When holding discovery meetings with a prospective client, financial advisors often ask the prospect about their goals. The hope is that these conversations will help the prospect ease into a positive frame of mind (by thinking about a vacation, retirement, or another future aspiration) and, at the same time, present the advisor with an opportunity to show how their services can help the prospect achieve their goals. However, the reality is that asking about goals has the potential to set prospects up for disappointment or dissatisfaction down the line, especially when achieving the goal is not financially attainable based on the prospect’s current situation, in which case the advisor might be seen as a ‘dream killer’. Even when a goal is achieved, it might not feel as good as the prospect imagined (e.g., feeling a lack of purpose after retirement). Consequently, finding meaningful ways to frame discovery-meeting conversations that don’t focus on the prospect’s future goals can sometimes be a better way to engage and motivate new clients.
By identifying a prospect’s current concerns and pain points and exploring strategies to address the issues that the prospect is facing now – instead of on future dreams that may still be far off into the future (and that are much vaguer to the client than the current situations faced today) – advisors can discover powerful motivators that can help the prospect to act more decisively (in fact, a particular problem the prospect has been struggling with might have been the reason they scheduled the discovery meeting in the first place!). Of course, diving right into a conversation to learn about a prospect’s particular pain points could make for an awkward discovery meeting. However, there are several ways to broach the subject indirectly, which can help advisors ease into the conversation more naturally. One approach is to ask the prospect about current concerns instead of pain points and explore what they would like to see as an outcome of working with the advisor (which could reveal pain points without framing the question in those terms). Another option for financial advisors is to solicit the client’s “anti-goals”, which are the things a person wants to avoid (e.g., financial regrets), as these can serve as powerful incentives for the prospect to take action (perhaps by becoming a client of the advisor!).
The first step to structuring discovery meetings that don’t address goals is to make a list of questions (e.g., “What do you want to ensure you won’t regret?”) that can be used to unearth a prospect’s pain points, anti-goals, current concerns, and aspirations. Lists can be important because asking non-goal questions can take some practice before asking them feels natural. In addition, advisors can consider sending some of the questions to the prospect in advance as part of an agenda for the discovery meeting (or perhaps adding a few questions to the meeting invitation itself) to help them be better prepared to respond. Further, in addition to the core questions the advisor wants to raise, asking appropriate follow-up questions during the meeting can also play a vital role in discovering what’s most important for the prospect to act on right now.
Ultimately, the key point is that while asking prospects about their financial goals might seem like a logical strategy for a discovery meeting, an alternative approach that indirectly brings out the prospect’s pain points can be more effective at motivating them to action. And for advisors, this method not only can help them identify what really matters to the prospect but also can potentially increase the chances that they will become a client!
How financial advisors conduct discovery meetings can vary widely in many ways. Some collect financial data during the meeting; some do not. Some ask deeper emotional questions; some do not. Some advisors have multiple discovery meetings with the same prospect or client; some only have one. Yet, what nearly all advisors have in common is that they often ask questions about financial goals and future dreams.
This is because talking about dreams and goals isn’t just fun; it can also be a great way for advisors to show how they can create value for their clients – prospects want to plan for their retirement, and the advisor creates value by saying, “Great! I can help you do that.”
But here is the rub. Change research conducted by psychology researchers James Prochaska, John Norcross, and Carlo DiClemente, which they wrote about in their book Changing for Good: A Revolutionary Six-Stage Program for Overcoming Bad Habits and Moving Your Life Positively Forward, shows why there is very little connection between asking clients to identify their financial goals and downstream non-compliance or inaction. Their research suggests that just naming a goal – especially vague ones such as, “I want to retire” or “I want financial freedom” – is not very motivating and not so different from the example of individuals who know smoking is bad for them and who name quitting smoking as a goal, but who never take action to actually stop.
In other words, having a discussion about future dreams or goals during a prospect discovery meeting doesn’t often result in the prospect taking action to achieve those goals once they become a client because those initial goals don’t often carry a lot of motivational weight.
At this point, some advisors might be thinking, “Wait, what? Hold on. Asking about goals and dreams isn’t all that bad – I have these discussions with my clients, and they are excited to follow through. Besides, if asking about financial dreams and goals were all that bad, then we would have stopped asking these questions a long time ago.”
