Talk to Her: How to Keep Women Clients

Women control an increasingly large portion of private wealth. That’s good news for advisors who understand the subtle differences in how men and women communicate.

Nearly one-half of every financial advisor’s book is controlled by women, but unless advisors learn the nuances of communicating with these clients, they could disappear at the drop of a hat, said Susan Hirshman, former advisor and author of Does This Make My Assets Look Fat?, who spoke at the Investment Management Consultants Association conference in New York Monday. As proof, consider that if a woman’s husband passes away, research shows she will generally stay with the advisor for less than a year, Hirshman said. After a divorce, forget about it.

It’s a risk most financial advisors would like to avoid. But that means they need to do a better job of keeping women clients happy. Women have a less than 25 percent satisfaction rate with their advisors, said Hirshman, citing a 2004 study by Russ Alan Prince and Hannah Shaw Grove called “Women of Wealth,” sponsored by The National Underwriter Co.

At the IMCA presentation, the room was packed, and men accounted for two-thirds or more of those in attendance. Hirshman has been on this crusade a long time, because the message bears repeating: Women and men communicate differently and this can be an obstacle to building a strong advisory relationship, or at least one that the woman won’t walk away from.

For example, Hirshman says, women tend to nod their heads or use other body language to signal they’re engaged in the conversation; men tend to be more stoic. The problem is that if male financial advisors don’t respond in some visible way, communication will often be broken; women look for signals from the male advisor to show he’s listening.

Hirshman pointed out another hurdle: men tend to focus on finding solutions to a problem right away, while women tend to want to talk through the situation. Men focus on facts and action; women focus on emotion and language, she said.

Of course, not all women are the same. Clients tend to fall into five different segments, according to Alyssa Moeder, a wealth advisor in the private banking and investment group at Merrill Lynch, who also participated on the panel. These include executives, entrepreneurs, women who have inherited wealth, heads of household, and women in transition (who have lost a spouse to divorce or death). Each one requires a slightly different approach.

It’s not just a matter of good communication. Some women have distinctly different needs. For example, they tend to live longer than men which mean they have longer retirements. They may leave the work force at 35 to raise a family, and return later in life, or to find themselves unexpectedly a single mother in middle age; You’re talking about planning for a very long time horizon.

When you are working with couples, sometimes the struggle is to get the wife engaged, or even to show up. Some women leave the financial stuff to their husbands. Advisors should enlist the husband to bring his wife into the conversation, perhaps by discussing the children as a primary motivation for sound planning, whether for college or teaching them financial responsibility. Inviting the kids to events on these topics can also help engage the mother, she said.

And of course, there is the common question: Do women prefer to work with women? “It depends,” said Hirshman, a response that elicited both sighs of exasperation and laughter from the audience. Some women look for an advisor with whom they are more comfortable expressing emotions, regardless of their gender, said Moeder. Women entrepreneurs tend to prefer woman FAs, because they feel they are supporting other female businesses; female corporate executives, on the other hand, did not think that was a valid reason to choose an advisor, she said, though that is changing.

By most accounts, women will continue to gain control of family wealth, either through entrepreneurship or simply being more comfortable making the financial decisions. That’s an opportunity for financial advisors who understand the subtle differences in the communication styles and priorities that women bring to the table.

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