After a financial advisor and their client have agreed on a financial plan, there are usually a lot of good feelings going around. The causes of the client's worries have been identified, there's agreement on the steps that will get the client to where they want to be, and all that's left is to take action to implement the plan. But while it seems like the momentum of the earlier steps of the planning process should carry through into the implementation stage, all too often, the opposite occurs: despite all the steps being in place, the client fails to take the agreed-on actions. While the advisor, not wanting to nag or badger the client and sour the good feelings that abounded earlier in the relationship, finds themselves at a loss for how to follow through. As a result, the plan stagnates, and the next steps – some genuinely timely and others needed to set the client on the right track for the long term – go unaddressed until the next plan update rolls around.
For advisors feeling the frustration of stalled implementation, the first step can be understanding some of the reasons that clients may hesitate to take action even when they may have previously seemed ready to act. Often, there are 3 main causes of clients failing to implement. First, when discussing future-oriented plans like retirement, clients may feel as though those plans should have a high priority for them – and yet, when it's time to make the necessary adjustments today (and often, the lifestyle tradeoffs that are needed to start saving more for the future), the needs of tomorrow suddenly have a lower priority than when everyone was simply talking about them. Secondly, clients may sometimes find themselves simply unable to carry out the tasks recommended by the advisor if those actions aren't discussed in sufficient detail. Lastly, for a client who may be new to working with a financial advisor, it may simply take time for the client to become familiar enough with the planning process and the advisor to take action. After all, conversations are one thing, but taking action can often require a great deal of trust that the advisor understands the client enough to make recommendations in their best interests.
Fortunately, advisors can help clients minimize the potential for inaction by asking some simple implementation questions after the plan has been agreed on that can help focus priorities, clarify the most important next steps, and ultimately build up a rapport that can create the foundation of trust needed before the client takes action. For example, asking the client which task they feel is most important can help reinforce the client's prioritization of the task, while asking the client to share what they know about how to accomplish the agreed-on actions can uncover any potential blocking points stemming from a client's lack of knowledge about how a task should be done.
Ultimately, the key point is that clients don't always fully understand the roadblocks that work against implementing their financial plan. Advisors can achieve more consistent follow-through when they can uncover obstacles to implementation before they happen – and by asking questions to identify these impediments, they can also help the client clarify what they need to do going forward, all while building on the client-advisor relationship that will keep the momentum moving forward each time the plan is updated and renewed (and re-implemented) in the future!
I am often asked by advisors about clients in the implementation stage of their financial plan, "Why do my clients struggle with completing next steps to take action on their plan's recommendations?" And after they ask this, they say things like the following:
- Client implementation feels like it should be a no-brainer; we have put so much time and effort into discussing goals, gathering documents, building trust, and constructing their financial plan up to this point. Isn't it logical to assume that actually taking action and doing it is what should come next?
- Taking action feels like the next logical step. We planned on this course of action and the client says they're ready to dive in and do it, but then they don't. It's so confusing.
- We've created a financial plan based on so many exciting and motivating things. We've envisioned how to achieve the future they want while addressing how to eliminate their current pain points. The resulting to-dos feel like they should be easy tasks that everyone understands, agrees to, and wants to achieve. But then nothing happens.
- I just don't get it. Everyone has worked so hard on developing a financial plan to help the client achieve exactly what they were hoping for. It feels like this is the moment where change is supposed to begin, but then it seems like the plan just falls flat. It's so frustrating for both the client and me.
If advisors have found themselves thinking these things about their own clients – how the lack of implementation is confusing and disappointing – they are not alone. When everyone has worked so hard – clients and advisors together – and then things don't go as planned, it can be downright frustrating and confusing. Because when clients follow through on the tasks they need to do, not only is it satisfying for the client to experience a sense of accomplishment, but it also cements the advisor's value – successful implementation is very much tied to the advisor's knowledge and skill coming together through the relationship with the client. But when there is no follow-through, clients and advisors can't move forward and sometimes even have to take several steps backward to compensate for lost momentum.