Just go with me for a moment here – I am not suggesting that these discussions can’t work; I am saying that for some prospects, a different approach might work better. There are different ways to conduct discovery meetings, and slight changes around how to approach them can be fun, value-building, and more motivating for clients!
Focusing On Dreams And Goals In Discovery Meetings Can Set Prospects Up For Dissatisfaction
Not many advisors want to tell a prospect that their goals or dreams are unrealistic or unattainable. This is an uncomfortable conversation, perhaps even a painful conversation. Yet, many advisors start new prospect discovery meetings by asking about financial goals and dreams. And when the advisor learns more about the prospect’s actual financial situation and realizes there is no possible way for the prospect to reach their goals based on what they have shared, how does the advisor respond?
Perhaps the prospect doesn’t understand what it would truly require to realize their ideal financial future. While some prospects may be willing to accept the harsh reality that where they are and where they want to be are just too far apart based on their current situation, some prospects may view the advisor as a dream killer and financial goal smasher. Either way, both scenarios describe difficult ways to start a mutually beneficial relationship… if a relationship can even be formed at all.
Furthermore, focusing on dreams and goals is often not as motivating as one might imagine them to be. Some common answers that advisors get when they ask about a client or prospect’s financial goals are “retirement”, “freedom”, and “getting out of debt”. “I don’t know” is also a common response. And while there is nothing really wrong with these responses, especially given that the prospect or client isn’t usually given much of a chance to think very deeply about that question, the responses tend to be very vague, and the reality is that they don’t hold much meaningful context for the client/prospect. What does retirement really look like for the client? What does freedom mean, and what will it enable? What happens when their last debt is finally paid off?
While focusing on vague goals and dreams may not be very motivating, the desire to alleviate pain is very motivating. For many prospects, pain is what got them to call. Pain brought them to the discovery meeting. The reality is that, for most financial planning clients, loss aversion – the desire to avoid loss and pain (sometimes to an irrational point) – reigns over dream chasing. Humans are cognitively driven (i.e., deeply motivated) to avoid pain, circumvent frustration, and prevent loss more than they are to plan for something enjoyable or strive for positive outcomes. This is not to say that we don’t want pleasure or positive outcomes; rather, we tend to be called to action much more quickly when the objective is to prevent something painful.
Consider the next 2 statements:
- I want to retire (goal);
- I do not want to work this soul-sucking job any longer than I have to (pain).
The motivation to take action based on the pain-based statement would clearly win out over the goal-based statement, even if both result in the same outcome – not working. Simply put, conversations about achieving goals and dreams are not as motivating as having conversations about alleviating pain.
It is worth noting that the phenomenon above could also be described by positive versus negative frames as proposed by Prospect Theory, which posits that humans are happier when they can avoid losing something over winning something of the same magnitude. Avoiding unhappiness, and potential mental illness, due to an unsatisfying job is more motivating than achieving retirement sometime in the future.
The last reason to reconsider conversations about goals and dreams is that achieving goals or making dreams come true is not always as satisfying as one might imagine. Research has shown that it is not uncommon to reach a goal, and instead of it feeling good, it feels well… not all that good. This is known as arrival fallacy – a person may think that reaching a goal (retirement) will bring them happiness, but instead, they feel sad, empty, or perhaps just as frustrated as before their goal was met.
Arrival fallacy is very much related to the fact that humans often tend to be bad forecasters. In other words, we are very bad at guessing what makes our future selves happy. This is because of our tendency to spend too much time on the ‘hedonic treadmill’, where we get caught chasing the things we think we need to make us happy and not paying attention to or appreciating the things we already have, let alone the things that might truly make a person happy. As a result, it becomes difficult, if not impossible, to enjoy the journey involved in reaching our goals (which, ironically, can often be more satisfying than actually reaching the goal). So, we pick a new goal because reaching the last goal did nothing to boost our happiness, only to realize the same unsatisfying outcome, and off we go running again. Which is why conversations that focus on financial goals and dreams can backfire, setting up new clients to be non-compliant, dissatisfied, and even confused further down the road.
