Do you think you’re a good listener? How about a “deep listener?” Even if you say yes, we guarantee that you can learn a lot from our guest on the latest episode of YAFPNW.

Sandi Bragar, CFP® and partner at wealth management firm Aspiriant, has just about perfected the art of listening and creating meaningful dialogues with clients. Sandi and Matt discuss what deep listening entails, why the first meeting with a client is important, and much more.

The client experience and first meetings

When does the client experience begin? You might think it’s when they sit down to talk to you or when they first enter your office. However, it starts before they’re even technically a client. Whether they find you through a Google search or thanks to a referral from a friend, that’s when the client experience starts. And that’s where we need to start making our clients feel comforted, secure, and heard. That’s how long and fruitful relationships with clients begin.

“We want to make sure that they know off the bat that we’re there for them, that they’re important as individuals and as people,” said Sandi. “We’re there to serve them.”

The first meeting with a new client is the most important and the most exciting, Sandi said. Her three-step approach helps to build a trusting relationship with clients and allows her to learn what they want, what their values are, and how she can help them. Letting clients share their emotions, explaining what the planning process will cover, and in-depth discovery is key to a first meeting.

Planners may think that asking questions and ticking off items on their agenda is the best way to glean information from clients, but that’s not the case. Framing questions the right way and deep listening are much more effective.

The art of deep listening

What is deep listening?

“To me, when you’re not listening deeply, you’re thinking more about what you’re going to say next while the other person you’re talking to is speaking,” said Sandi. “So, effectively you’re not listening at all.”

And if you’re not really listening to your clients, you can’t have a productive conversation that will help the both of you. 

Deep listening means having a curious mindset. You want to know all about this person or this couple. What’s important to them? What makes them tick? It also means asking broad, open-ended questions that spark great dialogue. “Who are the most important people in your life? What are you passionate about?”

Finally, deep listening goes beyond listening to words. It also means paying attention to a client’s body language, tone of voice, or level of engagement. Are they sitting up straight and talking a lot with their hands? Are they sitting rigidly with their arms crossed and avoiding eye contact? 

Listening and paying attention gives you so much insight into relationships with your clients: if a meeting is going well based on their body language and words, how they’re feeling about the agenda, what their values are, and so on.

Helping clients by paying attention

Deep listening is essential to being a good planner. And it can be really tough keeping your personal opinions in check, as well as offering solutions to your clients right off the bat instead of listening. Truly listening takes practice, but it’s one of the best ways you can help your clients.

“Our job isn’t to know all the answers. And there might be situations that we’re in that make us uncomfortable when we ask questions,” said Sandi. “But getting outside of your comfort zone will allow you to grow that much faster and be a much better planner sooner.”

Learn more about deep listening, Sandi’s career, and asking clients the right questions by tuning in to the full episode!



[tweet_box design=”box_10″ url=”” float=”none” excerpt=”Our job is not to judge our clients. Our job is to listen and to understand…There’s a lot of room for judgment, but we have to stay away from it. That is not our job. – @sandibragar on #YAFPNW”]Our job is not to judge our clients. Our job is to listen and to understand…There’s a lot of room for judgment, but we have to stay away from it. That is not our job. – @sandibragar on #YAFPNW 203[/tweet_box]


What You’ll Learn:

  • How Sandi began her career
  • What Sandi does at Aspiriant
  • What the client experience entails
  • The importance of the first meeting with a client
  • Framing conversations and creating dialogues
  • What “deep listening” means
  • Gauging interest and success with clients
  • Struggles as a new planner
  • Working with new planners


Show Notes:

In this episode of YAFPNW, Matt Fizell, CFP®, and Sandi Bragar, CFP®, discuss:

  • Her work at Aspiriant
  • “Honoring the man who forever changed the financial planning profession” MarketWatch on Dick Wagner

Follow Sandi on LinkedIn and on Twitter at @sandibragar.


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Episode Transcript

Matt: All right. Thank you everybody for joining the podcast today. Today I have Sandi Bragar with me who is the managing director at Aspiriant. Sandi, welcome to the podcast.

Sandi: Hi Matt, thanks so much for having me. I’m delighted to be here.

Matt: Yeah, it’s great to take a little break from all the COVID-19 panic out there. So, it should be a fun conversation today. But before we jump into talking about communicating with clients, why don’t you give me a brief background into your career path and what you do with your firm today?

