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Can Soft Skills Be Taught? In Financial Services, They Should Be

Many firms are de-emphasizing soft skills in favor of tech skills, but technical prowess alone can never replace the personal touch of a great advisor.

By John Pierce

Soft skills have become something of a lost art across a number of industries, particularly in financial services. Emerging technologies like machine learning and artificial intelligence have led many firms to emphasize technical and analytical skills. Unfortunately, with that pivot often follows a shift away from the rapport between advisors and their clients or prospects.

Call me old-fashioned, but I believe this shift is misguided. While new digital capabilities can help advisors serve their clients, technology alone isn’t enough to ensure client loyalty and satisfaction. Advisors need a hybridized skill set of tech savvy and interpersonal aptitude.

However, new technology isn’t the sole reason for many firms’ disinterest in soft skills. There’s also a pervasive belief that soft skills can’t be taught—that belief is entirely unfounded. Not only is it possible to teach soft skills, it’s vital that financial services make a concerted effort to cultivate them.

Weighing EQ and IQ Equally

Emotional intelligence is a catch-all term that includes qualities like communication, empathy, relationship development and collaboration. “Emotional quotient,” or EQ, is a measure of intelligence, like IQ. It’s a quantifiable unit that “scores” an individual’s emotional intelligence. In financial services, IQ can sometimes take precedence over EQ, but both are critical to an advisor’s success.

While advisors need a head for numbers, the ability to connect with clients is just as important. Personal finance can be a sensitive topic, and advisors who can make their clients feel at ease stand head and shoulders above those who can’t.

A high EQ also makes for a more successful manager. Leaders with soft skills are better able to engage team members, motivate them, and ultimately drive greater results for their clients and firms alike. In short, soft skills are a valuable asset in the workplace, and any hiring manager should prioritize them. But employees don’t necessarily have to come equipped with a high EQ to be a great hire—it’s possible to learn soft skills.

Teaching Soft Skills in the Workplace

Creating a culture that prioritizes EQ begins at the top. When company leaders model transparency, respect and candid discourse, employees are more likely to follow suit.

At Stifel (the firm for which I lead advisor recruitment), CEO Ron Kruszewski consistently emphasizes the importance of interpersonal relationships—both within the workplace as well as between advisors and their clients. At the firm’s annual Blueprint for Success conference, Kruszewski spoke to Stifel advisors about the importance of maintaining a high EQ as we enter a new era of technological advancements. As a leader, he prioritizes technology that can enhance advisor-client interactions—not replace them.

Organizations can cultivate EQ in the workplace by making employees feel comfortable speaking openly and respectfully with each other. In practice, that should include rewarding employees who demonstrate both technical and interpersonal skills, and to include soft skills in employee evaluations. If an employee produces quality work but tends to be cold or curt with clients, their manager needs to address it just as any other aspect of work performance.

Soft skills can be taught and learned just as technical skills can, but unlike technical skills alone, interpersonal skills can help an advisor forge client relationships that are built to last.


John Pierce is head of recruiting at Stifel.

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