Why Conversations About Ambition, Achievement, And ‘Anti-Goals’ Motivate Clients
However motivating pain may be, it can be an awkward topic for an advisor, at least initially, to broach in a discovery meeting. Discovery meetings are essentially interviews: Advisors interview the prospect, and the prospect interviews the advisor. Imagine being asked about what you find most painful in an initial interview with a stranger – that conversation would probably feel very strange and uncomfortable.
But there’s a better, much less awkward way to begin the discussion – instead of having a pain conversation, have an achievement conversation. There are 2 general approaches to achievement conversations: the Step Approach and the Outcomes Approach.
Step Approach And Outcomes Approach
When using the Step Approach to have an achievement conversation, the conversation often starts with general questions about achievements, then hones into more recent achievements, and finally moves to not-yet-attained achievements that the person wants to achieve.
For example, consider the following achievement conversation, which starts by asking the client about their general financial accomplishments, then asking about more recent achievements, and finally transitioning to what the prospect still wants to achieve:
Achievement Conversation Using The Step Approach
Advisor: Can you please share with me what you feel you have achieved so far from a financial perspective?
Prospect: Well, I think I am a good saver. Is that sort of what you mean? I have been saving at least 20% of my paycheck since I was 17.
Advisor: Totally. I am very interested to hear about what else pops into your mind – there are no right or wrong answers. Would you share with me a more recent financial achievement?
Prospect: I did just pay off my house. I celebrated by taking the money I normally spend on the mortgage and spending it on a mini-vacation with my partner. It was great!
Advisor: Wow, that is awesome. Congratulations on the payoff, and good for you for celebrating the following month! Now, I’m dying to ask… mostly because I want to think of more celebrations… what else do you want to achieve from a financial perspective?
Prospect: Well, I guess there are some small things. I would like to buy a boat. A bigger thing would be to travel after I retire.
Advisor: Awesome, tell me more about the boat…
For advisors who don’t feel the step approach would be a natural way to discuss achievements, another way to have the achievement conversation is to ask about outcomes. Asking the prospect what they would like to see as an outcome of potentially working together can get the prospect talking about the future much more specifically. Consider the following example.
Achievement Conversation Using The Outcomes Approach
Advisor: Tell me, what would you like to see as an outcome of working together in the next year?
Prospect: Well, for starters, I want to feel more organized. As I mentioned in our introductory meeting, I just have a little something everywhere and I don’t feel organized…
In the above conversations using the step and outcome approaches, the prospect’s goals come to light without the advisor ever having to use the word “goals”. The statements provided by the prospect in each conversation give the advisor lots of opportunities to follow up and dive deeper so that these potential future achievements become motivating.
Another way to identify a prospect’s goals is to ask them about what is currently enjoyable. Again, while humans are not great forecasters, they are predictable. Typically, the things that made someone happy or left them feeling fulfilled in the past are some of the same things that will make them happy and feel fulfilled in the future. Thus, instead of asking about future goals, ask more about what is going well right now and then talk about how to do more of the same thing. This style of conversation involves asking the prospect what they enjoy doing or what makes them feel fulfilled.
The initial answers that people tend to give are usually either positive, where they are able to actually answer the question, or negative, where they are generally so unhappy that they can’t think of anything. Either way, the advisor can thank the prospect for sharing, and then ask follow-up questions that delve deeper into their initial response.
Achievement Conversation Using The Enjoyment Approach With Prospect #1
Advisor: What is something you currently enjoy doing?
Negative Prospect: Gosh, honestly, nothing. That’s part of the reason I am here. I am just working and stressed all the time. I feel like I used to enjoy things, but now I am just stressed.
Advisor: Thanks for sharing, and I’m sorry to hear things aren’t going so well. But let’s talk more about why you’re feeling so stressed…
Achievement Conversation Using The Enjoyment Approach With Prospect #2
Advisor: What is something you currently enjoy doing?
Positive Prospect: You know, I love getting my nails done. It is my little cheat. I go about once a month. It is simple, but I do enjoy it.
Advisor: Thanks for sharing! That sounds wonderful. Tell me more about what you enjoy about…
Asking good follow-up questions goes a long way to building trust and value – 2 typical goals in discovery meetings. Even simple follow-up questions like, “Can you tell me more about that?” keep people talking about what makes them tick, and this can build motivation to actually do something, like sign up as a client and do more of the things that bring them enjoyment, or less of the things that don’t.