Sandi: Sure. So, I will be celebrating my 21st anniversary at the firm in a couple months. So, I’ll be legally allowed to drink at company events, which is really exciting. I found my way to Aspiriant by following my passion. When I learned about financial planning as a college student in the nineties, I knew immediately that’s what I wanted to do. The idea of being able to help people make really good financial decisions just really appealed to me.

Sandi: And so, I quickly put myself on a path to get there. Rather than going right into planning after college, I had an opportunity through the business economics program I was in, to work for Ernst & Young. And so I took that opportunity. I thought getting a CPA credential next to my name would just help me in the world. So, I spent three years auditing companies, which was so boring. I had no passion at all for it, but I learned a lot of really great things.

Sandi: And I had started my career in San Francisco, so as soon as I got my audit hours I stopped working for Ernst & young and I pursued another passion of mine, which was to move to New York City. I’d always wanted to live there as a child. And so, I had my auditing hours. I didn’t know anyone in New York, but I convinced a friend to move there with me and I decided that I was going to be a financial planner in New York.

Sandi: And I had come with a bunch of magazines where I had highlighted the name of every single financial planner at that time in New York City that was ever quoted in personal financial magazines. And I called each of them up and organized informational interviews. And I was so disappointed Matt, because all of them wanted to offer me career opportunities, but they could only do so if I could bring in business to serve that. That was the message I was getting.

Sandi: And I was in a new city, a new profession. I didn’t know anyone and I had no idea how I could survive and really make a go at the career I most wanted. So I begrudgingly went back to uncle Ernst and asked for a job in the tax department and was able to secure a role in the personal tax department, which really was a wonderful experience for my career ultimately as a planner. I learned so much about the tax code, way more than I ever wanted to know, but it’s really come in handy.

Sandi: And so, I did that for a couple of years. Got New York City out of my system, decided to move back to San Francisco. And because I was working for a partner at the time who was just, our styles were very different and I wasn’t a happy camper, and by that time I’d done a lot in networking within the financial planning field, I called someone that I knew who was working at the firm that’s now Aspiriant and got myself a job interview there. And the rest has been history. It’s been a wonderful path.

Sandi: Today in the firm I wear two hats. One hat is working directly with clients. I work with about 40 individuals and couples. They’re all high net worth and have very complex situations. The other hat I wear in our organization is as a managing director in our planning strategy and research group. That’s a mouthful. So we just call it PS&R. And at Aspiriant PS&R is responsible for everything related to the work we do for clients outside of what the investment team is doing.

Sandi: So, we’re in charge of the client experience, we’re in charge of making sure all of our wealth managers across the firm are well-versed in all the planning techniques. We come up with positions on certain topics should clients have mortgages, when do clients need long-term care insurance, those sorts of things PS&R is involved with. And so, I have a lot of fun in both of my roles being able to think and help clients directly and then also all the clients we serve across the firm indirectly in that PS&R role.

Matt: Yeah, that’s certainly a lot going on there. And I’d really like to dig into, what is it that you’re looking to provide in a client experience? I think that’s one thing that often gets overlooked, right? We talk about investments and all these topics that we get to talk about, but what exactly do you mean by client experience?

Sandi: So for us, the client experience starts when the client first reaches out to Aspiriant before they’re even a client, right? Whether they’re coming to us through a referral from a friend or someone they know who might or might not be a client of the firm or whether they’re coming to us through one of our marketing-driven efforts and they’re just coming through the website. We want to make sure that they know off the bat that we’re there for them, that they’re important as individuals and as people.

Sandi: And when they eventually come and walk in one of the doors of our offices, we want them to feel really comforted. We go to great lengths at Aspiriant to make sure that the clients know we’re in business because they exist. We’re there to serve them. And so, it’s really important to us that we have close relationships with our clients, we know not only what their financial objectives are, but really what are their values and what’s most important to them in life and how can we best serve them and help them realize all of the components of their vision?

Matt: When you’re looking at that first meeting, what is the most important objective in that meeting and how are you going about to complete that objective?

Sandi: Yeah. So, the first meeting for me is the most important and the most exciting because we’re really kicking off an engagement that we expect will be decades long. Right? So it’s new, it’s fun. And the overall objective that we have is to really learn who the clients are and start beginning to build a very trusting relationship with them. And Matt, as we think about the client experience in that first meeting at Aspiriant, we’ve broken it down into three different steps. And I’ll tell you each of the steps and then I can speak more specifically about them.

