Individual personality traits can (and do) impact whether a client achieves financial goals. Behavioral assessments can help uncover client personality, values, attitudes, and beliefs. In turn, you can use this information to help provide the client with personalized guidance, education, coaching, or nudging to help them follow the financial plan and otherwise achieve goals. Below, we will discuss best practices in implementing behavioral assessments in a financial planning client workflow.
Let’s start with a bit of background information. Financial psychology is the broad field that encompasses the psychological methods, including behavioral assessments, that can be applied to financial planning and investment management. Groups such as the Financial Therapy Association (FTA), the Society for Consulting Psychology, and even the CFP Board are increasingly promoting and educating the broader market about the importance of our underlying money-related characteristics, experiences, and beliefs when in pursuit of achieving financial goals. So, why does financial psychology matter specifically to financial planners?
- Client characteristics relate statistically to spending, saving, and investing decisions.
- Planners can measure client characteristics with behavioral assessments.
- Behavioral assessment results can help planners pinpoint which clients could use additional guidance and where they should direct their focus.
Advisors use behavioral assessments to help facilitate conversations around money-related beliefs, attitudes, and personality in general. In many cases, the client may be unaware of the personality characteristics or beliefs that may prevent them from achieving financial goals. Assessments can uncover these potential limitations and help to facilitate conversation between you and the client.
Understanding a client’s personality is the first step in ensuring that the client can follow the plan and ultimately reach goals. Behavioral assessments, outside of traditional risk tolerance measures, are a relatively new concept in financial services. To help understand best practices in implementing them in the client-planner relationship, we can look to counseling psychology, financial therapy, and organizational psychology to help define best practices for using and implementing them in financial planning.
Which assessment(s) should you use in your practice? The first step in implementation is choosing which assessment is appropriate for the purpose you have in mind, your client base, and your firm. To do this, we recommend considering the following questions as part of the selection process:
- What is the purpose of the assessment? Does it match my intended use?
- Will the assessment be appropriate for my clients?
- Was the assessment developed using best practices?
- What does each score mean?
- Does the test “look” like something appropriate for my clients?
- Is the client-facing report appropriate for my clients? Is the language clear and the content relevant to financial management?
To answer these questions, we strongly recommend you complete the assessment yourself. As several authors have suggested, this is the first step to both reviewing the assessment but also to identifying your own money-related beliefs or personality:
Before introducing any assessments to clients, the planner should take the assessment as part of their own self-discovery. They may unknowingly identify underlying money scripts or potential money behaviors that may affect the advice offered to clients. Planners will also be more capable of speaking authoritatively about the process of taking the assessments, having completed them themselves. Planners may be surprised by what they learn about themselves and their own relationship to money.
- Begina, Hickingbottom, Luttrull, McCoy, & Klontz, 2018
Below are a few key areas you’ll want to review as part of your assessment selection process.
- Review the description of the test, the definition of each factor, and the description provided for the client.
- Complete the assessment yourself to review the questions (items) and the overall test content.
- Review the output for the client.
- Create a plan for addressing or discussing both positive scores from a financial planning perspective (e.g., having positive attitudes about budgeting) and those that are more challenging (e.g., having a short-term view about investing).
Determining up front how and when you will use assessments is critical. We recommend using behavioral assessments during the onboarding process or later in the client relationship. The nature of behavioral assessments (discussed below) lends itself to being more appropriate once a level of trust has been established between you and the client. Furthermore, most behavioral assessments designed to be used in coaching and to facilitate conversations tend to be longer, thus making them less appropriate during the marketing phase of a planner’s business development.
Another question to consider is which clients will complete the assessment. We recommend that planners have a consistent process across all clients. Consistency leads to workflow efficiency and better reactions on the part of clients. For example, if Client #1 realizes that she was asked to complete an assessment while Client #2 was not, Client #1 may have an adverse reaction to this inconsistency.
The same advice does not necessarily apply in coaching or therapeutic relationships, where the nature of the relationship between the client and coach or therapist necessarily requires different, personalized tools and techniques to be applied.
Communicating the Use of Assessments
A firm or planner committed to using behavioral science as part of their practice should communicate this point throughout their marketing materials and client education materials. As examples, communication could include blog content on personality and investing-related decisions, how financial attitudes can impact saving and spending decisions, or how past experiences can lead to current money beliefs. Providing the firm’s perspective on behavioral science in financial planning sets the stage for the importance and the use of behavioral assessments once the client is onboarded.
