In July, Christieâs auction house in New York auctioned off the collection from the Roy Rogers and Dale Evans Museum, which closed in 2009. Everything was sold: Royâs first guitar, his sunglasses, and his sterling silver money clip and belt buckle were put up for sale to the public. The highlight of the catalog was Royâs horse, Trigger, who had been stuffed in his classic rearing position.
The day the auction opened, my husband Harold called to tell me he had bid on some of the items. He grew up in the 1950s, when Roy, Dale and Trigger were so popular. "Roy was my favorite," Harold said enthusiastically. "I once got to pet Trigger when he and Roy visited New Orleans. It was the thrill of my life."
I was certain that Harold had just bid $150,000 - Christies' estimated price for Trigger. My first thought was, where the heck do you put a big stuffed horse, standing on its haunches? I guess I blurted out that thought, because Harold immediately assured me that he had only bid on the lunch bucket and some belts.
Turns out, he didn't win the bucket or anything else. Nearly all the items sold for way more than Christie's had estimated, including Trigger, whose final price was more than $266,000. But this auction got me thinking about what people value, and what they are willing to pay for it.
WHAT YOU ARE WORTH
Think about your services.
First of all, they are services (not goods), so people have a hard time determining their value. If you were selling toasters, it would be pretty easy for clients to pick one up, look it over and get a sense of how that item would look in their home. But no matter how specific we are about what we can and will do for our financial planning clients, it's not easy for them to visualize the impact or outcome.
What's more, since service is personal, a failure to meet expectations becomes personal as well. If you're unhappy with your new toaster, you might return it - but you don't call Black & Decker to ask them why they disappointed you. Yet if your client is unhappy with your financial advice, performance or service, you're likely to get a call that is very personal: "Deena, how could you let me down like this?"
You might assume that the more specific and detailed you are about your advice and services, the less likely it would be for the client to wind up with unmet expectations. Yes and no: While it is likely that there may be less confusion if you specifically list what you will and will not do, you still have a big exposure to unexpressed expectations. Let's look at this a bit closer.
WHAT CLIENTS DON'T KNOW
If you have ever worked with clients, you know that they are not always clear about their goals and objectives when they walk in your door. Many times they have not formulated any future plans well enough for us to determine quantifiable and measurable goals. This is where the discovery session becomes important. Through artful questioning, clients begin to visualize their own future and make some decisions about what they would like that to look like.
We negotiate what clients can and cannot afford to do and together we come up with an action plan. Ideally, through these sessions, we have learned something about client expectations. But if we don't ask directly, we might just be assuming that they have expressed all the goals they had in mind.
Then it's your turn. Tell your new clients what you expect from them. Honesty, trust, open communication - whatever you feel is necessary for this engagement to be a success in your eyes. When both you and your client feel that your relationship is win-win, you can accomplish more.
Perhaps our biggest hurdle as advisors is that clients don't often see our value until years after they begin working with us, when they begin to experience their success. I'll give you an example. A few years ago I had a young couple come to me for planning. As we began our dialogue, I asked what future plans they had for their family. They wanted to buy a new house in five years. They wanted to save so they could retire on a lake nearby.
This couple won't see their goal fully accomplished until they put the down payment on the new house, five years from when we started planning. It's my job to ensure that this goal is on their minds and demonstrate our progress toward the goal each year. Our periodic conversations are centered around where the clients are in the process.
As we had our quarterly reviews, the focus was not on investment returns but on the couple's progress toward buying that house. At our firm, money dedicated to any goal that is less than five years out is not placed in equities - so we review how much has been saved and how much has been earned in fixed-income accounts. Then we determine whether we need to adjust our activities based on the current economic climate.
As the real estate market has fallen, for example, we created scenarios with lower-than-expected revenue from the sale of the couple's current home and adjusted the savings rate accordingly. We talked about the homes they grew up in and how important their childhood experiences were. These adjustments were more palatable because they focused on the new home, not on the discipline of saving.
Through this dialogue, my clients began to understand that the value of our relationship was in the prospect of being able to own their new home, not in short-term investment returns. But the proof won't come until they're holding that set of keys.
Drop your filters
Part of our value as advisors also comes from our ability to hear the information that clients share with us openly and without our own filters. This is extremely difficult to do. Our filters - the way we habitually take in and interpret information - often express our personal value system. Remember, this is your client's plan, not yours.
I'll use the same young couple as an example. During our discovery meeting, when I didn't hear anything about college among the goals, I sputtered, "Surely you will want to provide for Charley and Sally's college education!" The father looked me straight in the eye and calmly but firmly told me that that was not their intention. "Kids today don't appreciate their education until it means enough for them to earn it," he said. "Nope, we are not providing for their college."
I was placing my values on them. This was a goal I had - and I had never met a couple who didn't share it. Fortunately for me, my new clients did not feel that I was commenting on their value system (although they could have) and we were able to move along successfully. I recall this experience often to remind me not to superimpose my values on my clients.
WHAT CLIENTS VALUE
A couple of weeks ago, I read that a man paid $23,750 for Winston Churchill's gold-mounted dentures. He also owns the microphone that Churchill used to announce the end of WWII. I pictured having these choppers in my home, showing them off at dinner parties. No - doesn't work for me. The value for this buyer is not having the dentures or the microphone, but owning a piece of history.
Knowing what our clients ultimately value helps to make our relationship with them more successful. As I worked with that young couple, I learned that their motivation for saving and investing was somehow recapturing the childhood they experienced and giving some of that to their kids. As a consequence, I consistently used that as the benchmark toward their success.
I still can't relate to buying a stuffed horse for $266,000, but I can understand spending that money to own a little bit of history, particularly if you got to pet the horse when he was alive and kicking.
Deena Katz, CFP, is an associate professor in the Personal Financial Planning Division at Texas Tech University, and chair of Evensky & Katz in Coral Gables, Fla. This article originally appeared in Financial Planning magazine.
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