Soft Skills Derived From Behavioral Finance Improve Outcomes And Lives For Pro Bono And Fee-Paying Clients
The foundation of effective financial planning is building a trusting relationship with a client. The goal of elevating a person or family’s financial situation cannot be achieved unless the advisor learns about a client’s motivations and goals. Sometimes the goal is saving a specific amount of money, while other times, the goal is what they want to achieve in their life, maybe leaving a legacy for their children, engaging in philanthropy, recovering from debt or buying a home.
In our work at the Foundation for Financial Planning, our volunteers serve pro bono clients whose goals and needs differ slightly from fee-paying clients, but the soft skills necessary to serve those clients are the same.
Understanding the way psychological and social factors affect financial decision-making and cultivating soft skills can enhance an advisor’s ability to build relationships and facilitate the change needed for an improved financial future – whatever that means to a particular client.
About Behavioral Finance
Behavioral finance combines psychology, economics and other social sciences to understand why people make certain financial decisions. Financial advisors have always applied a degree of behavioral finance to their profession, although the term is becoming more commonplace. In paid engagements, market volatility is a common cause of anxiety that can lead to irrational decision-making and behaviors.
In the pro bono advising space, shame, fear or low confidence flowing from their financial struggles may influence client behavior. The job of advisors is to recognize clients’ needs and adapt their approach to foster trust so that when they offer advice or coaching, clients respond positively.
Critical Soft Skills
Kristin Pugh, Private Wealth Manager at Creative Planning, has extensive experience serving both paid and pro bono clients, and she highlights the importance of these trust-building skills to the advisory profession by questioning how they are often characterized. She says “I don’t like calling them soft skills, they’re hard skills. Communication is the grease that gets a relationship going. Communication is just as important as financial knowledge.”
Some of the communication skills a financial advisor needs to build trust and to serve both pro bono and fee-paying clients include:
Actively listening to a client, paying attention not only to what they’re saying but how they’re saying it, is essential. Often, when we’re trying to persuade someone to agree with us or to take action, the temptation to prematurely form our responses, instead of fully listening to what that person is saying, gets in the way of an effective dialogue.
Instead, advisors should try to be fully present in the moment and focused on what their client is saying and emoting. People communicate with their whole body as well as their words. Pay attention to their body language. Are their shoulders scrunched up to their ears? Are their arms crossed? Or are they relaxed, leaning into the conversation? What does their tone of voice or inflection tell you? Are they excited? Nervous? Ashamed? Defeated?
Another tip for enhanced listening is to be comfortable with silence. Give your client time to formulate a proper response. Your goal as an advisor is to create an open, free-flowing dialogue so a client can talk about their vision and dreams, allowing you to collect as much information as possible to curate their plan.
Advisors need to understand what their clients are going through and respond in a caring way. Empathy is important with all clients but especially helpful for those working with pro bono clients. Being able to put yourself in your client’s shoes and reflect your understanding back to them can dispel any distrust or skepticism in your client and help build their confidence.
One of our volunteer advisors worked with a client while she went through a significant health crisis. In addition to providing customized financial advice and personalized, actionable steps, the advisor was there for the client as a trusted friend and listening ear throughout the health crisis. Rather than shaming the client for past missteps, the advisor focused on what the client had done right and her potential for growth and success.
Ultimately, the encouragement and support provided helped the client improve her confidence. She eventually left her job for one with a far better salary and health benefits, enabling her to buy a home for her family. A relationship of this depth doesn’t form without empathy. The client said the advisor’s faith in her potential impelled her to think more of herself and reach higher.
No two clients are the same, and advisors need to adjust their approach to address and meet the client’s needs. For example, our volunteers work with veterans, people with chronic health problems, domestic violence survivors, the elderly and many more. Advisors must be able to identify their clients’ needs and adjust their approach accordingly.
For example, an advisor working with a client undergoing care for serious cancer may need to limit meetings to brief sessions addressing only one issue, understanding that chemotherapy and other treatments can limit the client’s ability to focus and engage.
Advisors also need to have a high degree of cultural competence to be able to empathize with their clients, understand their points of view, and avoid unconscious bias. Our volunteers often work with underserved communities that may have been victimized by predatory practices – for example, a client may have gotten into a debt spiral because she needed short-term credit for a necessary car repair, but the only option in her community was a payday loan with an exorbitant interest rate.
This client may have come to distrust financial services companies and financial professionals. Understanding clients’ needs, goals and previous experiences, and then meeting them where they are with support and options, can help foster the trust necessary for a successful engagement.
One pro bono volunteer advisor worked with a client who wasn’t earning enough money to cover her monthly bills and was subsequently getting into debt but was still tithing 10% of her income to her church.
While stopping her tithe would have solved her problems, the advisor knew he couldn’t simply tell her to stop, as tithing was a deeply ingrained part of her religious practice. Instead, he suggested that the client talk to her pastor about other ways to support her church that might enable her to reduce tithing to stabilize her finances while still contributing to her faith community.
Why Soft Skills Are Important For Advisors
Effective communication skills rooted in cultural competence, such as empathic listening, are essential to building a strong advisor-client relationship. Employing these skills can foster trust and reduce the anxiety a client may feel addressing their financial challenges.
As the relationship strengthens and you continue to have open and honest conversations, you identify and overcome emotional or behavioral barriers such as shame, fear and stress, facilitating change with personalized coaching and actionable steps.
As Hayley Wood Bates, Financial Advisor at Signature Estate & Investment Advisors and a Foundation for Financial Planning volunteer points out, excellent communications skills help bridge gaps that many advisors might not think about on a day-to-day basis.
She says, “Very few financial advisors are women or BIPOC. It’s often easier to build trust with people who are similar to you, but for many people, that’s just not an option. The advisor must use their communication skills to meet the client where they are and forge a connection, and there’s no fast-track to trust, it takes consistency and discipline.”
Jon Dauphiné is the CEO of the Foundation for Financial Planning (FFP), a charitable organization supporting the delivery of pro bono financial planning to at-risk populations. FFP offers a free webinar series on behavioral finance and soft skills.