I’m 62 years old, so I’ve been dealing with financial advisers for about four decades now. I’ve had some great experiences and some awful ones. And there’s one big difference between the two. It’s not how much money they make me. It’s not how “successful” their practice appears to be. In fact, it’s none of the things many advisers seem to think they have to do to win and keep my business.
It’s how well they listen.
Of course, all the financial advisers think they listen. But they’re often only listening for specific cues: investment objectives, risk tolerance, anticipated big-ticket cash outlays, etc.
But they rarely listen to how I feel about my money. One blind spot in particular appears to be a constitutional inability to understand my ethical concerns. Financial professionals are trained to think about wealth almost exclusively in terms of potential upsides, downside risk, and liquidity. They therefore seem to have trouble registering the fact that I don’t want my money being used for the wrong purposes.
And, yes, I believe there are ethically wrong purposes. I don’t want to finance weapons used on Yemeni children. I don’t want to finance Big Tobacco. And even though it may be an attractive stock on paper, I don’t want to finance Amazon’s further monopolization of online retailing.
You may disagree with my take on these investments. I don’t care. It’s my money, not yours. And I’d rather have you listen and act in accordance with my wishes than be dismissive of my politics.
I’ve found one adviser who really listens. He’s also very responsive when it comes to answering phone calls and emails. He has my business for life. And he’s going to be able to pass my business on to his son, who he is training to take his place. Given my influence among family and friends, he’ll probably get a lot more business than just mine.
I’ve had very different experiences with other advisers at large firms. They’re slow to return calls. They make faces when I explain why I want to avoid certain investments. They pooh-pooh the insight into tech stocks that my 30 years as a technology consultant has afforded me. They wouldn’t help me purchase gold—and instead tried talking me into playing the market with equities. Needless to say, those firms no longer have any of my capital under their management. Nor would I ever recommend anyone do business with them.
Not everyone is like me. But I believe the ethical investment community is growing, and many of us are not going to be satisfied by simply offloading our responsibilities to the managers of so-called “ethical investment” funds. So I recommend that financial advisers think about how they can add value for their clients by listening and by thinking about client wealth as more than just numbers to be pumped up—but as one of the most powerful ways we have of expressing our personal ethical agency in the world.