Unlocking Emotional Intelligence To Improve Client Relationships

For every 10 prospects you encounter you might have an introductory conversation with three of them, and one of those three might become a client. While the right product and expertise might help you increase the number who convert to clients, what if there was a way to bring more people in for that introductory conversation? Surprisingly, a bit of emotional intelligence can go a long way.

According to a recent study conducted by MDRT, 85 percent of Americans would be more likely to trust recommendations from financial advisors if they demonstrate emotional intelligence—a staggering statistic amid an era of distrust. In this time of historic turmoil, advisors seeking to reassure, reposition or even retain clients must exhibit genuine empathy and compassion—traits that have come naturally to me throughout my 42 years in the industry. For those to whom emotional intelligence does not come with quite as much ease, there’s still good news: It is a skill that can be learned, honed and perfected with a bit of practice.

The heart of sales
A philosophy developed by Larry Wilson of Counselor Selling that has resonated with me throughout my career is the idea of viewing sales as a bicycle. Ninety percent of the importance is in the front wheel, which represents social skills, while the other 10 percent is technical and product knowledge. Product knowledge is critical, but like a bicycle, it’s useless without the front wheel.

This isn’t just a theory—the data supports it. According to the same MDRT study, Americans are more likely to trust advisors who listen to and acknowledge their clients’ needs (57 percent), communicate in easily understood ways (57 percent), follow through on their word (55 percent), and show they care about their clients as people (52 percent). These majorities contrast with just 30 percent of Americans who say they would be more likely to trust the advice of advisors with up-to-date websites; even fewer (25 percent) say the same for advisors who regularly recommend relevant content. While possessing technical skills like digital literacy makes business operations more efficient, it does not by itself communicate trustworthiness.

Practicing active empathy
In all facets of my life I practice active empathy, spurred by a belief that if someone passes through my life they should be better for it. When I meet with clients, I’m looking for a connection. This starts with an attitude check before a client enters the office. If I’m not uplifting to be around I’m not going to build that connection, so before my meetings I make sure to set aside any negativity I’m feeling and shift my focus to a spirit of generosity and goodwill.

During meetings I focus on asking open-ended questions, beginning with the most critical one: In the short time we have together, what would you like to cover so that when you leave here, you’ll say, “That was a good meeting?” Another critical question I ask most clients is, “What does contentment look like to you?” This helps me understand where their priorities are coming from and how I can help them, while letting them know I’m invested in their success and happiness—if they know good people are pulling for them, it helps motivate them to achieve their goals.

Open-ended questions also provide the benefit of allowing the client room to speak so I can sit back and listen. I’ve made a good living by listening and asking questions—if I talked for more than 50 percent of the meeting, it didn’t go well. I live by this standard in my practice, along with another golden rule about listening: If you don’t know what to say, silence is better. You don’t always have to have the perfect response to everything—sometimes just knowing someone is listening and understanding can make a client feel cared for and heard.

Thoughtful gestures
Meetings aren’t the only opportunities to demonstrate emotional intelligence. Each Monday I begin my day by writing encouraging, handwritten notes to people who I know are struggling. Whether they’re experiencing an illness, injury or other hardship, I know a handwritten note will brighten their day. After all, when I look through my own mail, the first envelopes I open are those that are handwritten. It’s clear these notes have an impact—if I bump into someone around town who I haven’t written to in a while, one of the first questions they ask is, “Where’s my note?” I enjoy writing these notes just as much as others enjoy receiving them—it helps me set a positive intention for the week ahead, which keeps my mood elevated and my focus on my clients and others who turn to me for support.

Sometimes even small gestures can make all the difference. It seems simple, but—outside of the pandemic—a hug or a supportive pat on the shoulder, when appropriate, can make someone feel comforted and secure. That said, these gestures are best if you are confident in your emotional intelligence and ability to distinguish when the person on the receiving end would welcome them.

But with in-person contact limited as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, some of the more physical elements of emotional intelligence are unavailable. That’s not, however, an excuse to let emotional intelligence slide as we continue to build and maintain our relationships. I may not be able to meet face-to-face with my clients right now, but I can still pick up the phone and make sure I’m using a caring voice and supportive statements.

Building emotional intelligence
For me, emotional intelligence is not rocket science—it’s a matter of being kind, using the right words when they’re available, and knowing when to say nothing when they’re not. I recognize that what comes naturally to some may take more practice for others to master. There is an element of emotional intelligence that can be innate—as a young child, I took a test at school that was intended to determine what career would best suit me. It’s no surprise that while engineering and science were listed as areas to avoid, sales was deemed to be my best fit. But even for me, someone who finds meaning through connecting with others, interaction didn’t always come naturally. When I was younger I was quite content to not talk much, and it wasn’t until later that I came out of my shell. You can work on and improve emotional intelligence—and even the most emotionally intelligent people can always get better.

To build these skills, I recommend starting with the basics by reading up on the topic—look for articles and books on interpersonal communication and body language for starters, and put what you learn into action. Professional associations with like-minded peers and resources contain a wealth of knowledge, and I often look to those offered by MDRT for the latest information and opportunities to grow.

Creating an emotional intelligence checklist of sorts, with quick tips like asking open ended questions, doing a mood check before a meeting, and paying attention to body language, is a great way to ensure you’re exhibiting your skills. Eye contact is another important factor, and it helps to look right at a person’s forehead when in conversation with them. Be conscious of your own facial expression, too—having friendly eyes makes you more approachable and helps others open up to you. These little considerations and gestures add up.

Writing notes to people who are struggling, checking in on how they’re doing, offering help where you can, sharing a compliment when appropriate—these eventually become second nature and, before you know it, you’ll be confident in your emotional intelligence. By centering my practice on compassion, empathy and emotional intelligence, I’ve built a large and wonderfully diverse clientele over the years. I’ve written life insurance on a garbage man, a Fortune 500 CEO and everyone in between. Emotional intelligence has set the groundwork for successful relationships with everyone who has come through my door. With time and effort anyone can build the emotional intelligence that will bring clients in the door and lead to lasting, fulfilling relationships.

D. Scott Brennan has been an MDRT member for over 35 years and served as MDRT’s 2013 President.

Brennan has multiple Court of the Table and Top of the Table qualifications and is an MDRT Foundation Legion of Honor Excalibur Knight. He is the 75th recipient of the John Newton Russell Memorial Award.

Brennan can be reached via email at scbrennan@financialguide.com.