Better Business from Brett Davidson -it’s all about the questions.

by | Mar 28, 2018

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Brett Davidson, of FP Advance, gives practical advice on how you can develop the right skills to ask great questions – and transform your client relationships as a result

What is the essence of great financial planning?

As evidenced by where advisers spend most of their time, you’d think that coming up with amazing solutions to client problems is the magic. Some of the best advisers I know really pride themselves on their technical knowledge and experience. I’ve seen their work close up; they’re right to be proud of that hard-earned set of skills.

But that’s not the magic. I’ve worked with a Life Coach, Kerri Richardson (@KerriCoach) for many years. In fairness to Kerri, at times she has come up with some fantastic solutions to situations I’ve been facing. However, 90% of the time she simply ask me questions and we discuss whatever comes back from me.

Even after the many years I’ve worked with her, I find this process incredibly valuable. Why?


The value Kerri provides is in helping me identify the real problem or challenge that I’m facing, and she gets to it by asking me great questions.

Daniel Pink talks about this issue in his book, To Sell Is Human:

“If I know what my problem is, I can most likely solve it. If I don’t know my problem, I might need some help in finding it.”

We’ve been led to believe that problem solving is our highest value task. However, Pink argues that it’s problem identification.


Just think about your own interactions with clients. When you do all the talking, some clients actually do listen and act on what you say. With other clients, this same approach sees you getting into tricky and difficult terrain when they just don’t get it.

When you do all the talking (in the mistaken belief that people want solutions), you’re trying to encourage a client to do something that is technically brilliant and clearly in their best interests. The more you speak however, the more it sounds like you’re trying to sell them something and the more they resist. If they eventually leave your office, not having taken your advice, it’s almost humiliating. They walk away thinking a little bit less of you, when all you were trying to do was act in their best interests.

Because we never know who we’re dealing with at a first meeting, it makes more sense to spend time asking great questions, because this approach works with both types of clients outlined above and it helps the client see and understand their problem first.


I was taught that telling is not selling. If you say it, the client can disbelieve you (even when you’re 100% right). If they say it, it’s true. So ask better questions.

If you’ve been around awhile you’ll have picked up some brilliant analogies or one-liners that help explain difficult concepts to clients. These are useful, if they’re used judiciously, but beware of overusing these skills, because you might find yourself doing all the talking again, leaving you open to the problems I’ve already outlined.

One of the big challenges all advisers face, is the client who is very focused on a specific issue; for example how best to generate income from their investments or they might have a pension problem. In the client’s mind this is what they need help solving.


However, experienced advisers know that whatever the client presents with is almost never the real issue. No one buys a pension, do they? They’re actually buying future financial security, or peace of mind, or some deeper outcome.

Yet most clients don’t immediately see that. A skilled adviser will help the client identify the correct problem to be resolving, before jumping to the solution. Mostly, once the correct problem is identified, the range of solutions is pretty obvious. They may still need some technical advice and assistance to implement a solution, but it’s the first part of this process (problem identification) where all the value has been added. So how do you do it?

Ask the right questions

At FP Advance we use what we call Our List Of Interesting Questions, to help advisers structure first meetings with new clients in a way that allows the real issues to come out, but in a non-confrontational way.Let’s look at an example.


After initial discussions the client explains they want advice on their pension arrangements. They’re not sure if they have the right plan, if the annual fees are too hefty, and if they’re invested properly. Look at these two approaches:

Approach 1

Adviser: “That’s not your real problem. What you want to work out is have you got enough money so that you can live comfortably when you don’t work anymore. For that we’ll need to look at all your assets, not just your pension. Let’s work that out using my fantastic cashflow modelling software.”

Client: “But I just want some help with my pension. I don’t want to talk about all my assets.”


This adviser is solutions focused. He/she knows their onions and is dying to help the client solve their real issue. That’s to be commended.

However, because they’ve jumped straight to a solution, there’s a disagreement and it can be very hard to get things back on track. Contrast that with Approach 2.

Approach 2

Adviser: “Can I ask why you purchased these pensions in the first place? What were you hoping they would do for you?”

Client: “I wanted a good return.”

Adviser: “And if they delivered a good return, what would that help you to do?”

Client: “Well, then I’d be in a position to afford to retire at 60 with a good quality lifestyle. I just don’t enjoy my work enough to want to work beyond 60.”

Adviser: “What concerns do you have about your current pension arrangements in helping you reach that objective?”

Client: “The truth is, I don’t really know if I’m on track or not.”

Adviser: “Have you ever worked out ‘how much is enough’? Remember, that number could be achieved using a range of your assets, not just your pension funds.”

Client: “I haven’t done that, you’re probably right; although I’m worried about my pension.”

Adviser: “I hear you regarding your pension. We should definitely take a good look at it and give you some feedback on the issues you’ve raised. We can do that as part of this process. However, I also think we should be helping you work out ‘how much is enough?.

If we did both of those things, you’d be in a much better position to know what the next steps are.”

Client: “Yes, I would.”

Adviser: “Do you have any objection to us starting with those two issues then?”

Client: “Not at all. That sounds great.”

The second adviser understandsthat they need to get the client to see and understand the real issue; which is problem identification.

Done well this is a hugely valuable skill. It’s helpful, it’s ethical and client focused. The aim is not to manipulate clients for a predetermined set of answers. The aim is to help people unravel their own problems with some expert help, just like my Life Coach, Kerri.

The goal is to listen to the client’s answers and then help them shape a sensible, practical and hopefully simple solution to their situation. Now that’s a valuable service.

About Brett Davidson

Brett is the Founder of FP Advance, the boutique consulting firm that helps financial planning professionals to advise better and live better.
He is recognised as one of the leading consultants to financial advisers in the UK. You can follow Brett online and via social media:
Twitter: @brettdavidson

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