When you took a job as a financial advisor, you probably didn’t think you’d need to bring a sense of humor to work every day. However, we’ve come to learn from various studies and anecdotal evidence that injecting lightheartedness into your job is not only helpful, but also a crucial tool to growing trust in your client relationships.
One of the most important things to remember about humor in a professional setting is that it’s not about telling jokes. It’s about storytelling. WealthManagement.com reporter John Kador once wrote, “A humorous anecdote can disarm a prospect or client, especially when the subject is difficult, such as life insurance or long-term care.” Indeed, you’re in this business to help make financial decisions less scary and intimidating. Laughter actually primes the brain to accept difficult information and enables us to process it in new and different ways. This neuroplasticity is why humor in business is so effective.
There are some great examples out there of companies getting humor right in their marketing, and we can use these for inspiration. I love the MassMutual commercial where two parents contemplate which of their three young children will grow up to provide them financial assistance. Each kid engages in a different, hilarious, logic-defying activity that makes the parents wonder out loud if they should just hedge their bets on having another child more likely to be successful. Similarly, a Northwestern Mutual print ad with a hilarious photo of a baby caught in a wide-eyed surprise-face moment has ad copy that reads, “Babies cost how much? A financial plan can help.”
Here are a few tried-and-tested do's and don’ts to guide you as a financial advisor in applying humor in your interactions with clients, to ensure your approach elicits smiles instead of frowns.
- Personalize the experience with a story or two. Humor-led storytelling can go a long way to help you educate your clients. Just bear in mind that a healthy approach to humor is more about humanizing the story than the punchline. Find ways to interject humorous-but-meaningful stories that you’ve been through, or with permission, that others have been through, to illustrate pitfalls and best practices. Displaying this vulnerability is a great way to engage your clients, help them grasp difficult concepts, and ease their nerves about making financial decisions. It always helps to know you’re not the only one going through a tough situation.
- Get a sense of your client’s sense of humor. As a financial advisor, you work with clients of all backgrounds, with varied beliefs and values. What one person may find amusing can differ greatly from others. The same way you wouldn’t prepare the same financial plan for a baby boomer as you would for a millennial, you should also customize your approach to humor. For example, if you know a client is especially risk averse, you might respond to a temporary dip in the markets with, “Remember in spring 2020 when the markets crashed? We didn’t sell all your stocks and put your cash under your mattress then. And I don’t think we should now. It would be very lumpy.”
- Read the room and pivot if necessary. If your wit isn’t a hit, you want to be aware when your time is up before getting the vaudeville hook. Reading the room successfully is a skill shared by all good comedians—and financial advisors who can do this effectively are all the wiser. Pay close attention to your clients’ reactions to your approach. Some of the most telling feedback is non-verbal; if they appear uncomfortable or don’t go along with your humor, learn to pivot and come back with a different kind of energy.
How to avoid misuse of humor with clients:
- Miss me on the cringe. When discussing financial planning, many of your clients may already be nervous enough as it is. Using humor to ease the tension can be a highly effective tool, but make sure to set some boundaries and clearly understand those limits. Going too far—when it becomes socially awkward—comes with a cringe factor that can lead your client to greater discomfort than they had before. If you’re using self-deprecating humor, avoid sounding like you’re looking for pity, as in this example: “You’re going to want to include this provision in your estate plan. I would’ve done so myself if it wasn’t for a certain ex-spouse. ...”
- Like at a family holiday dinner, forego politics and religion. I had an experience where a financial advisor tried to sell me on additional services by pointing out, in a bit of a guilt trip, that it would align with my religious beliefs (e.g., “Don’t you believe in this? It’s what you preach at the pulpit, right?”). While I could appreciate that he was trying to relate to me, I thought it was in poor taste. You want to avoid being flippant about a client’s priorities, so when it comes to political and theological ideologies, you’re better off saving that for the comedy club.
- You’re not giving a Saturday Night Live monologue. Don’t ever feel the pressure that you have to be funny or witty. Your job isn’t to go up in front of clients and prospects to deliver a late-night sketch show monologue that has people guffawing. Focusing too much on telling jokes comes off as forced and unnatural, when what you really want is to have an authentic dialogue. So, if your idea of humor is somewhere in the “knock-knock joke” neighborhood, it’s best to dial it down a notch.
If you look up, “jobs for funny people,” generally you won’t find financial advisory or wealth management listed at the top. But that’s okay—because you’re not in the business to be funny. You are, however, in the business of relationships, and it’s clear that coming to the table with your own, authentic brand of humor and levity will help build solid relationships with your clients.
Paul Merchan is a Senior Vice President at Peppercomm.