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People looking for a financial adviser often need to know whether a planner is a "heart" as well as a "head" adviser—someone who doesn't just focus on numbers and account balances, but seeks to help clients achieve meaningful life goals.

This need to find a "heart" adviser presents two challenges: One, clients may not consciously know what they are looking for. Two, they may not know what questions to ask in order to find it.

Planners need not wait for clients to raise these important but often unspoken questions. Here's a guide to answering them before they're asked.

1. Are you authentic? Do you live what you teach?

Even before potential clients have decided to hire us, we financial planners often expect them to disclose, in our initial conversations, substantial personal and financial information: their approximate net worth, significant life events like divorces or serious illness, and career or life goals.

Appropriate disclosure about our own experiences can help assure clients that we have been in their shoes. I also find it important to let clients know two things. One, my own portfolio is invested in the same funds and with the same philosophy as those of my clients. Two, my wife and I are clients of another financial planner.

2. Will you listen to me with attention and respect?

Obviously, the most important way to assure clients of our listening skills is to listen more than we talk during initial interviews. In addition, it can help to offer brief examples of how we help clients navigate difficult situations.

For example, I might talk about what I would do if the markets drop and fearful clients want to put all of their money into cash. My approach: First I would assure them they could absolutely get out of the market if they choose. I would give them time to talk about their fear. Then I would ask questions about how would it feel if they did go to cash, how would they know when to get back into the market, and what would they do with the cash. Essentially, I would support them in talking through their fears rather than simply telling them what they should do.

3. Can I trust that you won't judge and criticize me for my financial mistakes?

A useful piece of advice I received years ago was, "When you get up and speak, don't tell them about your successes and how great you are. Tell them about your warts. Nobody can relate to someone who is perfect."

It seems counter-intuitive that telling clients about our own financial screw-ups would help build trust, but that is exactly what it does. Especially, of course, when we also talk about what we learned from those mistakes. When we share our financial warts instead of trying to impress clients with our successes, we offer reassurance that we will not shame or judge them. Ironically, sharing our failures demonstrates genuine confidence and maturity.

4. Does what you do really make a difference for clients?

One of the most rewarding experiences of my career was receiving a letter from the daughter of an elderly client thanking me for my presence in her father's life. The financial and life planning he did helped transform his relationship with money and made a huge difference in his relationships with his family.

Telling too many stories like this can be off-putting. Yet appropriately and briefly sharing such experiences is one way to communicate our passion for and commitment to the work we do.

Essentially, what prospective clients want to know is, "Can I trust you? Not only with my money, but also with my fears, my life challenges, and my dreams?" Even when clients don't put it into words, that is the vital question we as planners need to answer.


Rick Kahler, ChFC, is president of Kahler Financial Group, a fee-only financial planning firm. His work and research regarding the integration of financial planning and psychology has been featured or cited in scores of broadcast media, periodicals and books. He is a co-author of four books on financial planning and therapy. He is a faculty member at Golden Gate University and the former president of the Financial Therapy Association.