The Third Assumption that Hurts Client Relationships

the third assumptive trap

Click here for the First Assumption and the Second Assumption.

Here’s a (non-autobiographical) tale about the Third Assumption that happened several years ago, but remains timeless:

Once upon a time, I introduced my friend Laura to my friend Chris (fake names!). Laura and Chris dated casually at first, then more seriously, then very seriously. They spent almost all of their free time together. Most nights would find one of them at the other’s apartment. They were the happiest couple we knew for at least three years running.

When Chris proposed marriage, he and Laura were at their favorite restaurant. Over champagne and oysters, Chris dropped to a knee, pulled out a ring, and made what witnesses (Laura) later described as an incredibly sweet, loving proclamation of his love and intent to marry her. Laura said yes, and the next day we all got the news via texts on our flip phones.

But we never saw the wedding invite.  Laura kept finding reasons to postpone the date. Chris began to “get a little weird” (Laura’s terms).  Less than a year after their engagement, the relationship was over.

What happened? And how does it apply to the life of the professional Advisor?

Advisory Trap:  Assuming the Need for Commitment

I’ll tell you what happened:  Chris fell into the same assumptive trap that plagues professional Advisors – assuming the need for commitment.  You propose right action that seems to make total sense for them, but the Client isn’t buying it.

How does this happen?  Sometimes Advisors do it to themselves.:

We fail to ask the right questions. In my love example, it turns out Chris and Laura had failed to discuss Laura’s opinions on marriage and whether she wanted to take that step.

We’ve worked with many developing Advisors who make the same mistake – they hesitate to, or avoid, asking deep enough questions about the Client’s desires, fears, hopes, and dreams. The surface questioning that results leads directly to the second cause…

We interpret needs from the data.  In the absence of the marriage conversation, Chris was left to interpret his chances based on the facts:  He and Laura were best friends, loved spending time together, and were practically cohabitating. Why wouldn’t Laura want to get married?

The problem:  Facts don’t equal Needs! Anyone who’s been there (or near there) knows that marriage is a very unique level of commitment, one that Laura did not feel ready for.

We suffer from Confirmation Bias. We all have beliefs and opinions that filter new evidence and affect our ability to see clearly. When Laura said, “I want to be like that old couple holding hands,” Chris thought, “Laura wants to get married!”

Likewise, we get “Advisor Goggles” when we see the path Clients could take to meet their needs and achieve their goals.  Confirmation Bias helps us hear the alignment but leaves us deaf to contrary evidence (like when Laura called weddings “a total sham”).

In other words, a lot of times Advisors create the trap for ourselves.  But not all time…

Root Cause:  Not Enough of the Right Needs

Sometimes, you can do everything right as an Advisor and still mistakenly assume the need for commitment.  How does this happen?

The Client isn’t forthcoming. If you haven’t built enough trust, or if Clients are less than candid for other reasons, you might not get the whole story.  In this case it’s easy – but still a trap – to assume the need for commitment.  Pro Tip:  If you sense this is the case, consider holding off proposing next steps until can get the truth on the table.

The need isn’t real. Sometimes Clients will share desires without evidence of the need to change.  In other words, there’s nothing compelling them to commit – their desire is just a wish at this stage. Pro Tip:  Take the time to unpack the Client’s expressed needs.  Do the facts support change? What is the Client’s true readiness and ability to change? Willingness often isn’t enough.

They need something else more. Even when Clients share legitimate needs, they may not be the most important needs.  Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is a good illustration of this situation:  If a client has more basic needs that aren’t being met, those unmet needs win.  Pro Tip:  Ask about, and understand, what’s going on in the Client’s whole world, right on down to how they’re physically feeling. You need to understand which needs have primacy and where Clients may be preoccupied.

Inertia supersedes the need.  Turning needs into action is the hardest part when it’s not life or death. If the client sees a need but not the need for action, you risk being derailed by simple inertia – objects in motion tend to stay in that motion unless compelled to change. Pro Tip: Help Clients do see the connection between today’s action and tomorrow’s result…or today’s inaction and tomorrow’s negative result.  What’s the cost of not changing?

Assuming the Need for Commitment = Asking for Dysfunction

Even experienced Advisors can sometimes mistake the desire to change for a need to commit. Sometimes it works out, but sometimes it goes like this:

  1. Client expresses a desire to change (but not the need to start now).
  2. You propose next steps and client agrees.
  3. Client doesn’t do what they agreed to do.
  4. You follow up and encourage Client to take the next step.
  5. Repeat steps 3 and 4 until you give up.

You’re pursuing them and wondering why they didn’t do something they said they would do, when they agreed without feeling a real need. You keep committing more time and effort, but they don’t. That’s not the reciprocal commitment that defines healthy Client relationships…or any relationship, for that matter!

Let’s look back at our love example. Laura agreed to the concept of being with Chris, but not the need to make the level of commitment Chris proposed. Because Chris failed to ask the right questions, he assumed Laura’s love for him would result in a desire to marry him. He was wrong.  Laura’s fault for saying yes when her heart of hearts was saying “maybe not,” but it’s also Chris’ responsibility as the proposer to be clear on the need for his proposal, and to hold his fire if he’s not.

I know that’s unromantic, but in real life, if there isn’t a real need for commitment, you’re pursuing next steps Clients may be too polite to refuse, but not committed enough to actually do.

Assuming commitment eventually leads to stalking!

Strategies for Success: Gaining Reciprocal Commitment

Fortunately, the TRUE Advisors I’ve worked with show us the way.  Here are strategies that work within the constraints of Confirmation Bias and help Clients take right action.

Start by understanding what Clients REALLY need. Take time to understand both what they desire and why they desire. Understand where on Maslow’s Hierarchy they’re preoccupied. Learn their priorities and how they stack their needs up against each other.

Help Clients see the need for next steps. Ask the questions that help them recognize and/or form a desire to act now.  Help them do the math on acting vs. waiting. Ask them to tell you why they might want to get started now.

Withhold your recommendations until Clients are ready. If the above strategies do not yield a need for action, wait.  Don’t propose next steps Clients aren’t clearly ready for – that’s pushy and that’s salesy.

Lead with the Need. When it is time to propose next steps, start by framing your proposal in terms of what they told you they wanted and why. Use their mission, purpose, an desires as anchors to which you attach your proposals.

Make your “because” about meeting their needs. You’d like the Client to do particular things now because it will help them meet needs they told you are priorities.  Use the Client’s reasons, not yours.

Make it SMART. Propose Specific, Measurable Action that’s Realistic and Timely.  If that doesn’t work, make it smarter.

Summary:  Avoid Assuming the Need for Commitment

The moral of the story:  Just because someone needs what they’re getting from you now, it doesn’t mean they need to take the next step in your relationship. Even if they desire a different state, without your help Clients may not feel compelled to take right action now. Avoid assuming the need for commitment or asking for next steps for your reasons.  Uncover and lead with Client needs and your proposals will lead to action, not stalking.  Bottom line: You’ll continue to build trusting – and reciprocal – relationships with Clients.

Dan Smaida is President and Chief Navigator at Boatman Learning Inc