Sandi: The first step is to acknowledge that the clients might be coming to us feeling some strong emotions. So, we want to acknowledge that with a client. Step number two is to frame the conversation in that initial meeting so that the client has some expectations of our process and what we’re going to cover as we continue through the initial planning process. And step three is the initial in-depth discovery process. And that really is the key to the first meeting. That’s where we spend the most amount of time. But the other two steps we think are really important lead ups to the discovery.

Sandi: So, let me talk about each one. So, with the first step, acknowledging the clients might be coming to us feeling some strong emotions at that meeting. This is a moment, at the very outset of the meeting, once we’ve greeted the clients, we’ve gotten them really comfortable in the room. We say things to acknowledge that other clients have told us that when they’ve met with us for the first time, they felt some strong emotions and that’s perfectly normal. And so, if you’re experiencing emotions too, just know it’s normal.

Sandi: And we invite you to share during this meeting and any other meeting that we have together, the emotions that you might be feeling so that we can be aware and we invite you to tell us what we can do to make you feel even more comfortable. And the reason why we do all this Matt is because at Aspiriant every other year we gather together as a company. So, there’s about 200 of us spread across the country in 11 different offices. We gather together for two days.

Sandi: The purpose of the gathering is to connect as a team, to learn together, to socialize, to celebrate. And the last morning of achieve is my absolute favorite because we always invite clients to come in and tell their story of being an Aspiriant client. And at the very first achieve where we had invited clients to come tell their story, the couple who came was a couple that I serve, that I’ve worked with now for the full two decades that I’ve been at the firm.

Sandi: And I learned something new at that achieve that I’d never known about them before, which was that when they came to us for that very initial meeting, the wife, and I’ll call her Jill, the wife shared that she was feeling really nervous. Jill had been the CFO of their family for decades. Her husband, I’ll call him Jack, just to be cute about it, was a CEO of a public company. He was really busy running the company. It was her job to make the household run, including the household finances.

Sandi: And she was concerned, she shared, at that first meeting that she would be judged that maybe she wasn’t doing the right things, or making the right decisions, or that she didn’t know as much as she needed to know. And that really struck me because I remember that first meeting and it seemed like a perfectly normal meeting to me. I had no idea she was having such strong emotional concerns. And so, I’ve realized over time talking to more and more clients that this is normal. They don’t know what to expect. For us, it’s business as usual. We’re in the client service business talking to clients about personal finances, but for them it’s a brand new experience.

Sandi: And so, we now start by just acknowledging that with clients and inviting them to tell us about their feelings if they have any.

Matt: Yeah. Yeah. And I think that’s so interesting and I’ve certainly seen that as I’ve progressed through my career that we’re so excited to get to the data and a financial plan can make perfect sense on paper, but if we don’t understand how our client’s feeling, they might not be able to logically process that they’re going to be okay.

Sandi: That’s right.

Matt: Have you may experienced that as well?

Sandi: Yeah. I’ve had clients who just like Jill that I was explaining or that I was just telling you about, have had that experience. I’ve had other clients come in that they’re really excited and that they feel like everything is great. I’ve had other clients come in and they’re fearful that their resources just aren’t going to be sufficient enough to achieve their ambitions or they’re really concerned because they’ve done everything financially for the family and they have concerns of what happens if something happens to them? Will their spouse and other family members be able to pick up pieces?

Sandi: So, there is a lot of emotional stuff going on. To me, I find that at the stage I am in my career very interesting and sometimes more interesting than some of the planning aspects. And I really do think that we as planners need to allow clients the opportunity to share how they’re feeling so that we can respond and we can keep that in mind because those feelings are a big part of the financial planning process.

Matt: What is your process of developing the questions to ask and what are some of the questions that you found really help your clients let that emotion out and help you do your best job as a practitioner to get them to take action on what they want to take action on?

Sandi:  So, that comes into step three of that initial meeting, which is the in-depth discovery process, but let me first say that our second step after we’ve acknowledged the client’s emotions, normalized it and invite them to share them with us is to just to frame all the work that we’re doing. Because I think clients need that framework before we can launch into asking questions and learning about who they are. They need to know why we’re asking these questions, why we need to know the information.

