Screening calls are a common part of the prospecting process for financial advisory firms, particularly those that receive a large number of inquiries, and can help determine whether a prospective client might be a good fit. At the same time, these calls can be awkward for both the prospect and the advisor, as the prospect might be asked to discuss personal information about their finances with someone they have never met before, and the advisor has to ask potentially thorny questions, such as whether the prospect meets the firm’s minimum asset requirements. And so, given the high stakes of screening calls (as not only do they serve as a first step for a prospect to become a client, but they also help the advisor save time by screening out unqualified prospects), preparing a prospect and asking thoughtful screening call questions during the interaction can make the process more productive and less awkward.
One way to help alleviate the potential anxiety associated with a screening call is to prepare prospects in advance. For example, advisors using online software tools to schedule screening calls could provide prospects in advance with a more detailed description of the meeting (including a list of questions that will be asked) and could explicitly note the firm’s asset and/or fee minimums (which could allow prospects to screen themselves out before scheduling a meeting rather than finding out they are unqualified during the call itself). In this way, the prospect will be less likely to be surprised by any questions during the meeting, and the advisor can confirm that the prospect meets their minimums rather than bring up the issue without warning. In addition, providing questions in advance (giving the prospect time to think about their answers) can help keep the screening call on track, which is particularly important because they are designed to be short, often scheduled for only 15-20 minutes.
Some questions an advisor might ask the prospect during a screening call are how they think the firm could be helpful for their needs (to help the advisor ensure that the prospect really wants financial planning services and fits the firm’s ideal target client profile if it has one); whether they have ever worked with a financial professional before (to gauge whether they’ve worked with an advisor in the past and to help get a sense of the prospect’s expectations for the relationship); if they have any questions about the advisor’s onboarding and planning processes and confirming that the firm’s asset and/or fee minimums work for the prospect (to get a sense of the prospect’s readiness and desired timeline to get started with a planning relationship).
Ultimately, the key point is that screening questions can be useful tools not only for financial advisors but also for prospects – because knowing whether the relationship will be a good fit without having to spend an hour or more is helpful for both parties involved. And while screening calls may be uncomfortable and awkward, letting prospects know what to expect can help ease these feelings by promising respect, directness, and information. Which could help get what could become a long-term relationship off on the right foot!
Screening Calls Serve A Very Useful Purpose, Especially For Busy Firms
For many firms, conducting screening calls can be a good way to determine how ready a prospect is to take action on financial planning goals and whether they would be an appropriate fit for the firm. But some advisors may find asking questions during a screening call difficult; as helpful as the answers to the screening call questions may be, asking those questions can feel insensitive and awkward. Some prospects may feel put off by being asked about their net worth or whether they own a business, especially when they may feel that their suitability as clients depends on their answers; not only can such questions feel impersonal, but they may even make the prospect feel unfairly judged.
But when is it really necessary to have screening calls in the first place? The answer can largely depend on the style of financial planning. In particular, screening questions can be especially beneficial for these 3 situations: when financial plans are used in a loss-leader strategy, when the firm's site has high domain authority that makes it more likely to show up in search engine results, and when the firm relies on lead generation services.
Financial Planning Used As A Loss-Leader Strategy To Attract New Clients
In a loss-leader strategy, an initial financial plan can be offered for a very low cost (or sometimes even for free) to encourage a prospect to become a client and eventually transfer their assets to the financial advisor. In these situations, having a screening process can be very important to ensure the prospects attracted by the financial plan will actually end out being good (and profitable) clients.
To ensure that a loss leader strategy using financial plans will attract worthwhile clients, it’s important for the firm to have a way to assess whether a prospect would be a good fit for the firm and actually have the potential to become a profitable client. Creating a plan for a prospect with $100,000 in assets can be great for the prospect but not for the firm if its minimum is $1 million. Doing work for prospects who don’t have the potential to become suitable clients won’t help the firm’s bottom line and will consume the advisor’s valuable time with no way to recoup their investment. However, a good screening process can serve to protect the advisor’s time –and their business – by helping them determine when it would be most beneficial (for the prospect and the firm) to create an initial low-cost or free financial plan for a good potential client.
Financial Planning Firms With High Domain Authority
When a financial advisory firm has a high-ranking domain authority, it will often show up within the first few search engine results that come from generic search queries such as “CFP + [zip code]” or “financial planning services near me”. These firms are more likely to be approached by a large variety of prospects, many of whom may not be a suitable fit. The need for a screening process to find the prospects that are suitable is important.