In addition to the Step, Outcome, and Enjoyment approach, achievement conversations can be conducted from a psychological standpoint by harnessing the power of loss aversion and, at the same time, building value and trust. This approach can be considered an ‘anti-goal’ conversation.
“Anti-goal” is a term coined by Dr. Brian Portnoy at Shaping Wealth and represents the things a person doesn’t want to have. The anti-goal approach uses questions to actively solicit the things a prospect wants to avoid, such as pain, anger, sadness, fear, and frustration. Essentially, the heart of the anti-goal approach, like the last Kinder Question many financial advisors are fond of, boils down to addressing what the prospect regrets and fears.
Regret and fear are extremely powerful, negative emotions that are especially helpful at driving behavior change – prospects are much more likely to sign up and hand over their financial documents if they think that doing so will keep them from living a life they believe they would regret. What’s more, advisors who have been using the anti-goal approach are getting a lot out of the conversation – according to Portnoy, advisors are getting to know the prospect in deep and compelling ways, which certainly sounds like trust and value are being created.
Advisors interested in the Anti-goals approach may ask something like the following:
- What do you want to ensure you don’t regret?
- What is something that makes you angry?
- Tell me about something that makes you sad.
As with many questions that focus on regret, these are brave questions to ask as a financial advisor because the advisor has no way of knowing how the prospect will respond. They might reveal that they hate their commute, that they’re saddened by their lack of connection to their children, or that they don’t want to regret spending too little time with their partner. These are all profound responses and may never have been revealed through simply asking about financial goals – at least without a lot of follow-up and a lot of trust.
When advisors probe a bit further with follow-up questions that encourage the prospect to share more about what they are thinking, the conversation usually reveals an underlying goal at the root of their feelings. For example, if a prospect hates their commute because it takes up 3 hours of their day that they’d rather spend with their family, the advisor could explore what would help to make a change. At no time does the advisor need to talk about actual “goals”, but nonetheless, the conversation clarifies what the prospect is very motivated to work towards.
Anti-goal conversations back into identifying the precise goals that prospects and clients are going to be most motivated to achieve to avoid pain, which has more power than goals based on a vague concept of what the prospect thinks they might like in the future. It’s not that questions that ask about goals or dreams are bad; there are simply other types of questions that can do a better job of generating motivation for change, trust, and value.
Start Having More Meaningful (And Motivating) Prospect Discovery Meetings
The first step to having more meaningful discovery meetings starts with making a list of questions that don’t ask about goals or dreams (feel free to use any of the questions in this article). Having a list of such questions can be very helpful, especially for advisors who regularly ask about goals during the discovery meeting. Lists are also important since asking non-goal questions tends to be different from asking questions that focus on goals – they’re not hard to use, but it can take some practice before asking them feels natural.
Asking a friend, partner, or even a client with whom an advisor has a great relationship can be a good way to practice asking and responding to non-goal questions. It can be especially helpful for the advisor to follow up on the session by asking for feedback on how the conversation went. They can ask their partner how the questions felt, whether they enjoyed the conversation, and what might have made it more enjoyable. Practice and feedback are so valuable when learning and trying anything new.
Preparing Prospects For The Discovery Meeting Dialogue
In addition to the advisor creating and using the list for the meeting itself, they can also send some of the questions to the prospect in advance. Agendas are wonderful for managing expectations and preparing the prospect for the meeting. The idea of a discovery meeting – an interview – can be intimidating for a prospect, especially when they don’t know what specifically they are going to be asked but that it will be about deeply personal areas exploring their money, behavior, and choices related to their money. For some prospects, a discovery meeting might feel even scarier than a job interview! As such, sharing a few questions with the prospect can help them prepare for the meeting and set their mind at ease.
Here is a simple example of an email or letter that can be sent in advance:
I am looking forward to our upcoming discovery call and wanted to give you an idea of some of the questions and topics we will cover in this meeting.
- Are there any aspects of your life (whether they are related to money or not) that bother you right now?
- What does your financial situation look like, and how do you feel about those accounts and balances?
- What do you want to know about any parts of the meeting and planning process?
Feel free to respond to these questions now or jot down a few ideas and bring them up during the call.
Thank you in advance!