Sandi: So, after we’ve given the clients that overview, then we start the discovery process in depth. And for us, it really is about asking a lot of questions, but I think the art here, Matt, is to ask the questions in a way that the clients don’t feel like they’re just being asked a bunch of questions. Right? The goal is to have a dialogue with them. And the overarching objective of that dialogue is for us to understand who are these people, what values do they have? What’s most important to them? What’s the purpose of their money and how do they like to communicate? How can we best work with them to get to the objectives that they want?

Sandi: And so, in order to do all that, we will frame the conversation with the clients in four different categories. And this is just something that we do Aspiriant. It helps guide the conversation and help give the client some order. Because I don’t know if you’ve ever done this, Matt, if you sit down with someone, you say, “Hey, what are your goals and objectives?”

Matt: I don’t know.

Sandi: It’s hard to answer that question, right? I don’t know. I’ve never thought about it. Right? So, we’ll frame it and say, “Hey, client, we really want to know a lot about you and different aspects of your life. So, we’re going to start by exploring what your current lifestyle is like and if and how you might want it to change. We want to talk about any capital investments that you see on the horizon. It might be a house purchase or a change in houses, airplanes, yachts, artwork, anything that you have that is a big ticket item, or anything that you want to achieve or purchase that’s a big ticket item. We want to talk about that. We really want to learn a lot about your family and we also want to discuss philanthropy and what role, if any, it plays in your life.”

Sandi: So, we put that framing together. And within each of those categories, we will begin to have conversations with clients drawing off of questions. Now, I’d mentioned earlier that one of my jobs in our PS&R group is to support the wealth management works that we’re doing across the firm. So, my team has put together a list of the best of questions in each of the four categories I mentioned and said that list is not meant to restrict our wealth managers. Quite the contrary. It’s meant to be a jumping point for wealth managers so that as they’re preparing for the initial meeting with new clients, they can have some questions to help get the conversations started and they can think in advance as they’re reviewing the questions’ matrix about other questions that would be specific to the client they’re meeting with that they want to make sure that they ask and understand.

Sandi: And so, I haven’t counted them, but there’s probably a hundred questions, if not more, across these four different categories. And I’ll just tell you a few of them, if you’d like to hear.

Matt: Absolutely. And I’d like to focus too, for those who don’t know, Sandi was a mentor at FPA Residency that I was in attendance at last fall. So, what makes a question good and what makes a question bad? Because they say there’s no bad question, but as I learned in front of the room, there are bad questions.

Sandi: I think there’s probably better questions. I don’t know if it’s good and bad, but what are the better questions? In my opinion, Matt, as we’re beginning this discovery process with clients, the clients are the very, as we see them, we’re just seeing the tip of the iceberg, right? And so, I think really good questions allow us to acknowledge what iceberg we’re looking at and then dig below the surface. So, I’ll just use that as an analogy.

Sandi: And so, I like to start at the 30,000 foot level. So, here’s one of the questions that I would pose. And again, I’m not even going to pose it as a question, but I’ll say, “Hey client, tell us what are you most passionate about?” That’s pretty easy for someone to be able to open up and talk to us about. And then we’ll allow, they respond, we’ll go deeper and we’ll just continue to ask and probe and learn more.

Sandi: I might ask a client, “Who are the VIPs in your life? Tell us about them.” And I think VIPs is really important, especially more so I think in a prospecting situation because you don’t really know what the prospect’s personal situation is, whether they’re married or whether they have a family. And so, by keeping the question in the VIP level, you really allow the client the opportunity to respond in the manner that best suits them without embedding any judgment in the question. Right? Because how awkward would that be? “Well, tell me about your kids.” “Well, I don’t have kids. Are you saying that I should have kids? Those are the sorts of things that can happen internally in someone’s mind if we’re not careful about how we’re asking the questions.

Sandi: So, for clients who do have children or other family members that they’re supporting, one of my favorite things to explore is, what expectations do your family members, your children have of you? And what expectations do you have of them? Right? So, that’s very tip of the iceberg question. It creates the client some guidance of the boundaries where we’re working in, right? We’re talking about families and expectations, but the playing field is wide open for them to discuss whatever is on their mind. And then as they respond, I can jump in and say, “Tell me more about this, tell me more about that.” And I can really learn a lot that way.

Matt: Yeah. So, ask questions without making assumptions, which can be really hard for some of us planners who like to make assumptions all the time, right?

Sandi: Yes, yes. And even after 20 years, I find myself making assumptions and it’s a really hard habit to drop, but I think that’s right to really engage clients while in this discovery process, you need to be able to make them comfortable, ask those wide open questions and then the real key beyond that is to practice deep listening skills. And deep listening will allow us really the opportunity to take a lot away from the conversation.