For example, firms who commonly appear in general search engine queries but who specialize in a niche may find screening calls to be especially helpful to ensure that they are establishing relationships with prospects in the niche they serve and who will most likely fit their ideal target client profile.
Screening questions can also be used to ensure that the services the advisor provides are actually what the prospect is seeking. For instance, it is not uncommon for prospects who are interested only in investment management to inquire about services from comprehensive financial planning firms. In these instances, a quick screening call can weed out prospects who won’t benefit from the firm’s particular services.
Further, screening calls can be used to identify prospects who will be more likely to have a rewarding relationship with the firm – not only in terms of profitability for the firm but also in terms of the client’s own financial goals being met. And by having clarity on the type of relationship that the firm is seeking – as different firms have different client-relationship expectations – advisors can use screening calls to ensure that they are in alignment with their prospects (or at least initially agree with them) on what it means to have a successful financial planning relationship, which is a crucial first step in determining appropriateness and readiness of new clients.
Financial Planning Firms That Rely On Lead Generation Services
Firms using lead generation and paid referral services (i.e., third-party companies that target potential leads and refer them to the advisory firm) may also benefit from a good screening call protocol. As the results from the 2022 Kitces Research study on “How Financial Planners Actually Market Their Services” indicated, lead generation services can be both helpful and unhelpful; while many of the fastest-growing firms indicated that they relied on lead generation services, they also noted that the quality of the leads and the services themselves were highly variable (advisors who participated in the survey ranked their satisfaction with lead generation companies and the leads they produced with an average score of 5 out of 10). And because of the variability of prospect quality often resulting from the leads generated by such services, screening calls can be useful to help advisors assess suitability with respect to asset minimums and relationship dynamics.
Even for advisors who don’t use the marketing strategies discussed above, it can still be worthwhile to assess the benefits and possible drawbacks of screening calls. The need to assess the appropriateness and readiness of a prospect is a useful consideration for firms that are very busy or nearing capacity, while firms with ample capacity and no major concerns about selectivity may not benefit as much from screening calls. Other firms with processes in place to encourage and accommodate a wide variety of clients may find screening calls awkward and uncomfortable for both advisor and prospect. And if screening calls are unnecessary, why keep using them?
Screening Calls Are Usually Awkward And Short… And That Makes Them Difficult For Everyone
Research by John Grable, Wookjae Heo, and Abed Rabbani examined the connections between stress and behavior in financial planning and indicated that stress impacts not only whether clients and prospects engage in financial behaviors but also whether prospects become clients. And perhaps most importantly, this research, along with studies conducted by Sonia Lutter (nee Britt) and John Grable, have pointed to the advisors’ own role in influencing their clients’ stress levels, as advisors can both heighten and lower stress in clients. And, as advisors might expect, if they are feeling stressed out, their feelings can, in turn, stress out the prospect as well. Why does this matter to screening calls?
Stress and anxiety are important feelings to consider when talking about financial planning with clients, and they become especially important in the context of screening calls because this is often the first interaction between the advisor and prospect. Because when prospects are stressed and nervous about calling a financial advisor, and the advisor feels stressed about asking for financial information without sounding cold, the elevated stress levels of both the prospect and advisor can tend to exacerbate the tension, making the whole situation even more stressful.
Furthermore, as an extremely personal topic, money is the reason that many consumers never pick up the phone to reach out to a financial advisor in the first place. They often fear judgment – sometimes, those fears are based on past financial mishaps, sometimes on a lack of knowledge of financial topics, and sometimes from negative experiences that have simply stigmatized thinking about personal finance for the individual. But many prospects who do manage to make initial contact with an advisor are taking a big step, and, for them, anticipation anxiety can loom large – even when advisors refer to the screening call as something else like a “fit meeting” or a “get-to-know-you call”.
Regardless of how they label the screening call, prospects are usually aware that, to a certain extent, they are about to be judged. And knowing that someone is talking to you simply to determine whether you are really worth spending more time with later is never a great feeling.
