Skill Building: Become a Better Listener

Some clients may feel that they will lose their train of thought if they are interrupted and may react negatively. You might try taking notes of what you would like to expand on for those clients. Or you might find those clients can weather an interruption if it is one where you need clarity or more details.

This month, we turn our practice pointers and skill building focus to listening skills. This article is part of a series on specific skills financial advisors can use to improve their client retention. Past articles include how empathy and compassion can improve productivity.[1]

Listening skills are essential to success in any advisory career. While accurately acting on a client’s wishes is required of all advisors, listening skills go beyond correctness. Financial advisors often communicate with clients during times of stress and sometimes confusion. In those scenarios, listening skills like summarizing, not interjecting and monitoring your tone can help. Listening skills can also help ensure that the services you provide fit your clients needs now, and for the long term.

Now may be a prime time to sharpen your listening skills. During the pandemic, most advisors moved from in person meetings with clients to phone or video communications, with the later seeing a nearly 50% increase in use by advisors.[2] Advisors are also increasing how often they speak to clients, with one study indicating a 41% of advisors communicating more frequently with clients. Interestingly, a study showed that moving from in-person meetings to video calls also helped clients gain a sense of autonomy. Most in-person meetings took place in the advisor’s office, whereas zoom meetings allowed clients to be both in their home and in the advisor’s office at the same time. That switch may help clients feel more comfortable providing additional details. With clients potentially sharing more personal information, advisors would do well to have better listening skills at the ready.

Many tips for improving listen skills involve body language, like maintaining eye contact and facing the individual who is speaking. Obviously, those tips don’t always translate to communication that is purely by phone. But for video calls, ensuring that your video camera is located on or above your monitor can help your client feel that you are facing them and maintaining eye contact with them. This also might help when sharing spreadsheets or documents on video calls. Opting to share a screen, rather than viewing documents outside of a the video platform, can also help. When sharing a screen, your client sees the document and you, rather than just the document. This may help your client feel listened to when they ask questions about the information in the document.

Other tips include matching your client’s pace of speech. Depending on various factors, some cultural, some regional, and others merely personal, clients may prefer a specific speed of communication. The important thing is to keep your client’s pace. You will notice you aren’t matching their speed if you interrupt them, or if they are interrupting you. Also, note that some clients may tend towards verbal processing, meaning that they literally think out loud. Those clients will be more frustrated than others who speak after thinking.  If you have clients who have long trains of thought that they share with you, or where you feel that it is difficult to interject, you may try one or more strategies to help manage this mismatch of speeds. One might be to ask at the start of your call how the client prefers to handle interjections. Some clients may feel that they will lose their train of thought if they are interrupted and react negatively to that. You might try taking notes of what you would like to expand on for those clients and addressing those topics when it’s your turn. Or you might find those clients can weather an interruption if it is one where you need clarity or more details.

Summarize more than analyze. It seems simple but ensuring that you understand your client by summarizing what they’ve said can be more important that analyzing what they’ve said. Summarizing can feel clunky to some naturally caring or empathetic people. Statements like “to summarize, you are worried about a lack of diversification in your long-term investments” may feel robotic to you, but not your client. Instead, the client may feel that you’ve been paying attention.

To sharpen these skills, practice with friendly subjects. You might find friends or family members who have different communications skills than yours. After you ensure that they are willing to participate in your skill building, try out skills like how to ask about interruptions, summary statements and body language. You might also ask your friends and family members to provide you with information about the tone of voice you are using. For some folks who love analytical challenges, like advisors, their interest solving a problem for a client may come across as dry or dispassionate because of their tone. If you know your tone is analytical or dry, you can manage the impact of that by communicating your interest in words. Even stating something like “I really want to solve this diversification issue you’ve identified” can help your client feel heard.



These articles are prepared for general purposes and are not intended to provide advice or encourage specific behavior. Before taking any action, Advisors and Plan Sponsors should consult with their compliance, finance and legal teams.

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