Matt: Just for those who haven’t been in residency, could you explain what is the difference between deep listening and not being a deep listener?

Sandi: Not being a deep listener, I’ll respond to that one first. To me, when you’re not listening deeply, you’re thinking more about what you’re going to say next while the other person you’re talking to is speaking. All right. So, effectively you’re not listening at all. Whereas deep listening, I think there’s three different skillsets that come into mind that are underneath the hood of that particular ability. One, is having a curious mindset. So, when you’re talking with a client and you’re deeply listening, you should be curious and wanting to know who is this person or this couple? What makes them tick? What are their values? What’s really important to them? What are their preferences? What are their priorities? Who are the people who are most important in their life? Right? So, being curious and listening for those answers is a way to make sure that you’re listening deeply.

Sandi: I think another aspect of listening deeply is asking those broad open-ended questions that we were talking about starting with the 30,000 foot level questions and going further from there. And then third, I think deep listening involves just a lot of different aspects. So, listen to what the client’s saying, both with their words and their body language, right? Is the client engaged in the conversation? Are they at the edge of their seat? Are they animated? Are they moving their hands around or are they just being very reserved and looking very uncomfortable?

Sandi: Noticing their body language is going to help. Understanding their words is going to help. Are they talking really fast and really excited or are they responding slowly and seeming uncomfortable?

Matt: It’s sometimes very difficult to do what you just said about being curious because most meetings have agendas and I think sometimes we get very trapped in our agenda. So, how do you have that balance of having an agenda and making sure you’re being on topic with these three stages of this meeting, but still allowing for some of that spontaneous conversation that you just didn’t plan for? And do you ever get to the point where you’re in a meeting and it’s gone too far and you can’t get to all three points?

Sandi: For us at Aspiriant, the way we design every single client meeting is to allow time at the beginning of each agenda for personal updates. And that is a mini-discovery exercise. So, regardless of whether we talked with the client last week, or last month, or last quarter, by allowing time in the agenda to hear the client’s personal updates, we’re giving clients a chance to really share with us what’s on their mind, what’s happened, what’s most important that’s going on in their life right now, what concerns they might have.

Sandi: So, I think that’s really important. And when we move through the rest of the agenda and we discuss different topics, we’ll also check in about the topic with the client. Why is this important to you? What are your thoughts about this? And so, we’re giving them the opportunity to think through and share with us what’s on their mind before we go into the detail of it. And I think that’s really important because if you allow clients that time and space to tell you what’s on their mind, it will help you get through your agenda topics because you’ll be speaking to what’s most important to them as opposed to what you think is most important.

Matt: Unlike most of the things we deal with, we can’t really measure the success of this. So, what are some indicators that you see? I mean, obviously you mentioned the body language, and the way they’re talking, and the way they’re sitting in their chair, but are there other ways that you measure the success of business? And you can feel that in the meeting where you’re saying, “Hey, this is going well.”

Sandi: It depends on what meeting it is. So if we go back to the initial meeting where we’re doing discovery with the client, I know that meeting’s gone really well if the client’s doing most of the talking. Right? If I’m just there saying, “Tell me more,” and guiding the conversation, but they’re really doing all the talking. I know a meeting’s gone well if a client gives me feedback at the end. There’s nothing better than feedback and if the client doesn’t give it, I’ll ask for it.

Sandi: I will know that the meeting’s gone well really just based on the client’s psychology, what they’re sharing, right? Are they engaged in the conversation or not? Do they feel like it’s important? I’ll know the meeting’s not going on well if the client is falling asleep, right? Has it ever happened to you? The worst thing.

Matt: Have you ever put a spreadsheet on a presentation before their eyes roll over nine times out of 10. Right?

Sandi: For me, it’s usually the situation. There’ll be a couple, one spouse is much more interested in investments and wants to go deep and the other spouse could care less. And so, we’ll get into the group and talk about investments and that spouse is just really nodding off. Right? And that’s just have a burning sensation in my stomach when that’s happened. I’m like, “Oh, we’re not serving both of the clients well, this is terrible.”

Sandi: So, we’ve learned to ask questions of clients will know by that point now which client is more interested in investments or and which one isn’t and we can head it off at the past by either suggesting that we have a more in-depth conversation with just one of the spouses later or getting the permission by the spouse who’s just not interested to check their phone or do something different during the conversation.

