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Is Anybody Listening?

Keeping your ears—and eyes—open when a client is speaking pays big dividends.

By Donald Ray Haas, CLU, ChFC, CFP, MSFS

Your success as a financial advisor will be in direct proportion to your ability to understand what your client is communicating. Most people assume their listening skills are a natural phenomenon that cannot be improved. In fact, the average person’s listening efficiency is only 25 percent.

But you can avoid this common trap, work to improve your communications skills and success will be yours. In their 1982 book, Listening, authors Wolvin and Coakley reveal academic research on this subject that has been meaningful to my career’s evolution —first as an insurance agent, then as a comprehensive financial advisor. Today, I continue to enhance my listening skills and learn new techniques. I have accepted the fact that developing good listening skills is a lifetime project.

Mind the gap
Did you know there is a speaking-listening gap? The average rate of speaking is between 125-150 words per minute (wpm); however, listeners can process information at 275-300 wpm. This means the listener has more time to think about other things. Actually, we can think at up to 500 wpm. Therefore, it’s not surprising that most listeners tend to tune in and out of conversations.

Your optimal speaking rate should be 275-300 wpm even though your client’s thinking rate is still faster. To make up the difference, you’ll need to develop additional presentation techniques to hold your client’s full attention. Remember, effective communication is a two-way street, and as an advisor, you must work both sides.

One of the most important things I’ve learned is that what is sent and what is received is rarely the same information. You must pay attention and, as quickly as possible, determine the level of your client’s listening skills. Listen with your ears for verbal cues and with your eyes and feelings for nonverbal cues. Listening is also greatly affected by environment and noise, so control your meeting surroundings. I decided a long time ago to hold all client meetings in my quiet, comfortable office.

Active listening
Good listening is not a passive activity. Listening involves a desire to learn and concentrated effort. It means searching for the facts as well as feelings. Your client’s feelings are sometimes more important than what he verbalizes. Study your client’s nonverbal cues because effective listening is not limited to words.

Try to understand the message from your client’s point of view. Empathic listening is a special talent requiring the receiver to put aside all critical and premature judgement and respond supportively.

A good listener will ask a question and then stop talking. Of course, this is easier said than done for most financial advisors, who are by their very nature communicators. But advisors in all fields can learn to be good listeners.

Study your client’s nonverbal cues because effective listening is not just limited to words.

No talking
Once your client opens up, avoid criticism at all costs. If you criticize your client, he or she will simply stop talking—and everybody loses. Do not jump to conclusions because additional information often reveals your client’s true attitudes and circumstances. In the initial stages of factfinding, do not render a single opinion or recommendation. Of course, your client has hired you for just that—your opinions and recommendations—but early on you should be in a listening, not talking, mode. Your time for talking comes later.

At all times during a client meeting, stay calm, patient and attentive. Your client will know if you are thinking about something else, especially an approaching tee time.

Get the facts
As a trusted advisor—a status that takes time to earn—you should be comfortable asking your client about anything. As a young agent, I had an overpowering feeling that I could not ask a prospect how much money he made. That was foolish. It’s impossible to make sound recommendations when you don’t know the full extent of your client’s resources. Most clients even expect their professional advisors, including their doctors, attorneys, insurance agents, accountants and financial advisors, to ask anything that could be relevant and helpful to their case. What seems insignificant now may not be later on, so be sure to get all the facts.

Encourage your clients to ask a lot of questions because these queries may reveal more information about their knowledge levels, attitudes and concerns than will any you pose. An advisor’s good listening skills enable clients to tell their stories. Let me assure you, it is the full story you want and need to hear.

Donald Ray Haas, CLU, ChFC, CFP, MSFS, of Southfield, Michigan, has been an insurance agent and financial consultant for 46 years. Contact him at 248-212-0101 or


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