Coaching Curriculum

How can you merge the coaching service model into your planning services for the benefit of your clients?

Saundra Davis, of Sage Financial Solutions in Pinole, CA, describes herself as a Financial Fitness Coach, and offers a learning program (http://sagefinancialsolutions.org/ffc/) for advisors that sits at the intersection of financial planning technical advice, life planning and coaching clients to reach their goals.  “I encourage financial planners to stop calling themselves financial coaches,” she says, “and instead, use coaching skills and say, I am a financial planner who uses a coaching approach.  Otherwise,” she says, “you diminish the breadth and depth of the knowledge that financial planners bring, that no one else brings.”

The resulting hybrid service model combines the best of three different disciplines into something that looks very much like the advice model of the future.  Davis has spent her career developing the best ways to integrate coaching into the technical planning advice that you already offer.  The process starts with some of the life planning skills that help advisors understand, not just their clients’ financial situation, but their goals and the “why” behind the goals. 

“Often what financial planners call ‘discovery’ is actually just data gathering,” she says.  “They may learn what someone wants, but they may not find out what’s important to them.” 

Davis encourages advisors to give up the idea that the professional should be in control of the conversation and relationship.  “What I find most challenging for CFPs is that they’re used to giving answers,” says Davis.  “But they are not necessarily great at asking good questions, or they may be in the habit of asking questions that they think they already have the answer to.”  In coaching, she adds, the questions are there for the purpose of the client’s self-discovery.  “What do they want out of the relationship?” she says.  “But even more deeply, what are they looking for out of themselves?  Even the best plan, if the client doesn’t execute, doesn’t do any good.”

So before we leave the first couple of discovery meetings, what is different about a financial planner who uses a coaching approach, from a financial planner who has mastered the life planning skills?

“George Kinder’s work, and Susan Bradley’s Financial Transitionist training, and Money Quotient, they do a really good job of helping an advisor know how to get information from the client,” says Davis.  “I don’t know that there’s a deep a focus on what the client actually has to do to make the plan work.  I help with that piece.”

The idea that the client has to be the primary participant in the financial planning process may be new to some readers, but Davis says that it is always and forever the client who has to turn goals into accomplishments.  “I would contend that the only place where the client is not responsible for the plan is with investments,” she says.  “Every place else, the client has to do the work.”

She cites the classic situation where a client has been overspending for years despite constant correcting advice, and the advisor feels powerless to avert a certain financial disaster in retirement.  “We all know that advice cannot fix behavior,” Davis says.  “And so the planner who is using coaching skills will deploy different tools and techniques and skills for the client to come to their own awareness, and for the clients to decide what they are willing to do.”

That’s the goal of the initial discovery process.  Then Davis encourages advisors to do something that many of them will find a bit radical: co-create the financial plan with the client, allowing the client to drive the process, make choices, and adjust goals as the advisor presents and iterates different versions of the numbers.  This allows planners to weave their expertise into the client’s self-planning process, matching dollars to goals and talking through what’s possible.

From there, the client drives the agenda throughout the relationship.  “At the start of every client meeting, the first question is: What are we talking about today?” says Davis.  “And at the end, it is: What are you going to do between now and when we meet again?  And when we’re done, you each have given yourself a couple of homework items.”

Let’s say the client says in one review meeting that she really needs to set up a 529 plan for her kids, and revisit her insurance policies.  At the next meeting, the advisor doesn’t start the meeting with: What have you done about that 529 plan you were talking about?  Instead, it’s the same question: So; what are we talking about today?

And the client may say, Saundra, I just got a letter from the IRS, and that’s what we’re talking about today?

This makes it sound like there’s no accountability in this ongoing coaching process, but Davis says that accountability is actually a big part of it.  “Sometime during the meeting, the advisor might say: ‘So, last time we were together, you mentioned that you wanted to set up a 529 plan. How is that going?’” she says.   “But the client is always in control.  And that,” Davis adds, “is what financial planners are most uncomfortable with.  Sure, it’s the planner’s job to support accountability, but it is also the planner’s job to help clients remember that they have the power to create the financial life they want.  The planner is holding that place for them, but they shouldn’t forget who owns the power.”

