Most people who hire financial professionals want those professionals to provide them with something more than market knowledge, information and advice. What clients want most is to know that their advisor listens and that they care. That is the word from Mary Schmid, author, consultant and speaker.
She believes the most powerful way to build trust is through more powerful conversations. In her book, Make or Break Conversations: How Smart Financial Professionals Land New Clients and Keep Them For Life, Schmid teaches the seven guiding principles for having meaningful conversations that matter with prospects and clients.
In this interview with Publisher Paul Feldman, Schmid says that when you have the skills to masterfully lead a make-or-break conversation, you gain a powerful competitive advantage.
Paul Feldman: Tell us a little bit about yourself.
Mary Schmid: My story is quite simple. For 30 years, I was a health care executive working with doctors and surgeons, and sometimes we would get along, and sometimes we wouldn’t. I couldn’t figure that out. Some people were easy to talk to, while some people were absolutely impossible. I went to my CEO and asked, “What am I doing wrong?” And he said, “Well, nothing. Just keep talking. People eventually will get on the wagon.” Well, I thought that there’s more to it than that and wondered, “What is it that makes a good conversation?” I’m a research nerd at heart. So I looked and looked. Finally, I discovered the work of my mentor, Judith Glaser, who I studied with for three years.
Judith wrote the book Conversational Intelligence: How Great Leaders Build Trust and Get Extraordinary Results. I discovered that there’s much more to a conversation than meets the eye.
There’s a whole lot of brain activity that goes on that influences not only what we say but how we impact people with the words that we use and the way we express ourselves. So I began doing the work, and my clients were getting great results. Along came a financial advisor who said, “I want to work with you.” I had some experiences with financial advisors that were less than stellar, but I decided to take him on as my client anyway. Then one day, he told me that he’s really good at conversations and I said to him, “Show me how good you are.” He said, “Yeah, I will.”
We began to do this role-play as if I were his client. And the things that he said, how he was asking questions and deeply listening — really interested and concerned — made me look at him and say, “You are really good.” Well, of course he’s good. He was doing what I taught him. And because he was so good, I said to him, “I want to become your client.”
It was so fortuitous that I became his client because only six months after I became his client, my husband died unexpectedly. And I remember looking back on that time, and I distinctly remember asking, “Who’s going to help me with my finances?” My financial advisor’s name popped into my head because I trusted him. And it wasn’t about products, portfolio, performance. It was because in the way he had talked to me, he showed that he really cared. So he was my resource. He became someone I could count on. And from that time on, I began to engage with other financial advisors.
Based on my experience with them, I wrote the book Make or Break Conversations: How Smart Financial Professionals Land New Clients and Keep Them For Life, and I continue to work with people in the financial services industry to help them understand that there’s so much more to conversation.
I work with financial professionals to help them understand why it is so difficult for some advisors to reach the next generation, or how to reach the wives of their clients after the husband has died. Why is it so difficult for some male advisors to relate to us as women?
Feldman: What’s the solution? How do you help advisors connect with prospects who may be out of their comfort zone?
Schmid: I teach people how to structure and lead a conversation where they can get people to understand that they really do care about them, that they’re interested in helping them. By showing that you care, you also show that by working together in partnership, you will help get your client where they want to go.
Feldman: You have said that there is a science behind having a meaningful conversation. What is the science? How does that work?
Schmid: We must understand the science because this is an evidence-based, scientific practice and implementation. While we’re in conversation, your brain is a stoplight. Many of our conversations inadvertently turn that light red. The conversation sends signals to our brain that hijack the intent of the conversation so that we can’t think straight.
Instead, we want to say things that open the conversation and move people into wanting to tell us what’s going on. When we do that, our brain registers a green light instead of a red light. So now we can think, we can reason, we can problem-solve — we collaborate. That’s where trust lives.
So our objective is to say more of what turns the light green, opens up the prefrontal cortex, floods the brain with oxytocin — that’s how we can create conversations where we’re willing to share with one another and be open.
