Planning for Success in 2008

Is your communication strategy missing the mark?

By Ray Sclafani

The human body possesses millions of synapses, allowing our nerve cells to communicate with one another with remarkable speed and accuracy. We don’t have to think about it—communication among nerve cells is automatic, already encoded in our DNA. But when it comes to managing a successful business, communication just doesn’t come as naturally. As a financial advisor, effective communication strategies need to be built into your business plan from Day One and maintained as a top priority.

Creating a Plan

Whatever your goals are for your practice, communication will be vital. Planning for a successful new year begins now. By planning in October and November, you can hit the ground running when January rolls around.

“Communication will play a big role in our business plan for the new year,” says Joe, an advisor in Houston. “My team has ambitious goals and we need a well-defined plan to help us get there.” Among his goals for 2008 is to bring in $50 million in new assets. He and his team have already begun their outreach efforts for the fourth quarter. Part of their communications initiative is asking for introductions, both from existing clients and from their network of other trusted advisors. “We have a weekly checklist for speaking with clients who can make the type of introductions we wish,” Joe says. His firm has also created a time line and assigned each team member a specific task, so that everyone understands his or her responsibilities. Regular communication pays dividends in the form of stronger relationships with existing clients and introductions to new prospects.

Learning How To Listen

When I speak with advisors about communication skills, I often describe three different levels of listening.

  • Level 1:We are only listening at thesurface level, making immediate (and possibly superficial) conclusions about what has just been said.
  • Level 2:We listen with an open mindand make no judgments about what a person is saying. When a client is finished speaking,we can easily repeat what we’ve just heard because we’ve given our full attention.
  • Level 3: We listen with an openmind, while also paying close attention to what’s not being said. When a
    client is finished speaking, we can ask questions that can help us understand the subtext.


Level 1 is the way we listen 95% of the time. Unfortunately, it prevents us from making a genuine connection with a client. Levels 2 and 3 are where real communication begins. Improving your listening skills will give you a better understanding of your clients’ interests, concerns and priorities. Learning how to truly hear what your clients are really saying (and not saying) takes time. But you can improve your odds for success by making it part of your business plan for 2008.

Asking the Right Questions

The second component of improving the level of communication is asking high-quality questions and giving the person you’re speaking with plenty of time to respond.

  • Use open-ended questions. Mostof us are keenly aware of what open-ended questions are. By asking questions that can’t be answered with a simple “yes” or “no,” we create a dialogue that increases the level of listening. For example, if you’re interested in being introduced to people who own small businesses, the question isn’t: “Do you know someone who owns a small business?” But rather: “Who do you know that owns a small business?”
  • Give people time to respond.If a client or introduction source is quiet for a few moments, don’t rush to fill in the silence by making small talk. Allow a few moments for the person to gather her thoughts and reply in a thoughtful
  • Ask for more information:If a clienttells you something interesting, respond by saying, “Tell me more about…” Keep the conversation going.
  • Listen as much as you talk.Try to make sure that you are listening during at least 50% of the conversation.
  • Be flexible. Let a client take the conversationin the direction that feels most comfortable for the individual. Don’t interrupt the flow. If you have unanswered questions, you can circle back to them at the end of your meeting.
Taking Action

Our nerve cells are part of a complex system that requires each part of the body to do its job. Similarly, communication skills are part of a system that is no less complex or demanding. For our businesses to grow and thrive, we need to ensure that our communications strategies are hitting the right targets. Make sure that you’re speaking on a regular basis with your most important clients and key introduction sources within your professional network. As you plan for a new year, there’s no better time than right now to revamp your communication program.

Ray Sclafani is President of ClientWise LLC, an organization founded to support the financial advisory practice of the future. Delivering unique practice management strategies focused on client acquisition and retention, ClientWise provides coaching and training for leading financial advisors. For more information, e-mail or call 1-800-732-0876.

Originally published in OnWallStreet, October 2007.

Copyright Ray Sclafani 2007