Perhaps even more challenging is that when tasks don't get done, advisors are often left with few good options for getting back on track that don't require recreating a significant portion of the plan. And when advisors invest time and energy reminding, coaxing, and nagging the client to follow up, that doesn't feel good for either the client or the advisor. Because clients don't like being reminded about their failure to act, and advisors don't want to be annoying, admonishing, or acting in the role of micro-manager. Which can be harmful to the relationship, especially in the early stages when everyone is learning how to work together for the first time.
For example, an advisor devises a financial plan for a client who has received equity compensation in the form of restricted stock from their employer. A potentially useful tool for restricted-stock tax planning is the 83(b) election, which allows an employee to pre-pay income tax on the restricted stock as of the grant date (instead of the vesting date). This can be very beneficial for the client if the value of their stock value increases between the grant and vesting dates – not only would the tax liability be lower when determined on the grant date, but the burden of planning for a huge tax bill in the future would also be lessened. However, the 83(b) election is very time-sensitive, as documentation must be mailed to the IRS within 30 days of their stock grant date. Missing the 30-day filing window would preclude the employee from taking advantage of the 83(b) election, leaving advisors with potentially less favorable (and more labor-intensive) courses of action. They can recommend that the client work with their company to amend the grant and have the stock vest immediately, which can be worth the effort if they expect the stock to shoot up in price. Alternatively, they can plan for a large tax bill in the year the stock is originally scheduled to vest, which could require saving up in advance or selling some of the vested stock to pay for the future tax bill.
As another example, a client may have a plan requiring them to update their investment account beneficiaries. However, if they never get around to updating the information and something bad happens to them, their intended beneficiaries wouldn't inherit what the client intended for them to have, and the surviving family would be left with a complicated situation to untangle.
In both of these examples, timely action is critical. The lack of implementation can result not only in everyone's frustration and disappointment but also in the advisor's need to spend valuable hours creating a new plan to correct the client's failure to take the initially recommended action! Critically, the negative feelings that can arise can also create strain on and damage the relationship.
Confusion About Priorities, Abilities, And Strategy Can Create Implementation Roadblocks For Clients
When clients say that they want to retire and feel less stressed about their path to retirement, this does not necessarily mean they will immediately take action and start saving more and/or spending less. And while excitement about achieving something in the future (e.g., a fulfilling retirement) and fear of a negative outcome (e.g., not saving enough to be able to retire) are both powerful motivators, clients still find it very difficult to take action on their plan recommendations.
The client's disconnection between accepting and taking action on their financial plan not only creates confusion and frustration for the advisor but can also impact the client's own mindset. Clients, too, get confused and frustrated, often for 3 main reasons: 1) the priority is wrong, 2) the client's knowledge is lacking, or 3) the required action is confusing and ambiguous as to who is responsible for carrying out the tasks and when they need to be done.
Confusing (Or Inappropriate) Priorities
While the client may be excited to retire and is looking forward to alleviating the stress associated with preparing for retirement, they may not be feeling any enthusiasm about the need to save more and spend less in the interim. It is a classic change issue – there is some future priority that, once translated into the current tasks required to achieve it, becomes a lower priority. In this scenario, even though retirement is high on the client's priority list, their higher current priority (in terms of tasks they are most willing to carry out) is actually to maintain their current standard of living. They may be unable to honestly admit that to themselves at this point because they don't want to worry about retirement, and they do want to be on track to retire someday, but when they realize what they really have to do to stay on track to retire – and how those tasks will impact their current quality of life – the prioritization of their retirement goal changes.
This might be an overly simplistic example, but it illustrates the point – when future and current priorities are not clearly and accurately defined, the required actions to achieve future priorities can easily be turned into 'maybe later' tasks – especially when important current priorities are impacted by what needs to be done to realize less concerning, future priorities. Clients often want to change (e.g., take measures to relieve stress and be on track for retirement), but at the same time, they struggle to motivate themselves to take immediate action – classic contemplation behavior (when the client may be aware of their issue but still resistant to prepare for it) combined, in this case, with loss aversion (the tendency for us to feel more negative feelings for a loss than positive feelings for a comparable gain).
