As an amateur photography student, I’ve spent many hours learning about techniques and tools to improve my skills in taking, making and presenting photographs. As I’ve been working hard to understand how to use my digital single lens reflex camera, I’ve learned about the ins and outs of technology that rivals the equipment used by true professionals. My head spins with the myriad options for white balance, ISO (film speed) and pre- and post-processing. All this makes me miss the “simplicity” of concepts learned in law school. And reminds me of the multi-faceted factors involved in relationships between wealth advisors and their clients. There is, however, one recurring theme that applies simply and directly to family wealth advising as well. That is: The lens matters.
In class after class, I hear the same refrain when teachers discuss how they managed to create an awe-inspiring image: “Start with the right lens.” It’s that simple. Ok, maybe not that simple, but certainly easy to comprehend. It's impossible to get that magnificent up-close image of a hummingbird at its feeder without a lens capable of capturing minute details. Telephoto makes taking a close-up of a lion possible while keeping the photographer at a safe distance. Macro gives you the inner details of the most intricate flower. How does this transfer over to family wealth advising? Here are four ways:
Too often, I’ve heard professionals refer to their clients in ways that, put politely, are unflattering at best and derogatory at worst. The advisor’s “lens”–seeing the client as less than competent—affects every interaction between the advisor and client. Often, this stems from the advisor’s rightful recognition of the gap between the advisor’s and the client’s knowledge about the subject that the client hired the advisor to provide. And, in many cases, this is accurate—if a client had those skills, why would he need to hire someone to do the work? As they say, a lawyer who represents himself has a fool for a client. But it doesn’t necessarily look at other factors of competence, many of which are critical to the client’s accomplishing his goals. I’ve often been struck by the way in which some clients (come to think of it, including artists and photographers) have a set of skills that could greatly help the process if their advisors recognized them as being valuable. These clients often ask the right questions (sometimes those that aren’t asked by their advisors) and provide critical perspective, in language that comes naturally to them but not the advisor. If the advisor recognized this “expertise” as helping the process, it’s likely both could do better work together. In my experience, each and every client has the competence needed to get the work done well. But the advisor doesn’t always understand that. How we see our clients affects what we can do together.
Macro or Micro
In meetings with clients and their other advisors, I often observe the confused looks on clients' faces when they’re presented with information that’s not provided at the level of detail that they seek. This goes both ways. Some clients are frankly overwhelmed by the pages and pages of words (for example, in trust documents) or numbers (for example, in financial reports) presented to them. I hear about it after the meeting, when they shrug their shoulders and seem to say that there must be something wrong with them. They put documents into a file, and the next meeting restarts the process again. Unfortunately, many advisors fall short on providing information that’s distilled in a way that the client can digest and act on. I’ve found that asking the client in concrete terms about the way that that they process information and would like to receive it goes a long way to bridge this gap. And, when in doubt, a “both and”—one page or visual with back up details attached—is often the most useful.
Seeing the Real Person
Advisors have to be careful about using a lens that only highlights one type, or group, of clients, while obscuring others. The simplest example is the way in which advisors have historically overlooked women. This isn’t news. I first wrote about this more than a decade ago, and most firms are now working on quickly remedying this issue.1 In the past, the advisor often assumed that the client was the husband, brother or father, even if the wealth holder was the woman. Still today, I see this perpetuated, with the group of “unseen” expanding to those members of the family who don’t look or act like their advisors. Those who’ve chosen untraditional paths career-wise or who by gender, sexual orientation, or otherwise don’t fit the model expected by leading family members and/ or their advisors, don’t receive the same level of attention as their more visible family members. It takes work to get to see clients for who they really are. And it might take more than one change of lens to do so.
Taking a Selfie
Thanks to modern technology, many camera lenses can now go both ways, and the viewer can become the viewed. This change of lens could apply not only to advisors, but also to clients. As a private wealth client, a good exercise might be to “see oneself” as the other sees you. Are you a client you'd like to see on the other side of the lens—that is, do you show up, ask questions do the work you can do and see the advisor for who he really is?
1. See Patricia Angus, "What do Women Really Want?" Private Wealth Management (2003).