One of the most eye-opening moments for me, as CEO of SUM180 and 15-year veteran of the financial services industry, took place last year as I was listening to a client respond to a typical piece of financial advice. The SUM180 development team had been conducting an intense series of case studies, following clients through a typical financial planning process to discover what worked for them and what didn’t.
One of our case study subjects, a very bright, professional woman in her early forties (I’ll call her Lori) had submitted her personal information to an existing financial planning service. In due course, Lori received a large report packed with dense financial information and recommendations. At the top of this report, which was over half an inch thick when printed out, Lori read the following admonition:
Lori’s response to this message was visceral and immediate. She froze and pushed away the report. “My stomach hurts,” she told us. “I don’t want to do this anymore.”
Lori had been nervous about the financial advisory process from the beginning, and now, she said, reading the report had solidified her worst fears. Hearing that she was “28 to 38 years behind where she should be for her age” was incredibly demoralizing. She felt embarrassed, frightened, and discouraged. Yes, she could try to dig into the thick financial report she had received. She could attempt to understand and implement its recommendations. But what would be the point? Surely she would never be able to catch up to where she “should” be.
Lori’s experience is by no means unique. Through our research and by talking with clients, the SUM180 team has learned that many, many people tune out and give up on the financial advisory process in large because the industry speaks to them in judgmental, overly prescriptive language that rigidly focuses on what they “should” accomplish and on what timeframe. By taking this attitude, the financial services industry has created a negative experience and made people feel even more of the fear and insecurity that this field already engenders.
No matter how much you know you need a plan, who would sit still to be made to feel scared, defensive, guilty, overwhelmed, or hopeless about your money? Common sense alone should tell those of us in financial services that this approach is counter-productive. But it also points to a deep mismatch between the current system and the way people tend to think and prefer to work.
We are all unique individuals. But at the same time, we experience many of the same things over the course of our lives; we are more alike than we are different. Over and over, what we heard from our research subjects reinforced what many we already know about ourselves. We live busy, complicated lives. We wear many hats, and the roles we play are so diverse and fluid that our picture can change quickly. We are smart and resilient, comfortable and even eager to reinvent ourselves, sometimes many times over. We are more interested in building authentic and lasting relationships than in “winning.” We focus on goals and outcomes, rather than on numbers. And when it comes to our finances, we’re willing to engage – if we can find advice and solutions we trust.
What I learned from that moment last year, listening to Lori react so powerfully to the discouraging message from her financial adviser, is that we can only earn our clients trust if we first offer them one thing: respect. Lori, like every other SUM180 client, already has within her what it takes to take the next steps towards feeling more confident about her financial picture. The role of SUM180 is to support and develop the strengths she already has— to be a financial planning solution that fit her life, that aligned with her priorities, and that helped her feel empowered, not overwhelmed.
So, that’s what we built – what our clients co-developed with us. SUM180 is firmly grounded in the belief that wherever you are on your life’s journey, you deserve respect — and you deserve to have the security of knowing you have a plan to support your goals. This is as true for the person who has few investable assets and a lower income as it is for the person with a higher net worth. Everyone can start right now, today.
The key is to take it step by step — and know that it all adds up. Next: Three steps (Or: How to Eat an Elephant).