Speaking the Language of Your Client

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The art of conversation is a valuable skill in all relationships in life, but it’s particularly useful in our industry when working with clients. Communication has the potential to become the ultimate differentiator in prospecting efforts and later in client retention. The quality of your message, how well you listen and how well you adapt to speaking with each client makes all the difference when it comes to winning that client’s business and maintaining a long-term relationship.

The goals and needs of your clients as well as the ways they best share and receive information may differ. Understanding these differences and modifying your approach to each client can make you a more effective and successful communicator. We listen to people at a rate of 125-250 words per minute, but think at 1,000-3,000 words per minute.1 Active listening means not just understanding the words or the information being communicated, but also recognizing how the speaker feels about what he or she is discussing.

Wordless Communication

Wordless communication, or body language, includes your facial expressions, body movement, gestures, eye contact, posture and tone of voice. These nonverbal signals are very powerful and actually convey more to the other person than the words themselves – 55% of the meaning of our words is derived from facial expressions, 38% from how the words are said, and 7% from the actual words spoken.2 Developing the ability to understand and use nonverbal communication can help you connect with others, express what you really mean, navigate challenging situations or objections, and build better relationships. Being aware of your client’s nonverbal cues, as well as what your own body language is saying, can help you be more successful during each meeting.

The eyes are among the most telling of all nonverbal cues. If your prospect’s eyes are locked on you and your presentation materials, you’re holding his or her interest. On the other hand, if his eyes are wandering or losing focus, you may need to do something that regains his attention and gets the meeting back on course.

If you’re meeting in the prospect’s home or office, the environment can provide important information for you to better understand the person. A starker environment where everything is neatly in its place is likely occupied by a logical, rational thinker looking for just plain facts, while an office cluttered with family photos and citations from charities and clubs may indicate a more outgoing individual who likes to hear the details. If you’re meeting on neutral ground, consider how the prospect is dressed, his posture and the warmth or lack thereof in his interactions. These clues can provide guidance as you fit your conversation to your prospect’s personal style.

A Picture Is Worth a
Thousand Words

Also keep in mind that written or verbal language isn’t the only way to describe or present things. Many of your clients will learn best with graphics, diagrams and charts. When you think about it, dictionaries include pictures, not just words, and it’s much easier to show a circle than to describe one. Studies have shown that people remember 10% of what they hear, 20% of what they read, and about 80% of what they see and do.3 This is helpful to remember when working with clients, especially when they’re trying to comprehend some of the concepts and terms that go along with retirement and financial planning. They may benefit from a mapped out process or solution rather than strictly hearing about it.

A large part of an agent’s job is educating customers and finding a proper solution that aligns with their current and future objectives. Understanding the way your prospects or clients best receive and process information will benefit you both and can help them better comprehend the information, ultimately leading to a possible sale.

Communication styles vary, and being able to identify the types within your audience can help you keep each client engaged and focused. These communication styles can be broken down into four groups.

Identifying Communication Styles

Intuitive

The intuitive type refers to those people who aren’t terribly emotional, but who are quite free form. Intuitive people do not necessarily like things to flow from A to B to C. These clients tend to be quicker communicators, meaning they give more attention to the people who don’t waste their time. Let these clients know right away the real value you’re bringing them. Until you win them over with the big picture, they’re not going to listen to all the other details they’ll need to know to reach that end result.

It is best to be businesslike and to ask for a decision or opinion only after you’ve presented a complete and logical case. You’ll recognize intuitive types as the people who frequently ask questions like ‘What’s the bottom line?’ and ‘Where will this get us?’ The extremely intuitive person is one who makes decisions and evaluates things based on gut feel. Discussion is often predominantly internal and they like to reflect on information and decisions. This group is likely to imagine possibilities and is interested in new ideas and new ways of doing things.

Analytical

The analytical type refers to those people who prefer things unemotional and linear. These are your “just the facts” kinds of people who tend to ask lots of questions. They don’t want to hear too many warm-and-fuzzy feeling words, so it’s not necessary to tell them you understand their pain. Instead provide them with the supporting evidence you can that guides their decision-making for today and in the future.