When advisors don't take measures to ensure that clients understand the tasks required to attain future goals and that the priority of those tasks is clearly aligned with what's most important to the client, the chances are lower that clients will implement the plan, not to mention that the plan probably won't be very meaningful or valuable in the first place (even though the client might agree that it seems like a perfectly logical plan!).
This internal tension between logic and emotion can be very confusing for the client – they know that they need to do something to be on track with their retirement goals, yet they aren't actually ready or willing to make any changes.
Lack Of Knowledge Or Ability
In addition to confusing and misaligned priorities, another issue that can make plan implementation so difficult for clients is their ability to take action. The client might know what a budget is conceptually, but they may not know how to set one up or how to create saving and spending strategies to stick to it. How do they organize their spending? How do they make or find the time to create a sensible budget for themselves in the first place? Many clients have never taken time out to make a budget or examine how they truly spend their money – they don't know how much they rely on credit cards versus auto-debits from their checking accounts. Assessing these issues can be tough for many individuals, especially if they have never reviewed these things before. Developing the skills to complete a task is not the only important factor involved; what is perhaps even more important is developing the clarity needed around why the activity means so much to the client.
When it comes to more complex tasks that typically require professional assistance (e.g., investing, tax planning, and estate planning), it might be easy to assume that the client's burden would be lifted by a capable advisor; however, the ability to understand processes and their value can be even harder for the client. When a client is asked to discuss their risk tolerance or provide tax documentation needed by a CPA, many are often confused about what specific considerations they need to make. The action needed to complete these steps can be very fuzzy, causing the client to doubt their ability to follow through.
Furthermore, many clients aren't sure about how to ask for help or may feel uncomfortable doing so. While asking for help often requires nothing more than making a phone call, clients tend to assume that their advisor will probably be too busy or that their question is something they should already know or be able to figure out themselves. And so logging into their 401(k) plan account to update their allocation ends up at the bottom of the to-do list and never gets done.
Unfamiliar Strategy Logistics And Relationship Dynamics
While the right priorities, ability, and technical knowledge are important for clients to take action on their financial plan recommendations, perhaps just as important is having a clear understanding of the process involved in the plan's strategies and who will be responsible for each step. Because when both the client and advisor have active roles in the various tasks involved in a plan's strategy, coordinating the process can get complicated and very confusing. Part of the advisor's job is to help the client and make the work to be done easier to implement; as such, clients who may have never worked with an advisor before and who aren't accustomed to such guidance might find it especially hard to adjust to the working dynamic and figure things out, even with their advisor's availability to help.
For example, a new client who needs to establish a budget may not know how to get started. What exactly is involved? How detailed does it need to be? How much will they be doing on their own? Will the advisor help them decide how to make adjustments? Where do the newly saved funds go, who puts them there, and how often? These are all questions a client might have (even if they do not realize it while sitting in the advisor's office during the implementation meeting), and they all complicate the client's understanding of what needs to be done, how those things will happen, and who will do them. There is an important (and often steep) learning curve that must not only be recognized but also acknowledged and supported when it comes to understanding the dynamics of working with another person – for both the client and the advisor – learning to rely on them, asking them for help, and trusting that they will do what they said they would do.
Relationships take time to build. The time spent on the financial planning process to get to an implementation meeting varies, but Kitces Research on How Financial Planners Actually Do Financial Planning (2022) suggests this usually requires approximately 3–4 meetings. This is not a lot of time to form a relationship and certainly not a lot of time to figure out how best to relate with and utilize one another.
