The ability to digest financial data and related knowledge is important for financial planning practitioners, who also need effective communication skills in order to understand customers' needs and subsequently offer the best possible professional advice.
"People are more willing to talk about themselves in situations where they feel they are being heard. In addition to basic communications, attentive listening skills show clients that we really want to help," says Lofee Lo, financial planning consultant, international personal banking, Citibank Global Consumer Group.
With the bank's support, Ms Lo entered this year's Hong Kong Institute of Bankers Outstanding Financial Management Planner Awards. Her presentation on interpersonal and communication skills earned her a place as a group A finalist. "The experience was extremely rewarding and I've learnt a lot from the judges' comments," she notes.
Effective communication skills are essential for success in the financial planning industry, as they pave the way for long-term trusting relationships with clients, Ms Lo believes. She says, "Quality communication is always a two-way street. We speak to customers about investment opportunities and listen to their financial needs, consolidating crucial personal information to draw up sensible investment plans."
Clients' personal portfolios need to reflect their individual financial situations and tolerance for risk. For this reason, Ms Lo is sensitive to clients' privacy needs and utilise different tools to collect personal background information from them. "For example, instead of asking clients what they earn, we may ask them to rate the prices of certain electrical appliances to get an idea of their financial perception and capabilities."
She notes that by tactfully using indirect indicators and other popular products as reference, she and her colleagues can get an accurate picture of customers' financial situations without asking invasive questions.
Some customers will only disclose important personal information under certain circumstances, so it is crucial that the bank's financial planning practitioners win their trust through sincere interaction.
Frontline professionals at Citibank are supported by a unique Citigold Wealth Planner (CWP) system for analysing customers' personal portfolios. It offers a comprehensive 45-minute questionnaire that ensures clients' understanding of financial terms and proposed plans.
If customers have doubts or concerns over the proposed plans, Ms Lo will explain the related data and information at length: "Some customers, particularly first-time investors, need plenty of time to think things over. The best way to resolve their doubts is to let them know that we have their interests at heart."
After identifying customer concerns, she pulls in support from the bank's consultants on different markets. "They will, for instance, introduce a treasury specialist to customers with concerns over the currency market," she explains.
This part of the process usually takes considerable time and it is an advantage if financial planners can communicate effectively with customers from different backgrounds. "By listening to our customers and getting to know their personalities, we develop an understanding of how to work with them," she points out. "The secret is to find common ground so that we can relate to customers and build relationships," she says.
Contrary to misperception, a career in financial planning is not just another sales job, and Ms Lo does not believe persuasive skills are essential. "We would never push customers to buy a product off the shelf and rush them into a transaction," she says. "Instead, our job is to make our customers aware of the facts and relevant market updates, so that they are able to make informed decisions on their financial future."
Ms Lo's customers include people from a range of industries, from doctors to retail sales staff and airline workers. "Although we are all different, as long as we respect each other, we can always learn and benefit from effective communications," she concludes.