But isn’t it the planner’s job to make sure all those things are done, and to DO them on behalf of the client?  Davis says that this misunderstands the role of a professional.  “When you go to a doctor, and the doctor says: Okay, these are the things that you’re going to have to do if you want to live to 110,” she says, “would you then say: Okay doc; how are you going to make those things happen?  The doctor gives us advice, but the work is ours to do.”

This ongoing process of helping and supporting clients in their work to achieve their goals—coaching plus expert advice to help clients navigate through the complexities of their financial challenges—actually answers the ancient question that has plagued the life planning movement since it was first introduced: Once I’ve done a great job of helping clients uncover their life goals, how do I add value after that?  What am I doing in the ongoing relationship that justifies my fees?

And, of course, the discovery process actually never ends.  Whenever the client climbs those mountains and achieves the goals outlined in that initial meeting, he or she will look up and see new mountains, new goals.  “It is always ongoing,” says Davis.  “There are always steps forward, and steps back.  You have a global pandemic.  Kids grow up, go away, boomerang back—and the planner is that trusted advisor who has both the knowledge and the skill to be able to sit with people and hear their deepest, darkest fears, and their greatest possibilities, and hold that in front of them as they develop a plan to reach it.”

The Financial Fitness Coaching program has two components.  Both start with 3-day in-person training, where advisors can be present in San Francisco or they can attend virtually.  (The next three days will be January 28, February 4 and February 11.)  Davis offers instruction in how to weave coaching into your service model, and then there are six weeks of training calls, including a practicum which teaches advisors how to apply the knowledge in real world client situations, ending when the advisor offers actual coaching services to an actual client.  This offers 12 CFP CEUs.

Some advisors will stop there.  Others will go on to further training, which can lead to the FCC certification; the training takes anywhere from six to nine months of what Davis describes as ‘mentor coaching;’ working in a class of advisors who are mentored in coaching skills, going over case studies and acquiring experience hours.  At the end, participants demonstrate their skills by submitting a recorded coaching session for evaluation, and there is a final exam.  If you achieve the FFC certification, there are ongoing CE requirements.  The first module costs $1,750 and the full certification is priced at $3,500.

What are planners’ reactions once they’ve taken the course?  “There is some discomfort at the beginning,” says Davis.  “Planners often feel like they have to have a semblance of control; after all, they’re planners because they like to plan.  They create and present the plan, and then they have a schedule by which they meet their clients, and check on the plan and their portfolio—and all of that is put aside.”

In addition, she says, advisors will think: If the client has all the answers, what am I here for? 

“And the truth is, you are there because you’re the planner,” says Davis.  “The coaching process doesn’t take away from your expertise.  It gives you a different way to offer your expertise, so that it feels more accessible to the client, and the client becomes equally committed to the actions of the plan as they are to the plan itself.”

With life planning, Davis says, the client can buy into the plan.  “But with coaching,” she adds, “what you’re seeking is ownership of the plan. I’m glad that you love the plan.  I’m glad that this feels manageable for you.  What I’m wondering is: how are we going to do this?

Unfortunately, this article can’t distill all of the insights that Davis’s coaching program provides.  I asked about how the advisor and client come to an agreement about how accountability is going to work, but Davis says that it is an evolving agreement.  “There’s nuance, there’s understanding about when is it the highest and best service to the client to push, and when is it the highest and best service to the client to hold back a bit?” she says.  “When is it best for them to meander a bit, to discover, and when do you bring it to the bottom line?”

There are a lot of programs out there today that teach you how to be a coach, even to be a life coach, and like a handful of other advisors Davis has participated in a number of them.  The difference here is that Davis teaches coaching skills without losing sight of the planner’s primary role as a professional, and offers a model that integrates the best planning with the coaching skills that have proven to benefit people who need structure, accountability and a thinking partner to help them move forward.

Davis is fully aware that people don’t change their service model easily, even if there are demonstrable benefits.  There was a lot of initial resistance when the life planning skillset was introduced, and only gradually has it made it to the mainstream.  Davis teaches a planner coaching course at Golden Gate University, and says that many of the advisors walk into the class with a skeptical attitude.

“But through the course, they learn that coaching does not diminish the expertise or the magic of planning,” she says.  “The relationship that you create not only doesn’t diminish the client’s need for you; it actually, more often than not, increases it, because now you’re a trusted partner, not only a trusted advisor.  It does magic for the planner’s spirit to know that the client is leading the charge, and that you’re there for support.”