Advisor, therapist ... soul mate? Unique takes on client relations

Financial advisors are deepening their relationships with clients by addressing their intellectual, emotional and social needs.

In addition to their traditional roles as financial planners, advisors are serving as thinking partners, therapists, surrogate family members and community organizers.

Financial Advisor and clients
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The result? Very high client-retention rates and healthy practice growth.

"Advisors are becoming much more holistic," said Kathleen Roth, certified financial planner and partner with Waterstone Financial Services. "In the past, we were the technical expert interfaces between the client and the marketplace. Now we're helping them make their life work."

These holistic approaches help clients on individual, family and communal levels.

Individual cognition and emotions

Roth, who works primarily with newly divorced and widowed women, uses her background as a special education teacher to teach her clients thinking skills. She recognizes that her clients' stress levels make it difficult for them to cope with financial planning.

"I take on the role of a thinking partner, helping them cultivate their thinking to reach a solid decision," she said. "I bring information down to their level and create levels of learning.

"I also help them process their thoughts in a structured way."

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This approach builds trust, said Roth, who counts her relationship-building skills as a major contributor to her 95 percent client retention rate over the past 25 years.

Some advisors are helping clients recognize their emotional relationship with money.

"We use a very relational approach to financial planning, as we have clients do two to three hours of therapeutic exercises and debrief them with our staff therapist," said Rick Kahler, CFP, owner of Kahler Financial Group and co-author of three books on financial psychology.

In addition to traditional data-gathering, clients are given a series of Web-based homework assignments, which include filling out a questionnaire to uncover unconscious beliefs about money and drawing sketches of a personal money history and family dynamics chart.

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"People tell us things they don't tell their clergy or therapists," he said. "There's no other place for them to discuss money issues."

"Our retention and bottom line has been positively affected," added Kahler, who started this form of practice in 2000. "Clients view us as an integral part of their financial and emotional support team, as opposed to just a money manager where worth is measured only by alpha."

Kahler's practice has seen a retention rate of more than 90 percent, with an average growth rate of 15 percent per year.

Surrogate family

Some advisors set out intentionally to become part of the client's extended family.

"One of my priorities is the practice of my style of 'family' with all the clients by all the team," said Susan Spraker, CFP and CEO of Spraker Wealth Management. "My style is to develop intimacy in the client relationship, from the first interview to 25 years down the road working together."

Constancy is an important factor in relationship-building, she said.

"Practicing here for 30 years, developing and mentoring a growing team around me who can and do execute what I do and how I do it, being always ready to give advice in all realms of life, have solidified these relationships over time," Spraker added.

"I still talk to all of my clients," she said. "If I haven't spoken to them in several months, I take the responsibility to call them or sit in on a meeting. It's very important that the person who initiated the relationship stays in the relationship."

Spraker and her staff take copious notes on Salesforce and capture names of other professionals, doctors, Realtors, movers, roofers, auto auctions, etc.—good and bad, local and distant. In this way, they serve as a central resource for clients' non-financial needs.

She believes her "family" style has contributed to the practice's 20 percent annual growth rate since heading up her own firm in 2008.

"Style and expertise are of equal importance," she said.

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Community

LotusGroup Advisors celebrates its clients by creating a valuable community for them and focusing on their happiness.

"Most firms spend their marketing budgets for prospects, but we prioritize our money toward our clients," said Andy Seth, managing partner. "We track inputs and outputs related to client relationships. It's part of how we measure the firm's success."

One of these inputs looks at the success of client-centered events.

"We bring our community of clients together four times a year and provide not only drinks and dinner and fun but we also include a local facilitator to help them have meaningful interactions with each other," he said.

"We're selling our value add, which is the relationship, along with a feeling and a spirit of love." -Andy Seth, managing partner at LotusGroup Advisors

The purpose of these client-only events is not business development, he said, but to build fans.

Another metric is the firm's annual client happiness survey and interviews, conducted by a third party. The goal is to get a score of 90 percent or above, with life-impacting stories.

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Seth said that this approach has a great deal to do with the firm's retention rate of 90 percent and its average annual growth rate of 25 percent per year over the past eight years.

"We don't sell Lotus Group; we sell around it," he said. "We're selling our value add, which is the relationship, along with a feeling and a spirit of love."

—By Deborah Nason, special to CNBC.com