If we say things that will shut people down, they won’t tell us what’s really in their hearts and on their minds. People want to feel safe and included and have a conversation with less fear. When we’re open, that leads others to open up.
Feldman: If a client is normally closed off or shy, how do you get them to open up?
Schmid: An introvert is not necessarily shut down. They’re just not willing to speak up. So they may be listening, and they may be processing, and they may be deep in thought. It doesn’t mean that they’re shut down. Shut down means that you’re disengaged from the whole conversation. They may be wondering about when and how they can insert themselves into the conversation.
Feldman: Tell us a little about your seven guiding principles. These are the principles, you say, that lead to “healthy conversations” and that build trust.
Schmid: The first principle that we talk about, called “Share the Air,” explains that we need to include people, invite them into our conversation.
How do we do that? We invite them in by making it safe to join the conversation. We say, “Let’s talk about what’s important to you, and let’s talk about what’s important to me.” The conversation is not about being right or being wrong, it’s about learning. So how do I prepare myself? I always tell people, just breathe. Take one minute before your meeting, one minute before your conversation — just breathe in and begin to think about the other person, not about you.
Think about the other person, what might be on their mind. How can I help them to say what they want to say? What might it be like for them to be in a meeting with me when I know that they tend not to want to speak up? What can I do to facilitate that?
Then the second piece is your own presence in the meeting. Are you calm and relaxed, and open — or are you tight? When we just open up the meeting or the conversation, we create an emotional connection.
Feldman: As you say, words have great power and can put you into a good state of mind. Every financial advisor must think about how they engage a prospect or client through conversation.
Schmid: The first step is all in the setup. Although it sounds really simple, it’s incredibly effective because it allows you to drop your guard. You see, our brain hates uncertainty. Our brain is always working to protect us. And if we sense something is off or if people are stressed or uptight, we respond to that immediately before words are even spoken.
I take one look at you, and I think, “OK, what do I read in you?” I read your eyes. I read your smile. I read your body language. And in an instant, I make a decision about whether I’m going to be nervous or relaxed.
When I invite you in and I want to find out what’s on your mind, first — before I go into my big spiel and tell you everything that I know — I effectively drop my guard. And when people drop their guard, you will see people literally physically relax. It’s so simple, but it’s so effective. We’re ready to be open.
Feldman: What is the second principle?
Schmid: The second principle, “Respect Others’ Opinions,” says we must be quiet and listen in order to connect. Because of the way our brains operate, we drop out of conversations every 12 to 18 seconds to make sense of what we have just heard. “What do I think about what you said?
Do I think that you’re right? Do I think that you’re wrong? What am I going to say next?”
The result is, we stop listening. It takes a really concerted effort to simply focus on the person you’re speaking to.
If I’m really listening, I want to key in to what you’ve said. Once I key in on your words, I’ll take it one step further. I might ask, in relation to what you’ve just said, “What are you thinking about this? What was the impact? What are your feelings about that?”
Feldman: That’s a great way to think about a conversation — “It’s not about me. It’s about getting to learn more about you.” That’s the key to good conversation.
Schmid: The attitude that you must have going through a conversation is that this is not about you. I go into every conversation because I have something to learn. If I leave a conversation not having learned something, then I didn’t have a conversation. I had a monologue.
Feldman: One of the things you talk about is archetypes. Explain a little bit about that. Knowing those archetypes will help me know how to converse with those different types of people, especially those who are different from my archetype, correct?
Schmid: There are eight different archetypes. I’ll give you a few examples. The first is “the ruler.” They have a plan. They look like they have it all together. Even if they don’t, they look as though they do. And it’s hard for them to listen and include other people in a conversation.
The second is “the accumulator,” who operates largely out of fear and scarcity. The accumulator likes to see things safe, secure and tucked away. They know exactly to the penny what’s in their account. They know exactly where things will go. They hate uncertainty. So when they’re in conversations that involve some uncertainty, they freeze. They don’t know what to do.
Another archetype is “the maverick.” The maverick is the “big idea” person, the big risk-taker, yet they struggle with the specifics. Detail is not their game. They fall apart if they don’t have the structure and the systems in place to support the work that they do.