Advisors don’t always love screening calls, either. For instance, in my own conversations with many advisors, I often hear how difficult it can be to discuss asset minimums, even when asset management is an important aspect of the service. This is often because many advisors tend to be helpers – they don’t like to say “no” to prospects who want their help, even when the prospect might be outside of the bounds of the firm’s established client profile. And because screening questions may feel impersonal, they can even make the advisor feel bad when they lead to rejecting a prospect.
For example, when an advisor has to tell a prospect who has been working hard to diligently save that they aren’t the right fit for the firm because they haven’t saved enough, it can feel terrible knowing that their news made the prospect feel bad as if the wind were taken from their sails. Being the person who has to say “no” can be very uncomfortable, even when it is the right thing to do.
Another reason that screening calls can feel very awkward is that they tend to involve very short conversations meant to quickly determine whether the firm should spend additional time following up with a prospect. And when the call time is short, advisors can feel pressured to gather information correctly and effectively, all while not coming across as being pushy. There can even be an extra level of pressure when talking to prospects who are a good fit, as the screening call needs to motivate the prospect into a follow-up meeting that involves a longer conversation. Which is no easy lift; doing it wrong can have major implications on the relationship.
While advisors don’t want to hurt a prospect’s feelings because they aren’t a good fit for the firm, they also don’t want to offend or put off a perfectly good prospect because the screening call was too short, impersonal, or awkward. Ultimately, getting screening calls right is important because they are often the first step among many to becoming a client. Just as getting that first speed date right can potentially end in marriage, getting those screening calls right can bring in more great clients!
5 Screening Call Questions And Tips For Less Awkward Conversations
Good screening questions need to stick to their purpose of gauging readiness and appropriateness. And because the screening call is so short, it’s important to ask the right questions to gather only the most essential information the advisor needs to actually screen the prospect. The following 5 points can be used to craft a set of questions that can be included as part of an effective screening agenda (but can also be used in the sign-up process):
- What are you calling about? How do you believe we can help? What would you like to talk about?
This question helps the advisor ensure that the prospect really wants financial planning, and the way that they want it is reflective of how the advisor’s firm delivers it. This can help identify if the prospect fits into the firm’s targeted niche or if the firm’s style of delivering financial planning is a good fit for the prospect.
- Have you ever worked with a financial professional before?
This question can identify a prospect’s expectations about a future working alliance and help the advisor assess if the prospect would be an appropriate fit. It is more open-ended, asking about a “financial professional” and not specifically a “financial advisor”, though advisors can be more specific (e.g., by asking about CPAs, attorneys, brokers, etc.) depending on the client.
- What questions do you have about our process? Are you interested in comprehensive financial planning? Our onboarding process consists of 3 meetings; what questions do you have about those meetings?
These questions shift the conversation toward the prospect’s readiness. While these give the advisor an opportunity to tell the prospect what comes next (e.g., meetings, paperwork, etc.), they also identify questions and concerns the prospect has about the firm’s process.
- Our fees are based on assets, and our minimum is $X. Will that work for you?
Fees are important. Adding the fee discussion front and center to this initial meeting raises awareness early in the process and makes it less awkward to discuss it in the future.
- When are you looking to get started? What is your timeline for a solution?
This question helps the advisor to understand how ready and motivated the prospect is to get started. If they say they’re ready now, that’s great! Advisors can ask these prospects to come in for a follow-up meeting. If they say they are still shopping or just getting started, advisors can instead make a note to follow up with them later.
Prepare Prospects For the Call To Alleviate Anticipation Anxiety
In addition to selecting the right questions for a screening call, knowing how to manage a prospect’s anticipation anxiety is also important for a successful meeting. Especially for new prospects who may have no context for financial planning and what it means to engage in a professional financial advisory relationship, anticipation anxiety can be a major obstacle for advisors gathering helpful information. Thankfully, this type of anxiety is easily quelled with a little structure provided by the advisor. A good way to help prospects with anticipation anxiety and to encourage them to relax is simply for the advisor to tell them what they are going to discuss in the screening call ahead of time.
For example, Calendly has a system where advisors can provide a form with questions or offer a more detailed description of the meeting (which can include a list of questions that will be asked during the meeting). If assets and minimums are important to discuss, indicating that these will be covered during the call can normalize the questions as part of a routine process required by the firm, preparing the prospect for the question, which can make it more comfortable for the advisor to bring up. Prospects like being assured that there is a process because a clear process can help them understand the boundaries around the discussion and clarify their expectations so that they will feel safer when it comes time for the call.