Matt: How do you pull that spouse back in and at least keep them informed so they don’t go home and say, “Oh, I didn’t really understand that and now I have concerns about that.” Or maybe it’s just a concern they’re not talking about. So, how do you keep them engaged even in a topic they’re not particularly interested about?

Sandi: Yeah. So, at this point, with more practice and experience under my belt because of the discovery work that I’ve done and just noticing how engaged or not engaged particular clients are in different discussions. If I’m heading into an investment conversation and I know the spouses feel differently about it, I might jump in at the beginning and just say, “Hey, we want to review the investment portfolio with you. We know spouse A that you really like to go deep and spouse B, you’d like to stay higher level. So, based on everything that’s happened in the markets over the last six months since we looked at it together, what questions do you have and what’s most important to both of you that we cover today?” Right?

Sandi: So, we’ll have materials available, we can cover whatever they want to cover, but by asking that question, that allows us to respond to what the client’s needs are as opposed to our assuming what they want to know and providing the information based on our assumption.

Matt: We have a couple in particular that we have this very scenario playing out, but what we do is we’ll meet with the husband before the meeting day to go through the super nitty-gritty parts of the spreadsheets and then we just avoid that in the client meeting itself.

Sandi: Yeah. I think working with the couple to figure out what are each of their needs and developing a plan that works for each of them on meeting those needs, that’s the best we can hope to do as their trusted advisors. And I think clients really appreciate that.

Matt: That’s what they’re paying us for. Right?

Sandi: Yeah, for sure. So, we talked about body language and listening to words, I think using eye contact is really important on our end, so in order to listen deeply, sometimes we just have to look into the client’s eyes if it’s something really important that they want to share. And sometimes that’s not the right thing to do because it’ll just freak the client out and we all know having someone look at you directly in your eye can get you off your game, especially if it’s happening too often and for a prolonged period of time. So, that one that you have to experiment with and learn the right time to be doing that.

Sandi: I think how we sit in our chair is really important to how we listen, right? Are we slouching or are we sitting back? Are we in a physical position to receive information? I think having empathy for the client, just really understanding, nodding our head when they’re telling us something that’s of importance to them, I think that’s a really nice way to listen. And that helps the client feel heard.

Sandi: A tricky one, and we’ve talked about this a little bit earlier, is withholding judgment, right? Our job is not to judge our clients. Our job is to listen and to understand. And this one’s really hard. It can be really hard on topics like politics that come up or in some philanthropic areas or even just how clients feel about paying for experiences for their children or not. There’s a lot of room for judgment, but we have to stay away from it. That is not our job.

Matt: We don’t always know 100% how people are feeling, we can get some of that information, but you’ll never fully understand. And I think that’s something I certainly struggled with in the early part of my career.

Sandi: Yeah. And I think sometimes you need to go into that meeting. I find sometimes when I’m meeting with clients who we might not be on the same page in terms of our own outlook in life, I just have to spend a few minutes before I go into the meeting thinking about who the client is, what’s most important to them and really just breathing and allowing myself to be there for them and just suspend any of my own thoughts or feelings. That helps us a strategy that I found to be helpful.

Matt: You’ve referenced so much to the amount of experience you have. And obviously, you’ve been at your firm for quite some time, but what were some things you struggled with as a new planner?

Sandi: Yeah. So, there are a lot of struggles. Right? It’s hard. There’s so much you need to know as a financial planner to serve clients well. And I’m someone who just likes to master things. So, I had a lot of frustration early on thinking, “Well, I can just master this. I’m smart. I can figure it out.” But I think I didn’t appreciate how it does take time and a lot of different experience. And I think one of the things for me personally is that at the beginning of my career, I was so focused on getting the technical aspects of the job down, right?

Sandi: I struggled with estate planning. That was the hardest area for me. How am I ever going to understand how estate plans work and all these different trusts? And that was great. I needed to know how trusts work and I needed to know all the estate planning rules. But I think now looking back, I would have been better served if I really was more focused on, “Well, what is the client’s need from this estate plan? Why is it important to them? What are they hoping to achieve with it in terms of being able to make provisions for their family or the people in organizations they care most about?”

