Life Goals

By John E. Girouard
December 1, 2008


When coaching other financial planners, I’ve realized that too many of my peers are caught up in trying to make clients comfortable, too eager to prove their trustworthiness. They have it backward. My role in my clients’ lives is to make them uncomfortable enough to talk about themselves in an honest way. This is how you build trust, which leads to comfort, which leads to loyalty. It’s good planning and good business.

Your job would be easier if clients focused less on how much money they think they need and could tell you what they’d like to do with the third act of their lives. Often, they have trouble articulating this, but that shouldn’t stop you from trying to find out. Encouraging people to ponder the purpose of their lives can trigger life-changing conversations that lead to successful outcomes and grateful clients. I ask all new clients, before I’ve done any planning, to write down the five things they would ultimately like to be known for, or to have accomplished or achieved. This exercise can be a bit awkward, but it allows people to express what they intuitively know and give it substance that they can act on.

Soul Searching

This soul-searching exercise is part of an intake process, refined over the past three decades, that requires patience and a well-tuned ear. Financial planners I work with are often in a hurry to win the confidence of clients so they can move on to selling products that help them meet commission targets. Instead, I tell them to take a deep breath, lean back and listen up.
I have two basic rules of engagement. First, when new or prospective clients show up for the first meeting clutching a folder bulging with financial records, I tell them, “I don’t want to know anything about you financially. Put away the account statements and tax returns, and let’s talk. I want to get to know you.” The first three meetings with new clients are about their lives, not their money. Before I start crunching numbers, I want to know the role or purpose of money in their lives, and about the life they’d like to be living in retirement.

Same Income, Different Goals

Two different clients may have the same number in mind for retirement income, but they may also have opposite life goals. One may have lived in the same house for 40 years and can’t wait to travel and see the world. The other may have spent his or her entire career traveling and never want to step on another airplane as long as he or she lives. Those life experiences suggest two different financial plans.

My other rule is that I insist both spouses participate in the process. Many a husband has assured me, “My wife doesn’t care about all that. She lets me handle it.” It makes no difference if the prospect has $500,000 or $5 million. If a couple is involved, I want to get to know them as a couple or I won’t take them on.

In our frantic culture, people yearn for connection. The family doctor is extinct, the trusted lawyer has become part of a big firm, families are spread to the winds and we barely know our neighbors. Financial planners are uniquely positioned to play the most important role in people’s lives. To do that, we need to spend less time showing how smart we are and more time showing we care.

It’s a different business model from hitting your sales marks. But the extra time you spend up front cements a relationship that will pay for itself in the long run. You won’t earn a commission right away. But these clients are more likely to stay with you.

John E. Girouard ( is author of The Ten Truths of Wealth Creation, CEO of Capital Asset Management Group in Bethesda, Md. and founder of the Institute for Financial Independence.