Making sure the shoe fits
But another attribute can be equally important when dealing with the usual range of customer concerns and priorities - the ability to put yourself in the client's shoes.
That was clear from the case studies presented by the three second-round winners of the SCMP/IFPHK Financial Planner Awards 2011, who now advance to compete against each other in this year's grand final.
Based on advice given to real-life clients, the 20-minute presentations made to an expert judging panel deftly showcased all the recommended steps for providing a well balanced long-term financial plan. But what set them apart from other contenders was the evident care given to discerning clients' stated and unstated needs, as well as the attention given to devising investment options tailor-made for specific situations.
Noting that he deliberately chose a "typical" Hong Kong case, Henry Ho, district manager for Ageas Insurance Company (Asia), stresses that listening skills are essential to good financial planning. His client, a married working mother with two pre-teenage children, was most concerned about education expenses and having enough for a comfortable retirement.
According to Ho, he first helped with a thorough review of her cash flow and current net worth. This showed that, with a strong savings habit and a lump sum already put to one side, the client and her husband were, overall, in a better position than they realised. With careful management of their resources, they could send both kids to university in Hong Kong while building a retirement nest outside the Mandatory Provident Fund (MPF).
"I used this case because it is a common scenario," Ho says. "The mother was worried about the future, but by offering a clear financial plan, I could relieve her anxiety, which made it meaningful for me."
His main recommendation included taking out critical illness insurance and, if possible, buying a home in the same area, rather than renting. He also spelt out that MPF savings alone would not see her through a lengthy retirement.
"For me, the key was to keep the case simple," Ho says. "I think the judges could see I was meeting the client's concerns."
Willie Yiu, business manager for ipac Financial Planning HK and winner of the independent financial advisory (IFA) category, puts similar emphasis on understanding the customer's viewpoint and reasoning. This always has to be the starting point for discussions and later suggestions, he says.
In front of the judges, his basic aim was to be clear, concise and direct. He wanted to explain why he had given a particular advice. But he also knew it was important to show that he listened to client concerns and anticipated issues they might not have considered.
The case involved a "smart and sophisticated" married couple both working as bankers. With property overseas and the prospect of another child, they needed advice on tax structures, education funds, insurance and estate planning but, leading busy lives, had been slow to act.
"They might have enough disposable income now, but the financial planning process also helps clients think about changes or future constraints," says Yiu. "I have to care about their situation and set out solutions they may not be aware of."
Julian Cheung Ming-fai, senior international relationship manager with Standard Chartered Bank (Hong Kong), also demonstrated he could put himself in the client's position. Not doing so makes it more difficult to appreciate preferences and priorities and, therefore, to identify the most favourable investment opportunities, he says.
For Cheung, this required a little extra imagination, since his chosen case study involved an expatriate Frenchman in his 50s retiring to Europe after selling a business in China for a large sum. Income, currency and comparative cost issues all came into play, as did the need to provide future financial security for a fiancee still in her 20s.
"The client had a previous bad experience with stock investments, so I suggested lower exposure on the equity side, and added inflation-linked bonds and a commodity fund to the portfolio," Cheung says.
"I wanted to show the judges I had considered all sides of the situation, including the different realities of life in France after 10 years in China," he says.
September 17 A report on the finalists’ presentations and a special feature on Convoy
October 8 WHO’S WHO: The judges, their criteria and their insights PLUS updates from Financial Express
October 15 Reports on the 2011individual and industry winners