Do you remember the scene in the movie City Slickers in which Jack Palance, who plays the old cowboy, asks Billy Crystal, “Do you know what the secret of life is?” Palance continues, “One thing. Just one thing. You stick to that and everything else don’t mean (expletive deleted).” Crystal, in the midst of a midlife crisis, is transfixed by the exchange. He asks, “But what’s the ‘one thing’?”

Palance’s timing is perfect. He smiles and replies, “That’s what you gotta figure out.” Then he rides away.

How Do You Find Out?

In the movie, Crystal figures it out by saving the calf in the river. But there are less physical ways to find your one thing. In their book The ONE Thing, Gary Keller and Jay Papasan offer a suggestion that, in my opinion, is beautiful in its simplicity. They gently help you focus and organize your priorities by asking, “What’s the ONE Thing I can do such that by doing it everything else will be easier or unnecessary?”

This really resonates with me. I coach hundreds of client-facing financial advisors every year, and my first task in every one of those engagements is to determine the one area of their business that will return the most benefit for the effort required to reengineer or improve it. When you’re managing a robust business, with dozens of uniquely successful clients who demand the highest standard of care, there isn’t much time for improving processes. In most cases, advisors can make only one meaningful change at a time, and maybe just one or two in a year.

This means that if you’re going to meaningfully improve your business this year, you must choose wisely.

One Thing That Can Transform Your New Business Outreach

I started working with financial advisors in 1991. After 30 years of coaching, I’m confident that there’s one thing you can do to revolutionize your outreach activities: shift your focus from what you do for clients to having conversations about what the prospect actually needs.

Presenting a list of products and services that you provide as the way to convince a prospect to hire you doesn’t work. But it’s hard to break the habit. You spend all day explaining your products or providing services, so it’s instinctive to see what you do for clients as valuable to clients.

The result is that most advisors spend those first precious moments with a prospect talking about what they do and hoping the listener hears something he likes. The typical practice brochure is a great example of this pattern; it’s filled with lists of the services and solutions the team provides.

Unfortunately, these long lists don’t motivate a prospect because most are irrelevant to what she thinks she needs. In some cases, the lists activate the tendency to use narrow framing as a way to cope with the pain of too much complex data. Narrow framing is how the brain unconsciously edits information out of awareness—precisely what you don’t want to happen.

It’s All About Them, Not About You

The one thing that you can do that will make the biggest difference in your outreach efforts is to focus intensely on the other person. The first step is to grab the listener’s attention. The best way to do that is to tell him something true about himself that he didn’t know. This is always a surprise and tends to galvanize curiosity and attention.

While this may sound difficult, it’s actually easy. Because narrow framing is a common reaction to complexity, almost every prospect has an impoverished perspective on his financial life and has left many important elements out of his financial plan. Most advisors limit their engagements to a narrow range of advice, most often centered on investments. As a result, you can be confident that all the people you speak with are missing something that can end up hurting them or are neglecting things that they should be taking advantage of.

Uniquely successful people inevitably create complicated financial lives that they don’t thoroughly understand. This means that you, as a financial professional, know more about what they need than they do.

Start by being curious about the other person. Ask some open-ended questions, such as “What has been your experience working with a financial advisor?” and “What has your experience with investing been like?” These queries allow you to explore the prospect’s background and may teach you what to focus on and what to avoid. They also establish a conversational flow that leads to a natural reciprocity. After the prospect speaks and shares her experience, there’s an instinctive contract set up that allows you to share a related occurrence with her.

Now’s the time to share your insight about what most people are missing in their financial plan. This spontaneously stimulates a powerful burst of curiosity. The listener naturally applies the insight to herself and wonders what she has neglected. Importantly, don’t simply list what people have often overlooked; explain the implications of doing so. This activates the prospect’s curiosity and motivates the desire to hear more.

Many client-facing advisors find it helpful to create a checklist of the most common elements that investors are likely to be missing from their financial plan. This helps to solidify your insights and increases the power of the information. After a few minutes of conversation, you can offer to send your checklist and set up a time to discuss it at greater length. For help building such a checklist, ask your AllianceBernstein wholesaler for our Financial Uncertainty Preparedness Checklist. It lists more than 40 wealth-management and investment-management strategies that help investors have greater confidence in the thoroughness of their financial plan.

For more resources from the AB Advisor Institute visit

The views expressed herein do not constitute research, investment advice or trade recommendations and do not necessarily represent the views of all AB portfolio-management teams.

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