Next is “the romantic.” The romantic believes life is to be lived and life is to be enjoyed, and I really don’t care about tomorrow. It’s about spoiling myself and spoiling other people. They can teach us something in terms of living the good life. Where they fall short is that a lot of the time, they nurture and give gifts and spoil people because on the inside, they believe they are not worthy, not special.
I love all the archetypes because they all have different challenges and different ways of looking at things. Because my clients are financial planners, many of them tend to be a combination of accumulators and rulers.
Feldman: Give me an example of how a “ruler” archetype would act in a conversation.
Schmid: The ruler archetype is good at many things. They’re good at process, they’re good at planning.
And when they’re in conversations, they’re always looking for the result. How do I get from point A to point B? It’s so difficult for them to listen because they’ve already got their mind made up about how they’re going to help you. Rulers need to slow down and simply say, “Well, this is what I know, but how do I manage myself in a conversation to make it about the other person?”
It’s about how do I learn how to quiet that part down and, instead, move into discovery and sharing more with other people, letting them speak.
In the financial services industry, many of my advisor clients are accumulators. They are best described by “A penny saved is a penny earned.” Let’s say they’re in a conversation and a client says to them, “Savings is good for someone else, but me — I just want to spend and not save.”
I’ll tell you exactly what will happen. The advisor will get triggered, and they will go into their monologue about the importance of saving. But they’ve missed the point of simply saying to the client, “Well, how does that work for you? How does that serve you?”
Feldman: Advisors often want to either give advice or sell themselves rather than get to know the client’s issues. They need to reexamine that approach, correct?
Schmid: Exactly. We are often premature problem-solvers rather than problem listeners. We hear a couple of facts, and then we automatically think, “Oh yeah, I’ve had millions of conversations like this. I know what you need. I know what’s right. And so therefore, I’m going to give you the advice,” even when it’s unsolicited, unwanted and premature.
Instead, the advisor should be a problem listener and try to figure out what their client is trying to accomplish. What is it that is challenging for them? Then the advisor should begin to think, “How can I help them? How can I serve them?”
Feldman: If you’re successful with understanding what’s on a client’s mind, and you understand how they’re feeling about it, then you’re connecting with their emotions.
Schmid: Yes, but you’d be surprised. Many people will say, “Oh, I’m afraid of emotions. What if they say something that I don’t know how to handle?” Well, what if they do? Then we simply say, “Wow, I understand that was a hard situation for you.” That’s empathy and acknowledging that they’re going through something challenging. You might simply ask, “What support do you need? How can I help you?”
Feldman: How do you get better at that in your conversation? What are some tips? Let’s say I’m having a conversation and I feel like I’m drifting, and I need to get back into the conversation. How do you reconnect?
Schmid: It’s best to be honest. People know when you’re not listening. They see it in your eyes, they see it in your body language. They feel it. So if you’re drifting off, you say, “Sorry, I lost my train of thought for a minute. Something you just said made me think about something totally unrelated. Please tell me again what you just said.” It’s that simple. If we pretend that we understood, we’ll be totally off base about what they just said. What your client will be thinking is, “I saw he wasn’t listening. I could feel he wasn’t listening, and when he made that comment, that’s totally irrelevant to what we’re talking about.” They will understand if you’re honest.
We’re all human.
Feldman: Are some people born great conversationalists? Can everyone be taught to be a great conversationalist?
Schmid: No one’s born a great conversationalist. When we understand what goes on in our brain that affects our conversation — the feelings, emotions, the actual brain biology, the neurobiology, the chemistry of conversations — we can learn the skills to be better at conversation.
We need to learn how to lead a trust-based conversation. If you’re willing to learn how to do that, you can learn not only the science but the skills to navigate conversations — even the hard ones.
That’s what I love about the work that I do. I think I’m pretty good at this, but I’m always getting better. In every conversation I have, I learn something. In the universe of conversations we’re having with one another — despite our differences and polarities — all of us can always get better.