Analytical communicators are systematic and precise, and you’ll often hear them asking: ‘Where did this information come from?’ before they’ll consider their next steps. These people can appear uncommunicative, distant and cool but are cooperative as long as they have some freedom to organize their own efforts. It’s best to be structured and straightforward and to present the pros and cons of any suggestion. This will help you build credibility and trust with these individuals.

Analytical communicators typically move with deliberateness and take time to review all the facts. They like to look before they leap, so it’s important to not rush this person along. These clients will often give you their full attention if you’re presenting data, specific numbers, and lots of supporting evidence that includes a high level of detail. These are rational, structured folks who want to go deep and to dig into things so they can slowly peel back every layer of information.

Functional

The functional type refers to people who generally like their communication to be practical and direct. This group prefers to have control of the process, so it’s always best to move in a linear fashion: from A, to B, to C and then follow through right to the end. If you try to skip around in your presentation or jump to the enticement of your “wow” finish, you risk losing the attention of the functional communicator. This group commonly requires lots of structured, orderly detail, so avoiding zigzagging between details will help sidestep confusion.

Clients in this group tend to ask questions like: ‘What do we do first?’ and ‘How long do you want us to do that for?’ They want the whole process presented in a logical chain of information that links each key point to the other. It’s best to lead this client by being a type of tour guide through the planning process. Patiently draw out goals and work with them to help achieve these objectives and always be candid and open about any solution you suggest.

Personal

The personal communicator enjoys the warm-and-fuzzy approach and it’s important to interweave personal facts and common areas of interest when talking with this client. It’s best to avoid dumping several facts on personal-type communicators, even if they’re startling ones. These clients make decisions based on a relationship, so you will need a more interpersonal connection to build their trust and respect.

You can appeal to these clients by being supportive, attentive and amicable. For prospective clients, break the ice with a personal comment or anecdote. Don’t rush into business, but begin with casual conversation to get to know them and draw out their goals and vision for the future. It’s beneficial to ask for their opinions and ideas and then incorporate testimonials from your own experience or other clients when discussing options or opportunities.

Keep your interaction informal and relaxed, with no high pressure. Offering reassurance when there is hesitation and showing patience can take you a long way with these individuals.

Connecting with Each Client

Good communication skills help foster the client’s trust in you and in the advice and solutions you are providing. Like the foundation of a house, trust must be built carefully and solidly and then maintained and repaired quickly if needed.

With intuition and instinct, you can use the conversation as a way to understand both financial and personal goals of every individual. The personal life objectives are every bit as important as the financial ones and can have a large impact on the client’s overall plan. A good discovery process during the initial meeting, as well as yearly assessments, involves a “360” conversation. Effective conversationalists understand they often have to give in order to get, meaning they’re willing to share information about themselves in order to find out important information about the other person.

Skills of effective communication are needed whether you are talking with a new client about goals or with an established client about significant issues in his or her life. The following communication patterns are best to avoid, as they can interfere with building or maintaining strong client relationships:

  • Talking only about information, especially using lots of technical jargon
  • Making assumptions about your client’s motivations or past history rather than checking with them
  • Defining your role as only a problem-solver
  • Using the time strictly to get a point across
  • Taking conflicts or disagreements personally and getting defensive

These common actions can short-circuit the relationship before it starts, or lead you in an unproductive direction. By dealing only with the technical side of problems, you may leave deeper personal concerns of the client’s untouched and could risk concluding a meeting without essential information. To ensure that your client gets the most of your time and knowledge, use the following approaches to enhance your relationship:

  • Take more time to listen than to talk and show your clients that you actively listened by incorporating their facts and comments in your responses
  • Check and clarify important assumptions
  • Validate a client’s concerns or feelings
  • Keep in mind the paramount need to build, maintain and occasionally repair trust in the relationship

Research has shown that superior communication enhances client satisfaction, agent effectiveness, and client loyalty as well as the agent’s own sense of accomplishment. Marrying the concepts of client trust and communication can help you achieve these goals.

