Dr. Daniel Crosby, Executive Director, The Center for Outcomes & Founder, Nocturne Capital
Earlier this year it was trouble in China, today brings unrest in the United Kingdom, and you can bet that we won’t make it through the rest of this (or any other) year without volatility, uncertainty and worry. At times like this, advisors can become frustrated that the messages of patience and discipline that they teach their clients can be so roundly forgotten. But although it may be natural to despair, financial advisors would do well to remember that it is times like these for which clients enlist their services. Times of fear. Times of uncertainty. Times when they are very likely to do irreparable harm to their portfolios.
The sad fact about human nature is that knowledge counts for very little when we need it most. Dan Ariely has shown that while almost any adult can expound the basics of safe sex, knowledge tends to be overridden by emotion in a moment of passion. Likewise, dieters fail not because they cannot discern which foods are healthy and which are not, but because a doughnut is more soothing than a celery stick on a tough day. And so it goes with the clients of financial advisors who have worked hard to educate their clients about the fundaments of diversification, consistency and perseverance. Your clients likely know exactly what they should be doing, but in a moment like this, they need you to be at your persuasive best to convince them to follow rules they already know to be true.
The Knowing-Doing Gap
My route home from work typically takes me over a winding, hilly pass that is the perfect way to decompress after a long day in the office. Like most of us, I usually drive home more or less unconsciously, but I was recently broken from my trance by a tanker spill that obscured all four lanes of traffic. Searching for a new route, I found myself by the nearest hospital, the largest in the area and an institution with a fine track record.
Passing now between the two main buildings and the monorail that connects them, I saw something most unexpected. There, on a nearby lot, were 13 medical professionals in scrubs – smoking. Doctors and nurses! People who would, upon extinguishing their cigarettes, return to the building and plead with their sick patients to stop smoking. I can say with near-certainty that every one of those 13 professionals knew better and yet they couldn’t help themselves. The official name for this phenomenon is the “knowing-doing gap”, and its effects are powerful and pervasive.
James Choi of Yale found that only 4% of people who wanted to save more actually ended up increasing their savings rates. This sad number was made only slightly less pitiful when would-be-savers made a written plan; 14% were then able to stick with the program. Similarly disheartening is that 30% of medical prescriptions go entirely unfilled and of those that are filled, just over half are taken according to their dosage. In other words, among people who proactively seek out a doctor’s medical advice, most of them do not take it. How then can we as advisors ensure that clients are not only receiving good advice but that they are doing so in a manner that will persuade them to follow the received wisdom?
The Four Ps of Influential Communication
At The Center for Outcomes, we believe in the power of financial advice. We have frequently cited the work of organizations as diverse as Aon Hewitt, Morningstar, Envestnet and Vanguard—all of whom have found that clients that work with a financial advisor handily outperform those who do not. But if good financial advice is capable of adding great value, the persuasive powers of an advisor serve as the ceiling for that value. It is with this in mind that we have created our Persuasive Communication Model. Advisors who attend our two-day seminar receive extensive training in the theory and application of the model, so what follows here is a very brief introduction that lacks the appropriate background. Nevertheless, it is our hope that the skeleton of this model will provide a useful template for you as you have tough conversations with your clients. The four Ps are:
Purpose – Leading with “why?”
It is human nature to look for and create meaning, and we are far more compelled to act (or not act, in this case) when we understand the reasons behind the behavior. Practically speaking, this means reminding clients of their values and the goals they are trying to meet, both of which would be disrupted by acting in haste.
- Research says: Karlan, et al. (2010) found that simply reminding people of their previous commitment to act in a certain way increased compliance by 16%.
- Sample dialogue: “Mr. Smith, you engaged me to help you send your two daughters to college and to retire comfortably with your partner, so I’d like to frame my comments today in terms of how impulsive action might negatively impact your stated goals.”
Proof – Showing expertise
It is understandable that in times of unrest, people want to know that they are being shepherded by a knowledgeable guide. Having now framed the conversation in terms of the client’s values, it is time to show that you are a subject matter expert.
- Research says: In his excellent book, “Your Money and Your Brain”, Jason Zweig points out that the part of the brain associated with critical thinking actually goes to sleep when someone is listening to someone they perceive to be a financial expert. You quite literally give your clients peace of mind.
- Sample dialogue: “Your desire to get conservative is understandable from an emotional perspective in light of the recent upheaval. Unfortunately, it’s not consistent with best practices around building wealth. In a study aptly titled, ‘Trading is Hazardous to Your Wealth’, Drs. Terrance Odean and Brad Barber found that the more active someone was in entering and exiting the market, the worse their outcomes tended to be.”
People – Peer pressure for good
As financial professionals, we have a deep understanding of the negative impact of “herding” or the tendency to let the crowd influence our investment decisions. What is less appreciate is that social proof (or peer pressure if you like) is actually a powerful tool in our efforts to influence behavior.
- Research says: Online shoppers are 63% more likely to make a purchase if it has received positive reviews from their peers.
- Sample dialogue: Social proof can be demonstrated at the institutional, individual expert, peer and personal level. Dialogue here might draw on research from a vaunted college or other institution, followed by the research of a well-known Nobel Prize winner and concluded with a personal testimonial of why you think the proposed action is best.
Process – Guide, don’t overwhelm
Having now explained the why, what and who of your approach, it is time to talk about how to proceed. Remember, your client is overwhelmed and fearful and the last thing they need is to have their life further complicated.
- Research says: Fewer choices equal greater action in everything from grocery store samples to 401(k) options. Present two, equally positive options, thereby giving your client a stake in the process but without overwhelming them.
- Sample dialogue: “As I hope you now see, taking drastic action is inconsistent with your financial goals and the research on best investment practices. That said, I want you to sleep well tonight. As I see it, there are two possible moves we could make. The first would be to do nothing at all, leaving your existing allocations intact and checking in with me as needed to remain calm. A second option would be to move a small percentage of your assets to a “Safety” bucket that would provide for you and your family for 2 years in the event of further volatility. This would allow you to have immediate peace of mind without unduly disrupting our well-thought-out process. What are your thoughts on these two options?”
The work that you do as a financial advisor has a meaningful impact on the lives of the people you serve, but you face an uphill battle. No matter how well-educated and knowledgeable your clients may be, instinctual behavioral urges push them to make poor decisions at precisely the time when they are the most damaging. By utilizing The Center for Outcomes Persuasive Communication Model, it is our hope that you will become even better at the part of your job that research suggests adds the most value – managing clients’ behavior. For a much deeper understanding of how this model can revolutionize your practice, please be in touch.
The views expressed are those of Brinker Capital and are not intended as investment advice or recommendation. For informational purposes only. Holdings are subject to change. Brinker Capital, Inc., a Registered Investment Advisor.