How to Use Stories to Motivate Current and Prospective Clients

Journal of Financial Planning: March 2021

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The first thing I noticed when I met Rita was that her hand was shaking when I reached out to greet her. She had a whole stack of papers clutched in her left hand like someone squeezing a life preserver.

Rita’s late husband, Tom, loved poring over their account statements, dutifully tracking the rise and fall of his favorites and double-checking all the numbers.

But after he passed away, Rita was overwhelmed, somewhat angry, and definitely struggling to come to grips with what life was going to look like going forward. “I don’t even know where to begin,” she said.

I smiled reassuringly as I held her hand and said, “It’s OK. You’re in the right place.” I walked her back to my office and just listened. Many of my clients are widows, and I knew that we needed to take our time. I’ve found that questions about goals don’t make sense for someone who just lost a spouse. Instead, we simply sought to understand what was in front of her.

That was six months ago. If you saw Rita today, you would be amazed. She has a spring in her step and her enthusiasm is absolutely infectious. Rita has been meeting with some local nonprofits as she wants to share her time and wealth with others.

The Power of Stories

Do you have a similar story you can tell about one of your clients? I bet you do. The circumstances may be different, but you probably have a story to tell about every client.

Stories provide a wonderful way to connect people and ideas. “A story does what facts and statistics never can: it inspires and motivates. Expert storytellers translate complex ideas into practical examples laced with strong emotional connections. The audience tunes in because they see themselves woven into the story,” writes Daniel Taylor in The Healing Power of Stories.

Stories stay with people. There’s a reason why we remember the stories we heard as children and the movies we saw as teens. According to Jennifer Aaker, a professor of marketing at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, “A story is up to 22 times more memorable than facts alone.” Or as an ancient proverb states, “Tell me the facts and I’ll learn. Tell me the truth and I’ll believe. But tell me a story and it will live in my heart forever.”

Qualities of a Good Story

So what makes a good story for a financial planner to share? Here are three items to consider:

  1. Does the story show a change or transformation?
  2. Is the story relatable to the listener?
  3. Does the story demonstrate your care and expertise?

In his book Storyworthy: Engage, Teach, Persuade, and Change Your Life through the Power of Storytelling, author Matthew Dicks writes, “Your story must reflect change over time.” It can reflect outward change, but for planners and advisers, the change is often internal as a client moves from worried to confident, or from confused to certain.

Financial planners facilitate change every day. It’s no accident that the Financial Planning Association believes in “elevating the profession that transforms lives through the power of financial planning” (emphasis added). Most clients aren’t looking for a financial plan as much as they are looking to see a difference in their lives.

The story should also resonate with the listener. As the story unfolds, he or she should feel like it describes them or someone they know. Perhaps they, too, are worried about their finances. Maybe they have a friend or family member that sounds just like the client you are describing.

If you have a target or niche market, your story should definitely describe the clients that you are best suited to serve. For example, if your niche is highly compensated executives at a local corporation, then you can talk about the executive vice president who didn’t have the time or interest to figure out what to do with his restricted stock units. If you specialize in helping families with special needs children, you can introduce the story of Megan, the 17-year-old daughter of Bill and Janet, who has Down syndrome.

Finally, the story should demonstrate how your care and expertise was instrumental to the change. Perhaps your knowledge of cash balance plans led a client to significantly increase her savings rate. Or maybe you helped Bill and Janet restructure their assets to ensure Megan would always remain eligible for government benefits. As the saying goes, “People don’t care how much you know unless they know how much you care.”

How to Craft a Story

The process of crafting a client story begins with a review of your clients. You might choose a new client that you helped recently, a favorite client, or simply a client situation that best reflects how you work.

Think about what their life was like before they started working with you. What were their needs, their concerns, and their challenges?

You may even want to use the George Bailey technique and extrapolate what their life would have been like if they had never started working with you. Perhaps they were heading toward a financial cliff and you arrived just in time to save them.

Make sure to include non-financial details as well. How old were they? What was their occupation? Was there a triggering event or change in their circumstances that led them to you?

Next, describe how you helped—with a particular emphasis on how you approach things differently from other advisers or planners. It could be that you have designed a process that reflects your experience serving a particular type of client. Maybe you have a unique perspective or insight that helps you uncover the true or underlying issue. You might draw detailed action plans to accompany your financial plans, so clients know exactly where they are and where they are going. Or perhaps you communicate a level of nurture and care such that you reduce anxiety and provide a sense of wellness and optimism.

After sharing your role in the client journey, it’s time for the happy ending. All good stories have a happy ending: the couple falls in love, the hero slays the dragon, etc. How is your client different now? After painting a clear picture of the “before” version of your client, create an equally clear picture of your client now, particularly emphasizing the most dramatic or significant changes.

The more specific the stories are, the more likely they are to be remembered. However, that poses a problem in that you want to maintain privacy and confidentiality for your clients. If you merely change a few names and facts, you run the risk of people putting two and two together and discerning the identity of your clients.

A good way to approach developing client stories is to create a composite client scenario. Think in terms of several clients or families in your niche and blend aspects of their stories to create a client scenario that is typical of the clients you serve but not specific to any one client.

Blended aspects could relate to the number, gender, and age range of family members; the size and scope of a business; and/or the education, background and employment situation of the principals. You could blend information about their needs and goals, what they’re trying to accomplish, as well as their concerns and what keeps them up at night.

How to Share a Story

Once you have a compelling story, it’s time to share it.

When someone asks what you do, instead of focusing on yourself and your services, you can pivot to something like, “Thanks for asking. I’m happy to tell you what I do, but let me start by telling you about my clients.” Then you can share your client story.

Your website is a perfect place to share your client story (particularly if it is a composite story). When prospective clients visit your site, they should feel like they are “home.” What better way to create a connection than to share a story of someone who sounds just like them?

Your social media accounts are tailor-made for sharing stories. Given the choice, your clients and prospective clients would much rather see a feel-good story than a market update or tax tip.

At the end of a client meeting, you can take a few minutes to share the client story. You can begin by saying, “Mr. and Mrs. Client, if you have a minute, can I share something really neat with you?” Then share the client story, noting the similarities (or differences) between the client and the client story, to reinforce how the client is also going through a similar transformation.

You can end that client conversation by saying, “You may or may not know anyone who needs this kind of help right now, but if you run into someone or hear about someone who does, will you give me a call? You can tell me what you know about them and their situation, and if I think I can help, we can talk about the best way to get together.”

As planners, we’re surrounded by numbers and projections. But psychologist Daniel Kahneman said, “No one ever made a decision because of a number—they need a story.” Perhaps it’s time to become a storyteller! 

Adam Kornegay, RCC™, is the co-founder of Pathfinder, a coaching and consulting practice based in Knoxville, Tenn. With a background in marketing and experience as a financial adviser, he helps a broad array of clients, from relatively new advisers to experienced financial planners. He serves as the director of membership for the FPA of East Tennessee.

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