Questions To Help Clients Implement Their Plan
When advisors find themselves in challenging situations with clients who are having trouble implementing their plan, a little nudging can quickly start to uncomfortably feel like nagging. While this is a normal occurrence, there are several approaches advisors can take to work through these situations and help their clients get (or stay) on track with their plans.
Resistance to change is very normal, and there have been many research studies that have provided helping professionals, including advisors, with ideas on how to help clients implement a course of action. Many of these strategies involve initiating conversations about what the client needs to do and discussing the challenges they face in getting their tasks done; to do this, advisors can ask their clients specific questions that will help them understand and better address the 3 main reasons that they get stuck in implementing their plans in the first place.
Questions For Properly Prioritizing
While helping clients prioritize their goals is important for advisors to structure the initial financial plan, re-prioritizing those goals is just as crucial once they have been broken down into the tasks required to achieve them. This can be extremely useful to keep goals prioritized in a realistic way that aligns with the client's perspective of what's most important to them, and doing so will help them stay motivated in getting stuff done.
Imagine a client who has told you that they want to retire and they want to make sure they stay on track for retirement. However, after analyzing the client's situation, the advisor finds that the client is off track and determines that establishing a new savings plan and budget are both required to get the client back on track. In this situation, there are 2 critical objectives the client needs to meet: 1) spend less and 2) save more. Spending less might be approached by creating a detailed budget. Saving more could be achieved by increasing 401(k) plan contributions. The advisor identifies these 2 tasks associated with the client's overarching goal and asks the client the following question to determine how the client prioritizes 1 over the other:
Given these 2 tasks, which do you want to start with first?
The client might say they want to start with establishing a budget, or they might say they would prefer to make larger 401(k) plan contributions. It is not necessarily important which one the client does first; the advisor just wants to know where the client wants to start. Continuing the conversation with follow-up questions can encourage the client to discuss their choice in more depth and increase their motivation to follow through and actually do it.
The advisor might also ask a slightly different question regarding priority, not about where they want to start but about how quickly they might finish one over the other:
Given these 2 tasks, which do you think you can complete by next week?
Again, the response to this question is not necessarily what's most important. Completing either task first will help the client, and doing 1 is better than doing none (and sometimes, doing 1 can even create a snowball effect, providing momentum in support of doing the next!). Asking about when something will be finished encourages the client to focus on the priority of the tasks, helps the advisor understand the client's abilities, and sets the stage for establishing realistic expectations.
For instance, the client might say that neither task can be completed by next week. In response, the advisor can now ask them for a reason: Is it because of a lack of ability or knowledge? Are there conflicting priorities? Are they confused about the process? By asking the client about how they will prioritize tasks associated with their goals, the advisor can ask follow-up questions that will help them diagnose challenges that can potentially block progress.
Questions For Addressing Abilities
Beyond discussing when a client will knock out a task, the advisor may also need to consider what happens when a client has no intention to accomplish anything in the next week (or month). One approach is to explore a client's perceived ability to complete a task. Many clients seek a financial advisor because they don't believe they have the ability themselves to do the tasks they consider important. Further, while a plan may offer an outline of what needs to be done, it may not give the client enough detailed instruction for the client to confidently take action.
Asking questions can help advisors understand the client's ability and comfort level with an assigned task, which can provide a lot of clarity – both for the advisor and for the client – in explicitly understanding the specific areas where the client needs support. For example, advisors can ask the following:
Now that we have a clear vision of how your goals are prioritized and we understand the relative importance of the tasks that are associated with each goal, what is the first thing you are going to do when you leave here today/in the next week to complete X?
This question is similar to the priority question presented earlier; it utilizes a timeline that helps the task become more concrete for the client, which helps them assess what they need to do or learn to complete their assignment. While this question doesn't directly address the client's ability, it does serve to encourage a conversation that can gradually (and comfortably) reveal gaps in ability or knowledge. As while a more direct approach of exploring a client's ability or knowledge can make them feel uncomfortable or ashamed, this approach eases clients along a path to discuss their process or plan, allowing the advisor to ask the relevant follow-up questions to learn more about potential obstacles for the client.