Questions about asset minimums often cause the greatest anxiety for both advisors and clients. In order to minimize anticipation anxiety around discussing this issue, a very good question to include in an online form (e.g., in a Calendly scheduling process) that prospects submit in advance of the meeting can be one that asks if the prospect meets the firm’s asset minimum (and that includes what the firm’s minimum requirements are). Gathering the information in advance of the call gets advisors off the hook from needing to ask the question outright during the screening call. Instead, the answer provided by the prospect during the scheduling process can simply be acknowledged as information that is reviewed as a way to confirm the client’s answer.
Consider the following example. Farrah, a financial advisor, uses a lead generation service, appears high in domain searches, and has recently increased her minimum to $1 million from $500,000. She has also narrowed her niche from entrepreneurs to tech entrepreneurs. She reads the Nerd’s Eye View Blog and has decided that she needs a screening process to handle not only the amount of traffic but also ensure that the prospects that do move through are exactly the people whom she wants to work with, as she only has so much capacity. She wants to make sure that each new client she onboards fits her updated target profile.
Farrah decides to update her online Calendly scheduling form by including the following question for prospects: “Farrah Financial has a $1 million asset management minimum, which means that clients must have $1 million or more in investable assets. Do you believe you meet the $1 million minimum?”
Her first prospect to fill out the new form, Paul, indicates that he does indeed believe he meets the AUM requirement and proceeds to schedule a screening call with Farrah.
On the screening call, Farrah has the following conversation with Paul towards the end of the meeting, when she often discusses fees:
Farrah: I see that you indicated that you meet our minimum, so I’d like to quickly review our fee structure for you. We charge an advisory fee of 1% on assets between $1 million and $3 million, and 0.8% on assets between $3 million and $5 million. As part of our discovery call, which will be our next meeting, we’ll review your assets in greater detail and get a personalized quote to you. Do you have any questions regarding our fees or how we charge?
Paul: No, not at the moment. That seems pretty straightforward. Thank you for going over your fees.
In the above exchange, Farrah avoided a potentially awkward conversation since she did not have to surprise Paul with a question about his assets. Instead, she affirmed the answer he had provided to her in advance of the call and used that as an opportunity to discuss fees and to check if Paul had any additional questions. Farrah could have also opted to ask follow-up questions about earlier parts of their conversation.
Communicate Realistic Expectations Around Meeting Times
The last crucial consideration for screening calls is setting realistic expectations about how long the call will take. Because screening calls need to be kept short, advisors run the risk of coming across as rushed or insensitive to what the prospect wants to share. But by ensuring that the prospect understands how long the call will take, they can prevent the prospect from being surprised by how little time the advisor spends with them during the initial call.
Additionally, setting expectations will help advisors stick to their allotted meeting times. To make the most efficient use of the short call time, advisors can start by asking if this is still a good time for the prospect. If the prospect says “no”, the advisor can simply reschedule the call. Otherwise, advisors can jump right in by thanking the prospect for filling out the short questionnaire (as applicable) and affirming or reviewing answers. Near the end of the call, it is okay to say, “We only have 5 minutes left, so let’s get into when you would like to get started.” This can ensure that the meeting ends with an invitation to either schedule the next step in the onboarding process (usually the discovery meeting) or to set a follow-up prospect call if the prospect is not ready to make a commitment.
In addition to alleviating a prospect’s anxiety, asking questions in advance of the call (and even just letting people know what questions are coming) can be a good way to help keep the call on track while ensuring that the right information will be gathered, which is especially important when there are only 15–20 minutes for the call. Additionally, sharing questions in advance not only mitigates anxiety but also lessens the likelihood of answers like, “I don’t know” or “I haven’t thought about that before”. While answers like these are valid, they generally require more follow-up questions. This takes more time, resulting in less ground that can be covered overall.
Screening questions can be useful tools not only for financial advisors but also for prospects – because knowing whether or not the relationship will be a good fit without having to spend an hour or more is helpful for both parties involved. And while screening calls may be uncomfortable and awkward, letting prospects know what to expect can help ease the discomfort of rushed, cold, or awkward feelings by promising respect, directness, and information. This is because humans like structure – we appreciate knowing what’s coming ahead of time. Which means that preparing a prospect for a screening call can lower their anxiety about the call and, at the same time, help the advisor get the information they need to assess the prospect’s appropriateness and readiness.