Another option is to add a few questions to the meeting invitation itself. Prospects are unlikely to bare their souls in their response to a Calendly invite, but it’s an easy way to help them understand what will be covered in the meeting ahead of time. Advisors can ask again in the meeting or even ask about the responses provided in the Calendly and then ask yet another non-goal style question.
For example, a prospect leaves the following response to the question about what’s bothering them right now in their Calendly submission:
I am very bothered by my commute. I am also very bothered by how disorganized I feel. I hope you can help me.
When the advisor and prospect finally meet, the advisor acknowledges the comment and addresses it with the prospect as follows:
Thank you for giving me a few ideas in the calendar invite. I want to ask a few follow-up questions about your commute and your organization. Let’s start with your commute. What makes it so horrible?
Using Calendly to ask prospects about what may be bothering them can spark some powerful conversations once prospects come in for their meeting. And later, in the same in-person conversation, it would be totally fine for the advisor to follow up the discussion with what they do enjoy.
The key point here is that advisors can show prospects how they add value for them not only by helping them deal with the things they hate, but also by helping them get more of what they love. It is entirely okay to mix and match these questions in whatever unique way feels most comfortable for the advisor.
Using Anti-Goal Language During The Discovery Meeting
The two primary objectives in the meeting (once the advisor asks the initial questions) are to ask follow-up questions for clarity and motivation, and to pay a lot of attention to words that the prospect uses in place of "goal" or "dream".
Advisors shouldn’t worry if they inadvertently say “goal” or “dream” – again, habits are hard to break. Prospects are not going to think anything of it if the advisor reframes. Just start again. For example, an advisor could say something like the following phrase to rescind a goal question:
Oh, that is not exactly how I wanted to ask that; what I really wanted to ask was, “What do you want to achieve/avoid?”
Follow-up questions serve a crucial purpose in exploring the prospect’s feelings more deeply. They don’t have to be hard or clever; they simply need to be relevant to the prospect’s initial response. 3 is a good number of follow-up questions to ask (A simple way to remember this is to think of kid’s basketball – no one can shoot until the ball is passed 3 times). The advisor should not assume that they understand the prospect’s thoughts unless they have asked at least 3 follow-up questions to clarify and understand them.
Consider the following example using the anti-goal approach:
Advisor: Here is a bit of a different question. Tell me – what makes you angry?
Prospect: My commute really makes me mad. I have to commute every day, and I absolutely hate it.
Advisor: Can you tell me what about the commute you hate? [Follow-up question #1]
Prospect: Well, I hate it because it eats up 2 hours of my day that I would rather spend with my family. I got used to working from home, being able to have lunch with my partner, and seeing my kids a bit more. And well, now that I have to commute again… I feel like I waste so much time just driving.
Advisor: Yes. I hear that. Time with family is invaluable. Would you say that this commute is worth changing jobs over? [Follow-up question #2]
Prospect: Totally. I have been thinking about that too. It is actually one of the reasons I decided to come in. I know I mentioned getting organized on our intro call and just that we had some financial decisions on the horizon that we wanted help with…well…a new job is one of them.
Advisor: Okay, new job. Exciting! How does a new job rank in priority among the other organizational items we have discussed today? [Follow-up question #3]
Prospect: It’s an imperative for the to-do list. Like number 2.
Advisor: I like it. New job is now on the to-do list, in second place.
The conversation above went from “I hate my commute” to “A new job is a high priority on my to-do list” without ever using the word “goal”. The 3 follow-up questions helped to clarify what was going on and what was most important to the prospect about that commute. The follow-up questions also built motivation. The prospect said, “It’s an imperative for the to-do list”, which is a much more inspired goal developed by the prospect and fueled by the value he places on time spent with his family; it would not have had nearly as much emotional energy had the advisor not asked all 3 follow-up questions. Importantly, the 3 follow-up questions kept the prospect talking and building up their own motivation to work with the advisor. They also helped the prospect and advisor realize what change would alleviate the central pain point and, at the same time, built trust and value. The prospect feels heard and understood by the advisor, which is important for establishing trust.