Sandi: So, there’s that distinction that took me a really long time to understand and appreciate. So, that’s one of the things. I think one of the things I experienced and that I see with new planners is that we know so much, right? So we don’t know everything. But we know a lot and when we get into a client meeting, it’s so fun to be able to share with the client everything we know. But oftentimes clients don’t need to know what we know. They just need to know enough of what we know in order to make a really good decision for themselves.

Sandi: And so, that was something I struggled with. Like buffing up the whole kitchen sink of everything I knew about Roth. The client just really wants to know, should they put money in a traditional IRA or Roth IRA?

Matt: Right. They came to us asking for a glass of water and we gave them a fire hydrant. Right?

Sandi: Yeah. I mean, it’s so easy to do that and anyway I had gotten so excited and I see some of the new planners within our firm and then in my experience at FPA residency as well.

Matt: Do you think the way we’re educated has something to do with that? It is so focused on all the complexities of tax law and estate planning and investments. Do you think that fuels some of this struggle that we have as new planners?

Sandi: I completely agree with you and I am hopeful that as the profession continues to evolve, that the training and teachings will evolve too. And I know that’s a direction that Dick Wagner was really trying to push the profession in and that disciples of his work are doing. So, that excites me. I do wish that I had taken a psychology class. I wish the curriculum for planning went above and beyond the technical and included skills around communication. And a lot of that is what we try to allow people to experience at FPA Residency, which is a wonderful, wonderful program. But it’s a week-long program. I think there’s more the profession could be doing to help planners be ready for this important work we do with clients.

Matt: What are some of the advantages that you see in a new planner versus a veteran planner when you look at the makeup of your firm and working together in teams?

Sandi: Hey, Matt, before I answer that question, can I share a story with you?

Matt: Absolutely.

Sandi: I’ve just started thinking back on my career of regrets that I might have. There is a regret that I feel really badly about and I’ve learned a lot from, and that was in working with a couple, and I still work with the surviving partner, but it was a gay couple. We’ve worked with them for a couple of years. The bread winner, they weren’t married, but the bread-winning partner had been diagnosed with cancer early on in our relationship with them and it was pretty clear that his life was not going to continue much longer. And so, we did a lot of really great planning work to review the estate plan and to make sure that the surviving partner was going to be okay and that all the financial planning pieces were going to fit together.

Sandi: I regret that at the time I didn’t spend more time with the partner who was sick to find out what was on his mind. What was he experiencing, what was he feeling? Right. I didn’t want to go there. I didn’t know how to go there. And I think if I were in that experience today, just having gone through the experience I did with the two of them, I would be much more empathetic and be much more curious and would be much more open to listening. But at the time I was really afraid, I think, of learning something that I didn’t know how to properly handle and deal with. So I could handle the estate planning stuff by that point, just fine. But that’s a regret of mine.

Sandi: And I share that because I think in the work that we do for clients, whether it’s as momentous as that example, or whether it’s something that’s much more mundane, I think being open to just giving clients that chance to talk and tell us what’s on their mind and what’s most important to them will allow us to plan better for them, and not potentially miss things.

Matt: Not to be insensitive, but in all the practice cases you’ll do for the CFP, people just die, right?

Sandi: Yeah.

Matt: How do we deal with that spouse, that partner as that’s unfolding. And I think that’s something you can only learn with experience. That’s a really great experience.

Sandi: Yeah. So I share that for the new planners listening just to know that our job isn’t to know all the answers. And there might be situations that we’re in that make us uncomfortable when we ask questions. But getting outside of your comfort zone will allow you to grow that much faster and be a much better planner sooner. So, I know there’s scary times and sometimes it feels like you’re jumping off the cliff, but jump to it. Give yourself that opportunity. If you have a good relationship with the client, you two will find a way or you three will find a way to get through it together.

Matt: Another big takeaway I had from Residency was being comfortable in the silence. You don’t have to have the answer immediately.

Sandi: Absolutely, absolutely. Right? Sometimes clients just need to get things out of their heads. And I think just to bring this back to the current time period we’re in with the COVID virus running rampant around our country in the world I’m finding in conversations with clients that they just need to get all the thoughts in their head out of their head, right? They’re not looking for me to tell them what’s going to happen because they know I won’t know. My firm won’t know, but they just need to be listened to and they need to be heard.

Sandi: And sometimes, as you mentioned, it’s about just allowing them to speak and just being there to absorb what they’re saying without saying anything in return.

Matt: And we’d never know what’s going to happen tomorrow. The second they walk out that door, what we talked about is virtually useless.

