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Better client onboarding: Discovery questions

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Like many people this time of year, I went somewhere warm and sunny for vacation. The trip took a lot of planning and logistics, but it was worth every penny to escape the winter doldrums. Before booking the trip, my wife and I knew where we were going, when we wanted to go and what our budget was.

But suppose I called the airline and said, “I want to go somewhere. How much does a ticket cost?” It sounds ridiculous, right? But that’s what happens all the time when clients come into our office.

To paraphrase the famous line from "Alice in Wonderland": “If you don’t where you want to go, then any road will take you there.”

I live in Dallas, which means I typically fly on American Airlines. Since the headquarters are here, you can get almost anywhere on a direct flight. If I call AA to book a flight, I need to give them both airport codes and when I want to travel. When working with a client, you need to know your client’s “airport codes”: Point A (where they are now) and their Point B (where they want to go). You also need to know how much comfort and convenience you’re willing to pay for in order to get from Point A to Point B.

As discussed in my previous articles about better client onboarding, Point A has to do with your client’s family dynamics, business relationships, personal net worth and personal cash flow. Point B has to do with where your client (and spouse) ultimately want to go in life.

Often, I find advisors have a more difficult time with Point B than with Point A. Point B forces clients (and their advisors) to think in aspirational terms about what makes them happiest and what their ideal future looks like. These concepts can be especially hard for your results-driven, numbers-oriented, Type-A clients to grasp. They might even get mad when you ask them about their Point B. Just remember they’re frustrated with themselves, not you, for not being able to answer this question. I can speak from experience. When I went through this process, Point B was a challenge. As your clients’ most trusted advisor, part of your job is to help them gain this level of self-awareness.

How many clients have told you they can’t wait until they’re retired? I’ll bet quite a few. But, suppose you ask them point blank, “What does retirement look like to you?” More often than not, you’ll get a blank stare and their spouse will start squirming. Why is the spouse squirming? Because it suddenly hits them that their hard-driving Type-A partner will be home every day — all day long — invading their space and disrupting their longstanding habits, routine (and harmony).

Don’t underestimate the importance of this dynamic.

The power of why

Many times, when clients initially come into our office, they set goals in dollar terms (hint, the goal is usually about 20 percent more than they currently have). At times like these, I turn to a single, powerful word: “Why?”

“I want X amount of dollars,” your client states. “I have this much now, and I want this much.”

“Great!” I say. “Why?”

“Because I want growth,” he tells me.

“Why?” I ask calmly.

“So, I’ll have enough money,” he replies.

“Why?” I ask again.

“So, I don’t have to worry about money again,” he tells me.

“Why?” I respond again.

“Because I’d like to buy a lake house,” he offers.

“Why?” I ask again.

“So, my family can go there.”

“Why?” I ask.

“Because growing up, my family always had a place to get together twice a year,” your client reminisces. “I’d really love to spend more time with my family while I still can.”

Now we’re talking! For more about the Power of Why, see my article "Become the expert in your client."

Method vs. goal

Do you see what happened in the conversation above? By using the “Power of Why,” we uncovered something the client may not even be aware of. It had nothing to do with having more money; it was about method vs. goal. The method was about how you’re going to help your client buy that lake house or how you’ll get him to the point that he’ll never have to worry about balancing a checkbook again. The money component is the how; the goal itself is the why.

My book The Personal CFO talks about method vs. goal in more detail.

Start with the end in mind

Dan Sullivan, founder of the Strategic Coach entrepreneurs training program, likes to ask, “If we were having this discussion three years from today, and you were looking back over those three years, what has to have happened in your life, both personally and professionally, for you to feel happy with your progress?”

Let’s go back to my client who wasn’t sure whether to sell his business or keep growing it. One thing that’s difficult for advisors and their clients to grasp is that you don’t start with short-term goals first and then move on to long-term goals — it’s the reverse.

1. Start with your ideal future three to five years out (i.e., sell the business, own a lake house, be fully retired and spend more time with family).

2. Next, work back to the mid-term goals. (What do I need to do in my business to make that happen?)

3. Then move to the short-term goals. (What’s most important to get done in the next 90 days?)


Contact me any time if you’d like a sample goal-setting worksheet.

A couple recently told me: “We’d really like to double the amount of money we have.” They already had more money than they could possibly spend. So, I asked them, “If we could double your money, what would you do with it?” Their reply: “We don’t know. We’d do more of the exact same thing.”

So I explained that doubling their money would mean doubling the size of their business. But it would also require them to take on certain types of risks. After we talked about the pros and cons of doubling their net worth they conceded, “Actually, we don’t want to double our money. We just want enough cushion so we can protect our lifestyle with as little risk as possible.” As advisors, it’s our role to keep asking the right questions.

It’s nice to have specific goals, but before committing to them, you have to understand the implications of those goals. Everything in life is a tradeoff. Ultimately you can have anything you want if you’re willing to pay the price. Start the long-term goal — your North Star — and work backward from there because that is what drives everything else, including your action items for your next meeting with your client.

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