For example, the client who needs to update their 401(k) plan might respond that the first thing they will do after the meeting will be to log into their retirement plan account at work. The advisor might ask a follow-up question about whether the client knows what plan to change and confirm that they know their login name and password. If the client responds with, "Well, I'm not sure, but I can ask around next week at work", the advisor is now clued into the fact that the client, although they have agreed to that as a next step, doesn't currently have the knowledge and ability to follow through, but has confirmed that they know where to go to move forward.
The following is another question that can assess the client's ability and comfort level:
Now that we know what we are going to focus on, please share what you know about how to accomplish this task.
The client may again mention that they will need to log in to their 401(k) plan account. Or they may say that they need to do some research with co-workers. Either way, the advisor has much more context in terms of how comfortable the client is with the task and what other support they may need. At this point, if the client does not seem to have a clear picture of the next steps involved in updating their 401(k) plan, the advisor might suggest that the client call them when they can access their account together and screen share the login process so the advisor can walk them through the process. Getting clarity on how comfortable the client is with specific implementation steps can make a significant difference in ensuring the client can act on the advisor's valuable advice and knowing when and how to best support the client in following through.
Questions For Rehearsing (And Tracking) The Strategy Of To-Dos
In addition to asking questions that assess the priority of a client's goals (and their associated tasks) and how capable and comfortable they are with performing those tasks, a third line of questioning relates to coordinating tasks between multiple people (e.g., advisor, client, family members) and clarifying the strategy for tackling tasks together. Notably, though, while talking about who will be responsible for each task can give clients a better handle on how the division of labor is organized, these conversations don't usually happen regularly. The following statement can be a good way to broach the topic:
Knowing the to-dos and action steps, let's assign who has what steps and how we will communicate about following these steps.
Simply taking the time to say, "Let's talk about this and get clarity" can make life so much easier for advisors and clients. Clients, as noted, don't always know what, how, or when to ask their advisor for help. While some clients will call to say they need help, a great many more will just let the task go undone. And when the advisor is the one to focus the conversation on the logistics of the strategy – reviewing what is happening, how it will be done, and who will be responsible for which tasks – not only will there be fewer questions, but the advisor is also able to emphasize that these are important details that are not trivial. This encourages the client to call if they get stuck and equips them with an "I'm stuck, now what?" course of action, ensuring that the client knows to call the advisor instead of letting the issue go unresolved.
This step is not just about having a conversation about coordinating the strategy; it is, more importantly, an important exercise in building rapport and establishing trust. The advisor and client are a team; learning how to communicate effectively and understanding how to best support and meet the needs of each other is a huge step in helping the client and advisor work together smoothly and helping the client realize their financial goals.
Lastly, while advisors can use a broad range of questions to initiate these conversations, they may also find certain technology tools helpful to broach the discussion. Kitces Research on Advisor Technology (2023) has an entire section on advice engagement, which includes technology designed to help advisors monitor the status of tasks (and who is responsible for which ones) in real-time. Previous episodes of the Financial Advisor Success Podcast have featured Jim Niedzinski, who uses Asana to create a client-facing task list, Kate Guillen, who builds CRM workflows like a boss and even has a company that can help you do it too, and Jake Northrup, who talks about the benefits of using technology for managing client tasks. Their conversations offer useful, practical tips from an advisor's perspective.
Supporting clients who are struggling to implement the action items in their financial plan can be tricky, especially when relationships are new, when priorities are not completely clear, or when the client doesn't fully understand the tasks required to achieve the particular goal they are struggling with.
Fortunately, advisors can address many of these issues by simply asking a few extra questions about priorities, skills, knowledge, and strategy. Asking clients a series of questions focused on implementation can clarify blocking points for both the client and the advisor. Additionally, these discussions also help the advisor ensure that clients not only take action on all the great advice they've been given but that they also stay on track with their financial plan in the long run!