Sandi: Right. It’s a feeling that they have, right? So getting back to the question you asked about client experience, it’s that feeling that they have leaving your office, which is going to make the most difference to them. And we haven’t gotten here, so I’ll just quickly mention, I told you how we start all of our meetings. We give clients an opportunity to provide us with their personal updates. We end all of our meetings by giving the client an opportunity to reflect on their biggest takeaways from the meeting. Right?

Sandi: It’s those takeaways that I find that allow the clients to connect the conversation we had to their emotional feelings. And so, if it was a really good meetings, as they’re reflecting back on the conversation to us, they’re feeling relief, they’re feeling good, whatever that positive need that they had at the beginning of the meeting, if we’ve satisfied it, they’re feeling that satisfaction as they’re reflecting the meaning back to us before they leave the office. And that’s what sticks.

Matt: That feeling is something they can only get from a human, right? You can get information and answers anywhere, but it’s not going to give you that feeling of being heard and being seen and feeling like you’re actually going to be okay.

Sandi: Absolutely. Hallelujah brother.

Matt: So, I just want to repeat my last question here. We talked about a lot of the struggles and a lot of the things that we as new planners need to learn. What are some of the positive things you see about having a new planner as part of the firm amidst your veteran advisors?

Sandi: Working with new planners is so much fun for me. I love the opportunity to work with someone at the outset of their career and help crush their experience and their guidance. And so, I think new planners come to the profession with so much to offer including a beginner’s mind, right? New planner regardless if your brand new to the workforce or whether you’re a career changer you’re coming to the planning profession with a beginner’s mind. You’re like a sponge trying to absorb everything.

Sandi: And I think that’s great because it allows you the opportunity to see things differently than your colleagues might be seeing. I find that new planners have energy and excitement. Sometimes after you’ve done something many, many times, it loses its shine. And to be able to experience the same old thing with a new excited professional, it makes the whole process even better and exciting, whether it’s refinancing a mortgage or helping a client figure out what life insurance policy they need.

Sandi: Every planner has their own unique personality and perspective and life experiences. I find it really exciting to be able to coal all of those out of new planners and help them see what’s inside of them and what makes them the amazing people that they are can have such a positive impact on the clients that they’re serving. And I think another thing about new planners is that they have a long career runway. Right?

Sandi: And so, there’s a lot of time that I think is exciting to be able to not only develop the technical side of what you need to know as a planner, but also the emotional side that we’ve been talking about so much today.

Matt: Whether you’re a career changer or just fresh out of college with a 30,000 foot view, there’s so much more to learn than just what’s in the CFP material if that’s what you’re pursuing. And I think that’s what’s the most exciting to me.

Sandi: That’s right. And as I’ve seen the profession develop and evolve, because remember back when I was getting started, you could only get a job as a financial planner really if you could sell new business, right? It’s much different today. And I think that’s wonderful in so many respects. But I find when talking with new planners that they get really focused on their careers and what needs to happen in order for them to advance. And all of that’s important, but I think the most important thing is to focus on the clients you’re serving, right?

Sandi: If you really understand who the clients are that you’re serving, if you really care about them, if you’re bringing to them everything that they’re needing, your career is going to work out marvelously. You’re going to have so much fulfillment and satisfaction and you’re going to be able to achieve so much. But if you lose sight of the client, I fear people just get lost that way.

Matt: Yeah. And I mean this can be an incredibly lucrative career. You can have a ton of impact on the profession and in your firm. But spoiler alert, meeting with clients is probably the most fun in my opinion.

Sandi: It’s a connection, right? Having a relationship with other people that you care about and who over time will really start to care about you too, there’s nothing better. It’s so wonderful. And the amazing thing is that the clients will evolve and they’ll change what’s important to them on the day they meet you is going to be different than what’s important to them 10 and 20 years later. So, the relationship always evolves. It gets more interesting usually over time.

Sandi: And I don’t know. I get a lot of satisfaction from that. I’m tickled. I pinch myself every day that I get to go to work and do what I do. I think it’s the most fun and most interesting work out there.

Matt: Well, we can definitely hear the excitement and it’s so refreshing to have these conversations and just hear it from someone like yourself with so experience that there’s a lot to take away from this outside of what people normally look for in a career. But thank you so much for joining us today. I really appreciated all the insight you had, not only for myself, but for all of our audience, and I’m sure we’ll be in touch soon.

Sandi: Matt, thanks so much. This is a lot of fun.