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Helping Prospects Overcome Three Fundamental Planning Obstructions

Often all it takes is the right "nudge" to get them started.

After seeing an announcement recently for an interesting program on how to get people to plan, I asked myself, “You’ve worked for years with individuals and advisors in all kinds of markets. Why do you think some people won’t do their financial and estate planning?” After considerable thought, I concluded that the answer is, “Because.”

I could offer a far more expansive version of that answer, replete with such usual suspects as inertia, time constraints, misunderstanding, mistrust, disinterest, defensiveness, fee sensitivity, misalignment about money between spouses, family dysfunction and plain old preoccupation with the daily pursuit of happiness. But I don’t think I need to go there, which is good because I don’t now how I’d ever get back. So, I’ll rephrase my answer this way, “Maybe it’s because we make it too hard for them to get started.”

Three Fundamental Obstructions

Here are some ideas about how planners can get started on helping prospects get started on their planning. As I noted above, there are innumerable obstructions keeping prospects from seeing their way clear to plan. I’ll leave most of those obstructions to the psychologists and marriage counselors. I’ll focus on three fundamental obstructions by grouping prospects into those who:

  • Seem to lack a sense of urgency;
  • Although motivated, don’t have a frame of reference to see the big picture and appreciate the value of both planner and plan; or
  • Are intimidated or simply put off by the perceived complexity, time commitment and expense of the planning process.

A Nudge in the Right Direction

Collectively, these prospects are likely to be “obstructed” from engaging in a traditional, comprehensive planning engagement initially presented the typical way. What might the planner do instead? My idea is to start by giving prospects a nudge, just a nudge, in the right direction. I define a “nudge” as a crisp, highly focused interaction that pushes the right buttons to get them moving. Of course, the set and sequence of buttons has to be right for each prospect. If not, what’s intended as a nudge from a planner will come across as more of a shove from a noodge.

A planner should be able to discern what the obstruction is from a prospect’s early messaging and body language. That, in turn, suggests which version of the nudge to start with. The planner gives the nudge at the very outset of the meeting, maybe right after, “Would you like coffee?” With variations on the theme, the nudge encourages the prospect to tell the planner what’s on their mind, what they’re concerned about, what they need help with and so forth. Obviously, the prospects are there for a reason. They’ve probably been waiting for an opportunity to get some things off their minds and out on the table with someone who can help them.

The savvy planner will let them get it out, even helping them to express it. And then, without any further adieu, the planner will cut to the chase in a way that tells the prospects they’ve been heard and they’ve come to the right place. That should allow the prospects to relax, reset and become engaged in the planning process.

Lack of Urgency

Every planner has met with prospects who display a kind of “laissez faire” attitude about the need to plan. Apparently, “whenever” is soon enough.

Why don’t they have a sense of urgency? Could be for a lot of reasons, but a good guess is that they haven’t had enough experience themselves or seen enough among family and friends to appreciate all that could go wrong with their situation writ large. Whatever the root cause, it’s doubtful that these prospects will be motivated by the usual presentation of a traditional planning process. They need a nudge.

The “sense of urgency” nudge would have two distinct parts. One is a clear, succinct, bullet point, but still comprehensive presentation of the typical prospect’s most proximate risks to cash flow and capital. That is, the “what if’s.” The other part is an equally clear and succinct bullet point presentation of how to address those risks and, of course, the role the planner can play in that regard. This two part presentation, rote for most planners, should lend itself to a matrix that will fit on one page.

Creating the presentation will be a lot easier done than said because it speaks in very specific generalities. But it should still leave the prospects shaken and stirred, because they’ll now understand the significant risk they take by not attending to the risks they have. And they’ll act. Of course, they’ll tell their friends about what the planner enabled them to accomplish and how they’ll be starting on a comprehensive plan in the near future.

No Frame of Reference

Without being able to see the big picture of what planning can do for them, these prospects could be reluctant to make the investment of time and effort to do comprehensive planning. And, in all likelihood, a traditional presentation of the planning process just won’t be promptly incisive and illuminating enough to paint that picture for them.

The nudge for these prospects is a three-tiered timeline diagram that’s “generically personalized” for that type of prospect. What’s more, the diagram is all about visualization. After all, it’s about a picture. The first tier shows each of the financial lifecycle phases that the prospects will pass through. The second tier notes the personal, financial and tax implications and issues associated with each phase. The planner helps the prospects visualize and articulate their desired outcome at each phase, giving some general guidelines for measuring progress and transitioning to the next phase. The third tier shows the basic planning steps appropriate for each phase, while also foreshadowing how steps taken today can can go a long way towards reducing the stress and expense of achieving the desired outcome for the next phase. Like the tool in the first nudge, the diagram is also a lot easier done than said. Speaking of outcomes, the desired outcome from this nudge is, “Ah, now we see. Now we get it. Let’s get started.”

Intimidated Prospects

Prospects in this third group might actually fit in one of the first two groups. But there could still be something here that calls for more of a nuanced nudge. Sure, the planner might detect a sense of urgency and the grasp of the big picture, but when the planner is done with the usual presentation and a preview of the fact-finder or questionnaire, the prospects balk at gearing up to expend the time and effort to get there from here. This isn’t a good place for either planner or prospect, neither of whom will benefit from retreading the same ground in the hope of a different outcome.

The nudge in this case is a stopgap, based on the “what if” used with the first group. The difference is the timing of applying the nudge, because the obstructions weren’t evident at the outset. So, the planner might say, “Okay, I understand you may not be ready for a full planning engagement (or whatever), but let me walk you through this short list of questions, I call them the “what ifs” so that we can identify the most pressing of the concerns that brought you here. We can take care of these and leave the rest of the plan for later. Does that work?” I bet the answer will be, “Yes.” And before they know it, the prospects, now clients, will have that memorandum of instructions for the surviving spouse that they’ve been promising themselves for the last 10 years but just couldn’t get around to doing. Or maybe they’ll have that long-sought objective guidance on what to with their life insurance policies. Whatever. The stopgap will have addressed their primary concerns and given them a sense of accomplishment. What’s more, it’ll soon have them saying, “Hey, that was pretty easy. Let’s finish the plan.”

As noted, these are just some ideas for motivating prospects to plan. Maybe they’ll give planners a nudge to think about and share their own approaches to motivating these prospects.


Charles L. Ratner is a commentator on life insurance and estate planning based in Cleveland, Ohio.

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