It doesn't always happen in the first conversation. Sometimes, not even in the second. "It happens with many clients: After I've met with them a few times, I'll sense some hesitation in the discussion, like they're about to tell me something, and then they'll say, 'I really don't know if this is important,'" says Wendy Brewer, a Senior Wealth Planner for Wells Fargo in Charlotte, N.C.
"Every time I hear that, I know it's absolutely the most important thing the client is going to tell me — what they've been holding back," she explains. "The obstacles for clients often have nothing to do with the tax and financial side — it's personal, something they didn't realize would be so important to their planning."
Opening up: The good and the bad
Brewer's experience shows the importance of opening up to your team of advisors and sharing key details that better equip them in helping you.
The best financial plans are ones that take your own circumstances into account, rather than cookie-cutter plans that may not reflect your unique situation.
They should start with your goals and objectives, and can and should encompass investment, retirement, tax, and wealth transfer planning. Are you thinking of starting a business? Do you want to travel extensively after you retire? Have you promised your grandchildren you'll help pay for them to study abroad? Is there a community program or charitable cause you'd like to support more robustly?
Financial plans can be as simple as your own personal spreadsheet or notes that you and your spouse do at home, or they can be as complex as engaging a planner in a fee-based arrangement.
But the most important thing is actually having a plan: The majority of people who have one are more prepared for life's events and more comfortable that their goals will be met.
Brewer says, "There's no cut-and-dried, one-size-fits-all answer that we can pull out and say, 'This is going to work.' It's a collaborative effort with the client and us to design a plan that fits their needs."
Health, family, and wealth
Brewer thinks many clients haven't been accustomed to sharing extensive information with a financial professional. "No one's ever said to them, 'This personal stuff is important,' so it's not intuitive for them to share that. But I think it's the key."
Life experiences may be part of the personal information that impacts a client's financial plan. For example, Brewer says she often sees business owners who believe any long-term personal financial plan, however well-crafted, has limited value.
Why? She explains, "Many of our clients are or were business owners. Some started their business in a basement or garage with little or no funding; some were passed down after many generations.
"They all have different reasons for wanting to succeed, and becoming a millionaire is usually not at the top of their list. They are focused on supporting their community through employment and philanthropy, giving family members a place to work and learn, and giving future generations a family legacy.
"For these clients, even the thought of succession planning is a no-go. They are just figuring things out for themselves, and handing over the reins is unthinkable. Understanding how each client got to where they are now will help us understand their resistance to planning."
To such clients, Brewer presents her view that even though the future is uncertain, you can still plan. Good financial planning forecasts for the upside and downside. "I don't think a client should ever wait," she says.
Not that she advocates rushing the planning process, particularly as clients may take a while to get comfortable opening up.
That's her years of experience informing her approach, and it helps her keep her ears open to information that clients themselves don't realize is relevant to their financial plans and goals. Clients may mention that they have a parent or other family member they are concerned about for one reason or another. While Wells Fargo financial professionals are not attorneys or physicians, they can work with these specialists to support a family as they set plans in place for the issues of aging and other concerns.
"Sometimes we're the ones who recognize things," she says. "The client may say 'Why in the world would a financial professional care about that?' But you’ve entrusted us to help you with the financial aspect of your life, and we can do that better if we understand and address the other things that might have a bearing. An illness, for example, can have a huge impact on your financial situation, and anything we can do to mitigate that impact is important."
Your unique situation
When meeting with potential clients, Brewer starts with at least two sessions of two to three hours each to allow time to uncover the minimum amount of information that will allow her to begin crafting a plan.
And the attitude an advisor takes in such sessions is important, too. Brewer says she reminds herself, and her colleagues, that they should "listen, listen, listen," because "every single piece of information the client gives you is what you need to craft the plan that fits their family."
"I tell my colleagues they should never go into a client relationship with any preconceived notions that this new client is going to be the same as another client simply because their balance sheets are similar.
"If you have someone who's listening, and is really customizing something for you, you've got a good relationship," she says. "An advisor has to recognize that clients are unique."