Matt Oechsli, a principal at the Oechsli Institute in Greensboro, N.C., who has been working on training advisors in “soft” skills for Cetera, recalls a role-playing exercise he ran with some financial advisors looking to learn those skills needed to be a successful financial planner. The advisors were told to imagine they were at a party attended by wealthy potential clients in their community. “I had them standing up, and they had to introduce themselves,” Oechsli recalls.

When they were asked what they did for a living, he says they would inevitably make some sort of marketing statement, such as, ‘I help my clients sleep at night.’ Or worse: ‘I make dreams come true.’ After the fact, they seemed to know, on some level, that they had taken a wrong turn.

“Afterwards, when we sat down and I asked what they’ve learned, they all said, ‘That was horrible.’”

So what should they have said? Oechsli says they should have opted for something simple, such as, ‘We oversee financial affairs for some families around here.’ Period.”

The business of providing financial advice has been changing dramatically in recent years. And more than anywhere, that change may well be felt most in the bank channel where the range of clients, in terms of their assets, their backgrounds and their ages can be dramatic.

Moreover, there is generally a need for the investment program to serve everyone.

Not so long ago, the biggest challenge was to get bank managers to support the investment program and to convince bank employees, from tellers to loan officers, to send potential clients to advisors. 

While that challenge definitely  still exists today at some banks, a host of new issues has surfaced even for those institutions that have gained management “buy-in.”

Today, for example, many banks and broker-dealers are encouraging advisors to pare back their books and build relationships with those remaining clients—who are generally wealthier—as a way to entice those clients to bring in more of their assets to be managed—indeed to make the client/advisor relationship more of a partnership than a series of business transactions.

At a recent BISA conference, a panel on health care took an interesting turn and delved into the challenges for those advisors who learned the trade when it was mostly a transactional business, and are now trying to become a trusted advisor on a range of issues, working not for commissions but on a fee basis.

Given the number of advisors who are well into middle age, the question was, can advisors change? Can someone whose reputation was built by offering clients good, timely advice on investments become someone who clients now will turn to for advice on the whole gamut of financial issues and crises they face from saving for retirement to paying for children’s or grandchildren’s college to figuring out how to set up a trust for a child with a lifetime disability?

Can someone with a solid understanding of markets and annuity products gain a nuanced understanding of human nature and handle the
foibles of their clients?

“I think advisors can change. Absolutely,” says Peter Stahl, president of Bedrock Business Results, who was a panelist at the BISA conference that touched on these issues.

“We’ve already seen advisors learning about Social Security, and now they’re learning about health- care. They’ve been in this box discussing value vs. growth, small-cap vs. large-cap before, and now they have to get out of that box and discuss the life issues facing widows.”

He notes that there are training programs for this being offered by the broker-dealers, but it’s not just a matter of learning content. The manner in which you discuss all these topics is important too.

And the topics can be very tricky. Take eldercare. Some people simply don’t want to think or talk about it, but they need to. The advisor who will be successful is the one who can incorporate the human angle—the ability to understand things from the point of view and how their decisions affect their entire life—into their daily communications.

For example, Stahl said, instead of talking about a client’s need for elder-care someday, talk about their children, and the impact on those children if they don’t properly plan for it today.

“People absolutely can learn the softer skills,” says Roseanne Roberts, a former advisor, and now learning and development director with CUSO.

She says, “A lot of it is about increased awareness. You need to put yourself in the shoes of the client— even if you know the client is wrong. But it needs to be real.”

She recalls an advisor whose clients liked him—the few he had anyway. But the problem was he didn’t have many because he wasn’t getting referrals from bank staff.

“He just wasn’t connecting with them,” she says, “and soft skills are important in those relationships. Like many advisors, he was thinking about what they could do for him, but not about what he could do for them.”

She says that when that was pointed out to him, he began working on it. “It’s been interesting to watch him change,” she says.

To help advisors to learn soft skills like empathy, she says training programs at CUSO employ role-playing.

Shannon Reid, director of retirement solutions at Raymond James, says, “Advisors today need to have strong communication skills and to be able to talk to men and women, to parents and children, and to be comfortable raising tough questions.”

As an example, she cites one of the most difficult topics: death. She says advisors need to ask, ‘What happens if you die?’ Plus, she says, “You still have to be able to navigate markets for your clients, but you also have to be able to move off that and talk about whatever is important to them as a client.

As an example, Reid cites a good friend of hers. “A year ago, he asked me to recommend an advisor. I said ‘Sure, but first, what do you want a financial advisor to do?’ He said, ‘I don’t know, beat the market I guess.’ So then I asked him, ‘Why do you want to beat the market?’ And he said, ‘So I can send my kid to college and buy a home and invest in my business.’ So I asked him, ‘Why don’t you talk about that instead of about
beating the market?’”

The whole idea is ultimately about going from being an expert to being a partner, she says.

Reid says, “Some advisors may never be able to make that transition, but they can partner. If you find the right person—someone who can make that kind of empathetic connection with clients, and you are someone with real experience, who can provide the expertise, that can really work.” 

Sometimes, she suggests, the partner you need “might be a Gen X or a Gen Y advisor with good soft skills but without a lot of market experience.”

“Soft skills can be learned, but they are hard to teach,” says Bob Carroll, relationship manager for the New England region for Infinex.

“I spent time as an advisor years ago, and people used to say, ‘Nobody cares how much you know until they know how much you care.’”

And that’s more true today than ever, he says. “To be a successful advisor today, you need to learn how to really put yourself on the same side of the table as the customers, and to understand the challenges that they are facing.”

Oechsli says in his experience advisors basically need to learn to be humbler and more interested in the other person in a conversation.

He recalls, “I had one guy who said, “I’m a trust attorney. I’m really good at what I do.’” The attorney told a story about being at a party and being introduced to a potential client who had a complex issue. “I’d been told by you to ‘shut up’ in these situations, so instead of talking I asked what he thought about the situation. He talked for 30 minutes and I just listened, and then his final comment to me was, ‘You really do know a lot about trusts!’”

He discovered that by simply being a good listener, he was seen as knowledgeable.

The coaching process he offers at Cetera, he said, is a yearlong process. “Sometimes during that time an advisor will call me from a party, and say, ‘Okay, I’m here, what do
I say?’”

The cost of the program? Twelve thousand dollars. “It takes a lot to change bad habits,” says Oechsli.