Should investment advisors cede control of client goals to clients? Some experts think so.
Consumers of any product or service are accustomed to yielding to the experts when it comes to a major life event.
After all, a patient awaiting brain surgery isn’t going to lay out a step-by-step “to do” list for the surgical specialist holding the scalpel. Similarly, a tourist hacking through the jungle in Uganda isn’t going to issue a blueprint to the native tour guides on how to find magnificent animals.
That used to be the case, by and large, for financial advisors, as well, especially in laying down the law on financial goals and end-games that often required intricate strategies to achieve.
At least one expert doesn’t believe that’s necessary – at least in the case of financial advisors and client financial goals.
According to Dr. Kristy Archuleta, an associate professor at Kansas State University, who led a recent report entitled “Financial Goal Setting, Financial Anxiety, and Solution-Focused Financial Therapy: A Quasi-Experimental Outcome Study,” it’s perfectly acceptable – even preferable – for clients to create their own “financial goals” plan.
Archuleta’s study focuses on “solution-focused therapy” (SFT), which the report defines as a “clinically proven psychotherapeutic approach that is known to be an effective tool in helping people deal with a variety of issues.”
SFT, Archuleta states in the paper, is a “pragmatic approach based on a theoretical perspective that utilizes helping techniques that focus on client strengths, skills, and attributes rather than past and current problems.” Specifically, a subset of solution-focused therapy “for dealing with financials issues” called solution-focused financial therapy (SFFT) can “help clients reduce financial stress and move towards goal accomplishment,” thus creating a path for financial advisory clients to plan out their own long-term money management goals.
“This is the first study to test this approach in a controlled clinical environment and the potential outcomes of this approach applied to a financial setting are exciting,” Archuleta states in the report. “Not only is the solution-focused approach a model that can be used by financial therapists, but financial planners and financial counselors can also benefit from implementing this approach with their clients . . . and help clients to achieve goals.”
Ideally, Archuleta sees solutions-based behavioral methods as being something of a springboard for financial clients – and not financial advisors – creating their own investment goals. But is that a good idea? Some money managers say yes.
“Clients should set their own goals,” says George Galat, a financial planner at Mosaic Financial Partners in San Francisco. “The advisor should merely be a facilitator in the financial planning dialogue, much like a therapist doesn’t say to their patient suffering from anxiety “stop thinking so negatively, you will be happier.”
That’s not what the patient pays for, they pay for help through the process, changing the way they think, Galat adds. “As advisors, we can’t just say, ‘Save more, spend less,’ and call it a day. Proper financial planning is a dialogue about the positive or negative consequences that arise from choosing a certain option among the many we offer to our clients.”
When he first started creating financial plans with clients, Galat says he would try everything he could to present a “successful” plan. “Often, it would require significant and creative strategies to cut spending here or save more there, in other words, augmenting their initial goals,” he says. “Once the client saw that their plan succeeded, it made implementation of those ideas much harder because they associated their current spending and lifestyle directly with the end result, seemingly forgetting the laundry list of steps they needed to take in order to accomplish their goals.”
That’s why it’s critically important that the financial advisory client understands the outcome of their current trajectory, good or bad, Galat states. “That way, they can internalize the results and make the necessary changes to accomplish those goals,” he says. “Even when it comes to solutions, our role as financial planners and advisors is to show them the options and the consequences of those decisions.”
“The more you inject yourself into that process, the less likely they’ll be willing to heed your advice,” he adds.
Not every money specialist is convinced that handing the keys over to an experienced financial consumer is a good idea.
“This is really a false dichotomy,” says Rasheed Hammouda, CEO at Bridge Financial Technology, a financial technology software company that works with fiduciary advisors. “Goals should be set collaboratively between both advisor and client. Any advisor worth their salt will be able to help their client navigate and better understand their own goals.”
Hammouda believes that having either party of that relationship setting goals unilaterally is a complete waste. “If the advisor doesn’t work to deeply know the client’s needs, desires, fears and proclivities — both good and bad — then their goals will be irrelevant to the real needs of the client,” he says. “If the client doesn’t leverage the expertise and dispassionate advice of an advisor, they may never set the right goals, or go about achieving goals in the right way.”
Who gets the final say on a client’s long-term financial goals is an interesting debate. Certainly, it’s the money manager who brings the specialized expertise to the table.
But clients should have their voice heard, too – even if they don’t get the final say, financial experts say.
“I learned years ago that I cannot spend my client’s money,” says Mike Sena, a certified financial planner in Roswell, Ga. “In the end, it’s their life, their situation and their objectives that drive investment decisions and a productive client-advisor relationship.”
But is it their decision to create their own lifelong financial goals list? Apparently so, even though that scenario could push the expert away from the table, with ample risk in play.