first place. Yet from the client perspective, the data gathering meeting can be an arduous process, and is also easily procrastinated, potentially delaying the entire planning process. It certainly is not something that most clients would describe as a positive or enjoyable experience. So what would it take to re-formulate the entire data gathering interaction, to change it from a planner-centric process into a client-centric positive experience? For starters, it needs lose the name: let the "data gathering" meeting become the "Get Organized!" experience!
The inspiration for today's blog post comes from a number of recent blog posts I've made over the past few months regarding how unenjoyable many parts of the financial planning process can be from the client's perspective. From the introductory meeting, where we awkwardly ask the client to get (financially) naked on the first date, to the overall lack of an enjoyable experience when actually doing financial planning, it seems there is much left to be desired from the client point of view. In fact, in response to one of my recent posts, a reader challenged me to give an example of how to actually make a "quality financial planning experience" (emphasis mine). So here it is, for one step of the process for starters.
Before we dive into the changes to be made to the process, though, it's important to take a step back, and really look at the data gathering meeting and experience as it typically exists right now, from the client perspective.
For the client, the data gathering process feels like a giant homework assignment. The planner delivers a long list of things the client has to work on, before returning to the next meeting. Documentation has to be gathered for every account - perhaps an easy task for a select few clients who are already highly organized, but a terrible chore for the average person who probably doesn't spend a great deal of time keeping their financial life in order. The client may even begin to have feelings of inadequacy: Does everyone else have this information put together but me? My planner seems to expect that I should have all of this material at my fingertips. I feel like I'm failing and I haven't even started yet! Not exactly the best way to start off a relationship. And then the natural human responses start to kick in: This is embarrassing, I'll just put this off until later. (Procrastination) I don't even know where some of this stuff is; I'm humiliated to admit to my planner that I don't even know where all of my statements are. (More procrastination) If I just ignore how awkward this whole experience is, maybe it'll just go away. (So much procrastination the financial planning process is dying before it even begins) My planner says that doing this financial plan will make me feel like my life is more organized and in control and help me sleep at night, but right now it's just making me realize how disorganized I actually am and stressing me out so much I feel even worse than I did before; and if I actually get all this information together, isn't it really me getting my life organized, not my planner!?
Some planners are probably shaking their heads and thinking that these kinds of thoughts and feelings are unrealistically, but it's crucial to remember that the average financial planner is not like their average client in regards to financial matters. The average planner does this for a living; having a good handle on their financial situation comes with the territory, often with some good financial habits. The average client (or client-to-be) doesn't open statements for months at a time, doesn't have a filing system to track all of their important documents, and may not even be certain where all of their accounts are in the first place. Although frankly, I know a number of financial planners who deep down would have to admit they're probably close to this client profile, too; after all, we're busy professionals, immersed in our business and our lives, our friends and our family, and the last thing most of us want to do after a long day of work is come work and spend more time with our statements, paperwork, and filing. No wonder the data gathering process feels onerous to the prospective client; it would probably be pretty darn onerous for most of us to put ourselves through it, too.
So what can we as planners do about this unpleasant experience? Simple. If the reality is that most prospective clients (or let's be honest, most people in general!) are not really that organized with their paperwork, statements, and financial lives, then let's make the data gathering process about getting the client organized. In fact, rather than calling it a "data gathering" meeting - which is entirely planner-centric about the planner getting the data he/she needs to do a plan - call it a "Get Organized!" meeting, as it's all about helping the client, hands-on, to get his/her financial life organized.
Here's how the process might go...
Before the meeting, the client receives the following guidance:
- "In order to move forward with your financial plan, we need to understand the details of your financial life. However, we realize that like most people, your financial life probably isn't in perfect order already. Statements end out buried in drawers and at the bottom of piles. Insurance policies are buried who-knows-where. Sometimes we even lose track of old accounts. So at our next meeting, we're going to work together to help you get organized. Please bring with you whatever financial information you can put your hands on; if you just want to bring in a box of files or piles of paper, that's absolutely fine, we'll work with you to sort through it. By the end of the meeting, though, our goal is to help you be on your way to getting your financial information in good order, and giving you a system to keep things organized in the future. And along the way, we'll gather the details we need to take your financial plan to the next stage."
At the meeting, the client enters with a box (or two?) full of "stuff" and the meeting may entail the following steps:
- Set up a file box like this, with hanging folders, for the client to get organized. Create file folder labels for each of the client's accounts and other documents as you and the client sort through the paperwork together.
- As you go through the client's materials and sort them into files, make copies of pertinent documents that actually include the current information you need to work on the financial plan.
- Guide the client about what needs to be kept and what does not. Shred old information for the client so it doesn't even need to be carried back out of the office at the end of the meeting.
- Set up a computer with a web browser, which to maintain client privacy is configured to clear all web history, cache, and cookies at the end of a session. Help the client log into any online accounts that may be available. If online access hasn't been configured, set it up on the spot, and have the client access email to activate the new online accounts. Create a master list of websites that the client logs in to for financial information that can be printed out and brought home for the client's reference. Also print out a copy of current statement information (for the financial plan) for each account as it is configured.
- If there are any accounts or other pertinent documents that the client might need but doesn't have, look up the contact information for the company on the computer, and call on the spot to request information. Ask for a new copy of the statement/policy/document/whatever to be sent to the client's address of record; have the client give permission on the telephone to have a duplicate copy sent directly to your office for your records and so you can work on the financial plan. (Be sure to create a file folder so the client knows where to put the information when it arrives in the mail.)
- Take all of the current statements, important policies and documents, and other relevant material, and scan it into your system to upload to the client's electronic vault. Set up the client's login to the vault in your office, and verify the client knows how to log in and navigate the system to access his/her own documents virtually/electronically.
At the end of the meeting, the client walks away from your office in a literally more organized status than when the client arrived. Documents have been sorted and filed. The client now has a filing system to use for future information, and a backup copy saved to their electronic vault. Instead of spending a meeting feeling guilty about not having the information needed, or the weeks leading up to the meeting procrastinating and delaying, the planner met the client at the client's level of organization (not where the planner wishes it was!) and helped the client have a positive experience where the client was empowered to succeed and get organized, on the spot, and walk away with a tangible outcome of the success (the sorted-into-labeled-folders filing box). And along the way, the planner got almost every piece of information needed - and whatever is still needed, has already been ordered and is on the way.
I suspect that some planners would feel a meeting like this is too basic, and even beneath them. Help a client file some documents? Call companies asking for copies of statements? Really?
YES. Because that is what the client really needs. THAT is a client-centric process; the meeting is quite directly about the client, and what the client needs to get organized and succeed, and the planner merely grabs the necessary information for the next stage of the plan along the way (or perhaps, depending on the firm, this part of the process could even be driven by the planning associate in the room, while the senior planner tries to also focus a conversation on other non-financial-document aspects of the plan).
But the bottom line is that this is the difference between a planner-centric data gathering meeting - give me the data I need to do this plan - and a client-centric "Get Organized!" positive financial planning experience!
So what do you think? Would this help any of your new clients to procrastinate less about the data gathering meeting, and become more engaged in the financial planning process? Could this actually expedite the process? Would it be a more positive financial planning experience for the client? How could you change parts of your other financial planning meetings to be more engaging, more interactive, and lead to a more positive experience for the client?