Avoiding smartest kid in the class syndrome

Register now

I remember early in my career, I would get so excited when clients came to our office for a consultation or review meeting. I really thought they were coming in to learn about all the latest developments I was following in accounting, tax and personal finance. It took me about 10 years to understand from their body language that they were just zoned out, waiting patiently for me to finish my lecture so they could ask the only relevant question—“What does this mean for me?”

I thought I was doing a service by empowering my clients to “learn”…I finally realized these are already highly successful people; they don’t need to be empowered to learn concepts they aren’t passionate about. Who was I to pontificate to them? I had to take a step back and learn how to give them less information and more advice—and do it as quickly as possible.

I am in an industry among others who are equally passionate about what we do. So, we’re all making the same mistakes, which is trying to overeducate and “empower” our clients and teach them what we’ve spent years studying, understanding and implementing.

It’s like taking your car to the mechanic and spending hours listening to him explain the intricate details of what’s wrong with your crankshaft or carburetor. Unless you’re really into cars, you probably don’t care. For years, I was that overly excited and passionate mechanic. My wife would hear me on a call and say, “You shouldn’t talk so much; they don’t care as much as you think they do.”

My upcoming book, The Personal CFO, discusses the dynamic between the financial services industry and the clients we serve. What we need to do as an industry is to focus on helping clients clearly identify where are they now, where do they want to go, and the most effective route for them to take.

When I go to the cardiologist, the thing that’s going to be most valuable is for her to explain to me in a way I can understand: “Hey, here’s what’s wrong with you, here’s what’s going to help you NOT die.” That’s all I want to know. The rest of the details surrounding my medical condition I don’t need to know. It’s only going to confuse me which makes me less comfortable rather than more comfortable.

Don’t talk down to clients

You don’t want to overwhelm clients with how much you know and you NEVER want to talk down to them (or worse, talk down to their spouses). That’s not only arrogant; you’re implying they’re not smart enough to understand a tax-related subject. Chances are they’re smarter than you, which is why they have the means to afford a professional CPA and other financial advisors. No offense, but they’re just not interested in taxes and accounting rules. They’re coming to your office to get advice—not information or a tax lecture.

By the way: The spouse who talks the most in the meeting with you is very often NOT the financial decision maker in a married couple. On the elevator down to the lobby, guess who’s giving the thumbs-up or thumbs-down sign? Hint: It ain’t the husband.

What clients will appreciate

Why are we talking so much? Why are we giving so much data and information to our clients?

Many CPAs think that’s what clients want, but in reality, no one ever says to their CPA: “Thank you for going through the intricacies of the new tax reform in such excruciating detail.”

Instead, you WILL be thanked if you can simplify all of a client’s tax and accounting issues and say: “Here’s what all this means for you and you’re going to be OK if you do the following things. These are the next steps.”

This is where CPAs have a really hard time: Clients don’t want to pay you for data. They’re paying you for advice and educated recommendations so they can make smarter financial decisions.

The empowerment myth

CPAs and financial advisors spend a lot of time talking to each other and get excited about all the things happening in their profession. They assume other people (i.e., clients) who are not in the industry want to learn about the new developments just as much as we do. I’m going to do them a service and empower them to learn these things. Instead it should be an “empowerment shift”— I’m not going to empower you to do this; I’m going empower you to delegate the work to somebody else who is ethical, well-qualified and accountable to do it. Clients are at your office to have somebody take pressing financial issues off their plate—not to give them more information about issues they already know they have.

Do you suffer from ‘Smartest Kid in the Class’ syndrome?

Let’s say you have a client coming in for annual review meeting and you’re wondering what to talk about. If any of that information can be found on Google—i.e., the standard deduction just doubled—then that’s not advice. You’re not answering your client’s primary concern: What does it mean for me and what should I do about it? You’re just wasting their time. Clients don’t work with a professional advisor to learn things they can get for free on Google.

If you’re still in doubt, use the “What / So What / Now What” filter……Don’t just give clients The What (i.e., data and information). You need to give them the So What (i.e., What does it mean for me?) and the Now What (i.e., What Do I do About it?).

They’ll be glad you did and so will the people they refer you to.

For reprint and licensing requests for this article, click here.
Client relations Client communications Client strategies