This brings up another good reason to leave “goal” out of the conversation. By doing so, advisors provide more room for prospects and clients to insert their own (often more motivating) language. In the example above, the prospect chose to express his priority in terms of a “to-do list”. Yet, both the advisor and the prospect know what goal they are going to be working towards – finding a new job with a shorter (or no) commute. For this prospect, referring to his priorities as “to-do-list” items may subconsciously feel more action-oriented and immediate (and thus more motivating) than the term “goals”.
Which is why repeating the prospect’s own words can be a good way for the advisor to build trust and develop value with the prospect. Even though this is a very subtle action, it does have an impact. Think of using the prospect’s own words like a secret handshake or password – using the same language creates a closeness, acknowledging that the advisor has seen and heard the prospect in a way that would not be possible with anything other than shared language.
By using the prospect's own words – and not the usual terminology of “dream” or “goal” – advisors have the opportunity to broaden their shared lexicon and to use language that really inspires and is unique to the relationship and the prospect’s financial life.
Closing The Discovery Meeting
As the meeting wraps up and the advisor has made it through their agenda, asking the 2 or 3 questions (and a minimum of 3 follow-up questions to each of the main questions) they wanted to explore, it is now time for that last step – talking about the process and next steps, and asking the prospect to sign up as a client.
By providing a summary of the meeting and outlining what was learned about the prospect’s immediate priorities, advisors can use these priorities to craft how to talk about services and the next steps.
Advisor: Thank you again for coming in and speaking with me. As we begin to wrap up and move on to talk about the next steps, I would like to make a few summary statements about what I have learned about you and your to-do list in our conversation. Will that work for you?
Prospect: Go for it.
Advisor: First on the to-do list is to get organized. You would like to have a dashboard of your financial life, pulling everything together into one place. Fair?
Advisor: Second on the to-do list is to weigh the options about leaving your current job and possibly finding a new job or considering other possible arrangements. Do I have that right?
Prospect: Mostly. I would be surprised if I did anything other than wait until I find a new job before leaving my current job, so “other possible arrangements” seem really crazy to me at this moment – but we are on the same page.
Advisor – Great, I appreciate that clarity.
Once the advisor and prospect agree on the summary, the advisor can begin connecting what they do to what was outlined in the summary of the prospect’s priorities. In the above example, this might be as simple as showing the prospect the financial planning software so they could actually see how their financial situation would be organized in one place. As it pertains to evaluating new jobs, the advisor may talk about how they would be able to review benefits packages or assist with rollovers or stock questions.
The key point here is that the advisor is making clear connections between their services and the prospect’s “to-do” list. The list is what the prospect is motivated to address, and it is through the list that the advisor and prospect have built value and trust.
Finally, the advisor can close by letting the prospect know that they would be excited to work with them and that the next steps would involve signing engagement paperwork. This will not come across as ‘salesy’ when the advisor has genuinely connected the services they offer to the prospect's concerns – instead, it can be viewed as a beacon of light by the prospect, a way to actually get the “to-do” list done!
Advisor: Thank you again for coming in. I really enjoyed our conversation today, and I’m excited to start working on this to-do list. If you are feeling the same, all that is left is the paperwork. Let me go get it.
Prospect: Great, let’s do it.
Notice how the final comment, “Let me go get it”, is direct – the advisor and the prospect both know what is about to happen, but it is not suggestive. The prospect could still say, I have one more question. Or please go get it, and I would like to take it home with me. However, the advisor need not worry about this if the conversation has demonstrated value, established trust, and motivated the prospect!
Ultimately, the issue with questions that focus on future goals and dreams is that they tend to lack an association with strong motivation. Research supports that questions about “goals” asked in discovery meetings aren’t always the best questions to explore what really matters to prospects in the present.
Fortunately, there are several ways to frame a prospect conversation without ever having to discuss “goals”. Anti-goal questions offer a direct route to honest answers and clarity around the forces that motivate a client to avoid pain and undesirable circumstances. Using the enjoyment approach to frame conversations can also elicit honest answers with a positive spin and can be used as a complementary approach to anti-goals conversations in the same meeting. And last but not least, the step and outcome approaches can help prospects identify smaller, more actionable goals that build motivation based on near-future, more measurable goals.
Most importantly, advisors who bravely avoid conventional questions that ask about goals and dreams may find themselves rewarded not only with valuable insights about their prospects but also with motivated prospects that ultimately become motivated clients!