Effective Interviewing

A first meeting with a prospect is often one of the most challenging aspects of your job because you have a short time to make a positive impression and convince the individual that he or she can depend on you for reliable information and support. The first meeting, often referred to as the fact finding session, is crucial in determining what you can provide this potential client and what his best course of action will be. Asking the right questions can help you get to know your client and begin to build a plan that aligns with that client’s goals and views of the future.

Door openers are very broad questions about a particular topic that allow your client to open up and talk about their needs and what is important to them, for example, ‘Tell me about the early days of your business,’ and ‘Can you talk about what you picture when you think about retirement?’ Door-openers cast a wide net in order to gather a great deal of both factual and emotional information.

Open-ended questions are also effective for gathering useful facts. For example, ‘Can you tell me more about that?’ and ‘I’d like to hear more detail about your desire to travel in retirement.’ These are in contrast to closed-ended questions that are either multiple choice, true/false or yes/no. Questions such as “How much do you think you’ll need in retirement?” can be answered with one-word responses that can narrow a conversation instead of opening it up.

Clarifying questions help flesh out a particular area without attempting to problem-solve or use the information in any way. This is essential to good interviewing, because the client’s main goal is for you to learn more and fully understand a topic. Questions may include: ‘What is it about your previous plan that you didn’t like?’ and ‘What did you like most about your previous agent?’ One caution when using clarifying questions is that you must resist the temptation to pursue each bit of information you get in response. Good clarifying draws out a lot of information before proceeding to solutions.

Speaking the Client’s Language

One of the most common mistakes involves speaking excessively in professional jargon. Using complicated terms is often mistakenly assumed to enhance trust by demonstrating intelligence or experience, when in reality it can undermine trust and confuse your audience. Some clients are fluent in your professional terminology, but most are much more familiar with everyday language of life, family, and money.

Encourage clients to ask questions and speak up whenever they don’t understand something. You have to get them over the natural embarrassment of saying, ‘I don’t understand what you just described’ so they can feel comfortable conveying any lack of comprehension.

The most successful agents are ones who can truly listen, build confidence, interview effectively, make the client feel understood, and manage the delicate issues that money can sometimes evoke. While effective communication is a learned skill, it is more powerful when it’s spontaneous rather than formulaic. With practice and experience, it becomes easier to draw relevant factual and emotional information from the client.

You may find that speaking fluent “client” is much harder than speaking industry language, which is probably natural and easy to you. Yet, when clients see that you genuinely care about their education, satisfaction and wellbeing, they will have an easier time trusting you and counting on you for many years to come.

Get In Front Communications, subscribers to the Harvard Business Review
Listening Facts You Never Knew. Ragan Communications, Inc. 2013.
Syntactic Theory of Visual Communication, Paul Martin Lester, California State University at Fullerton, 1994–1996.
Source: Core Techniques for Effective Client Interviewing and Communication. Dennis T. Jaffe, Ph.D. and James Grubman, Ph.D., 2011
 

Conversation Dos

  • Gather information about personal goals, as well as financial
  • Be a problem-solver, not a product pusher
  • Encourage client to ask questions
  • Clarify with graphics and pictorials when possible
  • Take more time to listen than to talk and show your clients that you actively listened by incorporating their facts and comments in your responses
  • Check and clarify important assumptions
  • Validate a client’s concerns or feelings
  • Keep in mind the paramount need to build, maintain and occasionally repair trust in the relationship

Conversation Don’ts

  • Use lots of technical/industry jargon
  • Make assumptions about your client’s motivations or past history rather than checking with them
  • Define your role as only a problem-solver
  • Use your communication time strictly to get a point across
  • Take conflicts or disagreements personally and getting defensive

Lindsay Meleshko is a Marketing Communications Consultant with Insurance Insight Group LLC, a marketing and strategic consulting firm. Prior to joining IIG, she authored comprehensive training programs, endorsed a national-brand building tour, devised marketing campaigns and created agent and consumer advertising for Aviva USA. She now supports clients by developing valuable training and compelling marketing strategies that convey the client’s message and have a powerful impact on their target market. She is versed in compliance, life and annuity training and innovative recruiting and strives to stay on the forefront of industry trends and sales opportunities.

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