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We sat down with an expert on cross-generational communication and several young advisors who shared, when it comes to working with clients of all ages, a one-size approach doesn’t fit all.
The aging of baby boomers and rise of millennials have created an ever-widening generation gap in the financial services industry.
Advisors in their 60s and 70s are finding themselves sitting across the table from millennials just starting to save for retirement. On the flipside of that scenario, many millennial advisors are being challenged to build retirement plans for baby boomer clients, who are the same age as their parents or grandparents.
To meet the unique challenges created by this clash of generations, advisors of all ages are having to rethink how they communicate with prospects and clients. For seasoned professionals, the tried-and-true communication methods they’ve used for years may not work with next-generation clients. And for young advisors, the familiar communication techniques they use every day with their peers may not resonate with their older clients.
Hannah Provost, a 30-year-old advisor with Lomanto & Co., a practice in Plattsburgh, New York, has clients who range in age from 20 to 90. She’s found the key to effectively communicating with clients of any age, is to start with her ears.
“I try to listen more than I talk,” Provost said. “Being a good listener spans across generational divides. If people my age are worried they can’t connect with older clients, they should just try listening and having a regular conversation with them.”
By actively listening, especially with older clients, Provost learns their financial goals and concerns, and she is better able to tailor an effective plan, which increases their confidence in her as a young advisor.
Like Provost, Justin Gibson, a 33-year-old advisor with Benson Financial Group in Hannibal, Missouri, believes active listening is the key to bridging the generation gap with his older clients.
“I think it’s important to really just listen. We always talk about, ‘Don't just hear. Actually, listen to the client,’” Gibson said. “Listening is a huge part of bridging that age gap between a younger advisor and an older client. Just listening intently, watching and looking into their hopes, dreams and goals is very important. That goes for older clients but also for young ones, too.”
Jeriod Turner, 31, also of Benson Financial Group, said he prefers to have another advisor in the meeting room, regardless of a client’s age, to help spot verbal and nonverbal cues that may go unnoticed when he is focused on presenting.
Turner can usually spot when a client’s attention is wavering and bring them back into focus.
“But sometimes it’s easier for the person who isn’t leading to see when the client’s not quite following and pause the presentation,” he said.
Gibson admits the way his practice is structured has provided advantages that have helped him avoid some of the communication issues other young advisors may encounter when working with older clients.
In addition to Gibson and Turner, Benson Financial Group also includes 57-year-old Pat Benson and 62-year-old Steve Hill. The two veteran advisors often coach the younger advisors on how to work with older clients and sit in on client meetings, which can alleviate concerns an older client may have about working solely with a young advisor.
During the three years he has worked as an advisor, Turner said he’s leaned heavily on the more experienced advisors in his firm for guidance on how to improve communication with all clients, especially those who are much older than him. Their advice was simple: Be confident.
“The biggest thing is to just be confident in what you know, and don’t assume they’re judging you based on your age,” Turner said. “They’re going to judge you on your experience and your knowledge base. When I was in banking, I had one of the heads of our community bank tell me, ‘They don’t know what you don’t know.’ That’s always stuck with me.”
A customer relationship management (CRM) system can be a valuable resource for keeping notes about a client’s communication preferences, such as how they want to be addressed and what technology they’re comfortable with. The advisors at Benson Financial use their system for storing some of these details and have discussed how they will capture more specific information in the future.
To convey their expertise and help clients feel more confident in their abilities, all the advisors at Benson Financial follow the same process for their client meetings – regardless of a client’s age.
“We want to teach them, so that at some point, whether that’s with us or someone else, they’ll have the confidence to take action,” Gibson said. “It’s about knowledge, confidence and action. If we do it the right way with an intentional heart, then that builds trust.”
Having a process is critical to consistent communication, but Turner said he and the other advisors at his practice also like to keep the format loose and incorporate appropriate humor into their client meetings.
“We really try to have fun in our office. We’re not stuffy,” Gibson said. “We’re not being rude or telling jokes. We just have fun, and I think people see that joy, and it’s contagious. It really loosens up the clients. It lightens the meeting and helps bring down any walls, defenses, preconceived ideas or notions they might have about visiting with an advisor.”
Like all stereotypes, there is an element of truth behind those involving how each generation prefers to communicate. But Provost said she’s learned it can be dangerous to make assumptions about preferred communication methods simply based on a person’s age.
“We’ve offended clients in the past when we’ve said something like, ‘I’ll just send it to you in the mail.’ And they say, ‘Well, why don’t you just email it?’,” she said.
To avoid making a false assumption, Provost now asks each client, regardless of age, how they prefer to communicate. Gibson has also found many of his older clients are far more tech-savvy than stereotypes may indicate.
“We have a good number of older clients who are keeping up with the times and keeping up with technology,” Gibson said. “The biggest thing is letting them know that we’re going to serve them however they want to be served.”
Stereotypes also indicate millennials don’t want the bother of face-to-face meetings. But Provost said she has found the opposite to be true. Instead, it’s her baby boomer and Generation X clients, who are busy with careers and raising families, that often prefer to communicate electronically rather than come into the office for a meeting.
Because Benson Financial serves clients as far away as Texas and New Mexico, it has employed screen-sharing technology when holding long-distance meetings with clients, most of whom are younger and more tech-savvy, Turner said.
“Some of our older clients prefer to actually plan the trip back and see us face to face, so, we give them that option,” Turner said.
To some, the stereotypical older client might be more direct and business-like in their approach to communicating with an advisor. However, Provost said it’s her millennial clients who are more likely to skip the small talk and cut to the chase during a meeting.
“Younger people usually have a lot more anxiety about their money, so they want to make sure they get everything right,” she said. “They’re actually usually more to the point. Whereas, our older clients who are more established could spend an hour in our office talking about their grandkids.”
Even with all the communication tactics she employs, Provost admits sometimes it isn’t possible to bridge the generation gap with some older clients who feel more comfortable working with a more experienced advisor.
“When it’s a negative difference, then that might not be a good client for us, and that’s okay. I don’t take it personally, I just move on,” she said.
It isn’t just clients who are hitting retirement age. The average financial advisor is in their mid-50s, and many are heading into retirement themselves, which means the future is bright for young advisors with the communication skills to successfully bridge the generation gap, Gibson said.
“We have a lot of value to bring, just for the simple fact that we’re going to be here and be present,” he said. “We’re not going to be looking at retirement at the same time clients are looking at retirement. So that creates a tremendous opportunity for young advisors.”
Jeff Siestra, BFA™
Senior Manager, Practice Management Coaching
Securities offered through Securities America, Inc. Member FINRA/SIPC. Advisory services offered through Securities America Advisors, Inc. Securities America is separate from all other entities named.