Given the nature of behavioral assessments, it is crucial to communicate the use of assessments as early as possible. Provide an overview of the assessments on your websites, in your marketing materials, and during initial communications with a prospective client. By communicating the use of assessments upfront, you can eliminate some of the reactions or hesitancy around assessment with clients that might occur later.
Determining Timing, Openness, and Need
Most behavioral assessments are “self-report” measures. This means that most assessments require the client to respond to questions about their values, attitudes, past experiences, preferences, and more. Some clients may be reluctant to disclose this type of information on an assessment, even if you are not privy to the client’s specific response to questions (if you only receive factor- or characteristic-level scores on the assessment). Therefore, it is critical to assess and understand if a client is open to taking an assessment. Preparation is key. Below are a few ways to ensure the process you put in place accounts for individual client differences in openness to behavioral assessments while also demonstrating the value of assessments to all clients.
While it is essential to communicate your use of behavioral assessments early in your relationship with a client, it is strongly recommended that you invite your client to take the assessment later. This is primarily due to the need for trust to be established between you and the client before the client completes an assessment. In summary, you’ll ensure a positive experience for your clients using the following steps:
- Provide a consistent process to all clients.
- Administer assessments during the later stages of onboarding or once you’ve built rapport with the client.
- Provide clients with a choice to take the assessment. Determine this early in the onboarding process and offer the opportunity to reconfirm that choice later.
- For coaching and therapy-based practices, determine if an assessment is needed based on the unique situation and need of each client.
How to Add Behavioral Assessments
Consider the following four-step process to implement behavioral assessments in your practice. We adopted this process from Begina et al. (2018), using their four-step process for implementing the Klontz Money Scripts Inventory-Revised into their process, along with insights from other fields such as executive assessment and counseling (see references below).
“Promote” the use of any assessment by inviting the client to respond. The invitation should provide high-level detail about what the test measures, the length of time it will take to respond, and how the results will be used. We recommend reminding the client up to two times to complete the assessment. After the reminders, let the client know that they can complete the assessment at any time later in the relationship. One method to reintroduce the assessment could be to provide the client with resources, articles, and other educational tools on the topic of money-related personality or beliefs and include a reminder that she can complete the assessment at any time.
Most, if not all, assessments are delivered electronically. Some clients may prefer a .pdf or paper version of the assessment to complete, the results of which can be entered into the assessment by you or your team. Regardless of the delivery mechanism, clients should complete assessments on their own, free from distractions and without you! On this latter point, if the client completes an assessment in front of you or in your office, the client’s responses may be unconsciously influenced.
Once the client completes the assessment, review the results and other background information to prepare for a conversation with the client.
- Review the overall score (if available). Overall or composite scores usually consist of all of the other scores combined together to provide a numerical value that can aid in decision-making (e.g., does this client need additional coaching? How risk tolerant is this client?). Determine if this information should be used in later conversations.
- Review each factor score. Most tests include detailed information on the scores that make up a composite or provide only factor-level information. What does each factor measure? How did your client score? Is it an area that might lead to challenges in terms of their financial goals?
- Review the narrative explanation of each factor score. What does the interpretation mean for your client? How about the relationship between you and your client? Is this an area that you want to explore during your conversation?
- Identify areas that could impact a plan or strategy. From your review of the scores, identify one or two areas that you feel are important to discuss during the conversation, particularly if that area could impact the client’s ability to save, spend, or invest in a way that will help them achieve goals.
- Prepare or select open-ended questions. From those one or two areas, select (if available) or create a list of open-ended questions that will facilitate conversations between you and the client.
- Prepare for next steps. How will you open the conversation? What will you share if the client decides not to discuss the topics? What are your next steps after the conversation? Have these questions and ideas outlined before you discuss the results with your client?
Behavioral assessments are designed to be used in the context of the client-planner relationship. The results can be used to facilitate conversations, open additional avenues for exploration, and identify areas that may keep the client from achieving her goals. It is vital during this stage of implementation to communicate in a way that will be effective for the client. For example, we recommend you refer to low scores or scores that may be impacting a client’s ability to achieve goals as “challenge areas.” During the clarification process, we recommend allowing the client to describe past experiences, current attitudes, and the like without prescribing recommendations during this exploration process. Later, after the clarification process, you can work with the client to determine the best course of action for ongoing development and change.
- Begin with general reactions to the test.
- Ask clarifying questions related to any challenge areas.
- Confirm that the client wants additional guidance.
- With the client, identify areas for subsequent guidance, education, or coaching.
- Explain how you will provide guidance and the next steps.
Depending on the context of the client-planner relationship and the assessment used, the outcome of the clarification process could uncover potentially harmful components of a client’s personality. For example, from your conversation with the client, you may sense that the client has a money-related disorder that could be clinical in nature. This type of mental health illness requires additional professional assistance to help the client achieve her goals.
After reviewing the results and agreeing upon how you will work with the client based on the results, incorporate the results into the ongoing client relationship. Consider the following levels to incorporating results with clients.
Level 1: Awareness
In Level 1, use the assessment results to promote the client’s awareness of their underlying money personality, attitude, and beliefs. The practical application of this level is to provide the narrative report back to the client and limit the conversation to high-level topics (e.g., “how did you feel about the test? Did you find the results accurate?”) without discussing the specific findings or encouraging additional conversation. In other words, the clarifying process listed above stops with the first step.
This approach may not lead to the overall benefit that the behavioral assessment could provide, that is, helping the client overcome specific behavioral challenges to achieve goals. For some clients, particularly those who display some hesitancy to delve into these types of topics, a high-level approach may be best (at least at first). Additionally, this approach may lead to a general awareness for the client about their underlying money personality and potentially to more self-exploration (and potential change) later, outside of conversations with you.
Level 2: Education
In Level 2, use the assessment results to (a) discuss the high-level findings as in Level 1 but also to (b) discuss the detailed results (e.g., “factor scores”) to provide personalized education and resources back to the client. Using the detailed results of the assessment, provide general behavioral recommendations back to the client.
These recommendations could include one-time suggestions (e.g., “Read Chapter 2 in The Millionaire Next Door” related to Frugality), or could be ongoing (e.g., “Build knowledge of investing by reading one article per week on the history of the stock market” for Investing Confidence).
This level involves gently impacting change through subtle references and messages. Educate the client on an ongoing basis using methods such as email drip campaigns tailored to the client’s results, references to blogs, books, and educational tools, or other general recommendations to help the client improve. The most effective way to encourage change and development is to tailor guides, educational resources, and other tools to the client’s scores. A related method, albeit less effective, could be to create a general client education program that the client completes after taking the assessment. In other words, this approach can be tailored to the client and the client’s scores, or it could be a broad client experience or a client education program put in place that addresses all components measured in the behavioral assessment.
Level 3: Coaching
In Level 3, use the individual client results on the behavioral assessment to create coaching programs for the client. The goal of the programs in both Level 2 and Level 3 is to help the client overcome particular money beliefs, avoid certain behavioral pitfalls, or adopt a different perspective in order for the client to achieve financial goals. Direct coaching, however, might be the most effective approach for some clients. The factor scores on behavioral assessments link to recommendations that you can use as part of an overall coaching process. We recommend focusing on one or two areas during a three- to four-month period, offering coaching sessions throughout this time, and providing additional automated nudges and reminders as well.
Note that coaching is its own profession that includes various tools and techniques to encourage the client to adopt new ways of approaching finances. Planners can utilize techniques from coaching in the planning process, partner with coaches to provide additional services to clients, consider becoming certified in this area, or partner with financial coaches or financial therapists and counselors to deliver the best type of service to their clients.
Why should you incorporate behavioral assessments into your financial planning practice? Behavioral assessments provide insights into a client’s personality, beliefs, and attitudes. In most cases, score reports provide numerical results that can help you and the client understand where a client sits on a particular component of personality. Along with these insights, narrative recommendations and suggestions can help the client and planner further understand the scores. While this information could be provided to the client without further conversation, assessments are best used in the context of a client-planner relationship. Discussion can inspire self-exploration on the part of the client. By facilitating exploration through open-ended questions and listening skills, you demonstrate your value as a trusted advisor. By further incorporating the results into your ongoing client communication and education process, you can help to impact behavioral change that can help the client achieve financial and related goals.
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Reynolds, D. H., McCauley, C. D., & Tsacoumis, S. (2018). A critical evaluation of the state of assessment and development for senior leaders. Industrial and Organizational Psychology, 11(4), 630-652.