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You could be the most technically competent adviser in Australia, but research consistently shows that ‘people buy people’. Your clients want to get to know you, see if they like you and ultimately feel that they can trust you with their important financial decisions.

If you want to set yourself apart, earn your client’s trust and grow your business, then focusing on interpersonal skills is the only answer.

What are ‘Interpersonal Skills’?

Interpersonal skills are often referred to as soft skills and are the behaviours that people use to communicate and interact with each other. It encompasses a range of communication skills such as building rapport, engaging on a range of issues not related to business, having genuine care for clients, understanding client needs, listening skills and having empathy.

Having good interpersonal skills helps clients gain trust in you, and client trust has been found to be the most important factor for relationship quality in financial advice¹.

Client Confidence and Trust

When clients can relate to you, and you to them, trust is fostered. As a result, clients feel more comfortable and confident in sharing personal information with you, which is key to providing the right advice.

The depth of personal information shared between clients and advisers is often more than that of an accountant or lawyer, and advice relationships can often last many years if nurtured by genuine interest and communication.

Clients themselves place significant value on the importance of interpersonal skills in an advice relationship. In one study, 82% of respondents rated the interpersonal skills of their adviser as more important than other factors such as knowledge of product, industry and/or financial (11% of respondents) and the importance of technical skills, expertise and experience (4% of respondents).

Source: Zurich/AFA

Three Key Interpersonal Skills

1. Listening

The saying ‘We have two ears and one mouth, so that we can listen twice as much as we speak’ rings true. Focussing on this single element alone can help develop interpersonal skills rapidly.

Listening helps to foster interest in people and what they’re saying – and what they’re not saying. In his book “Skills That Succeed: A Communication Guide for Risk-Based Financial Advisers”, Russell Collins writes “you learn by listening through the heart – by putting all self-serving motives behind you and focussing on how you can help the person. If their problem was your problem, what would you want to do about it?”².

2. Client Engagement

If your clients are emotionally engaged with you and your business, developed through the use of good interpersonal skills and relationship development, they are³:

  • Much less price sensitive
  • More ‘sticky’: they are less likely to shop around (44% say they rarely or never shop around)
  • At least three times more likely to recommend your product or service
  • More satisfied than non-engaged clients⁴

3. Having Difficult Conversations

There may be times when you will need to have difficult conversations with your clients. For example: if the market changes and their investments are affected, if you need to discuss an unfavourable underwriting decision, or if they have been diagnosed with a serious illness and need to make a claim on their insurance.

Ensuring you have well-developed interpersonal skills, which generally results in a high-trust relationship with your client, means these conversations can be more easily managed, the relationship preserved (and even grown) and expectations met.

How to Develop Interpersonal Skills

Whilst interpersonal skills can be harder to train than technical skills, they can be learned with the right types of training. And whilst some advisers are naturally gifted with well-developed interpersonal skills, anyone can develop skills and confidence in this area. It boils down to the old adage ‘practice makes perfect’.

1. Role Playing

Role-playing can seem awkward, but time and time again studies prove that role-playing in financial advice is the best way to develop interpersonal skills⁵.

Ideally conducted in a non-threatening environment, it’s a great opportunity for advisers and other practice staff of all skill levels to apply what they know in a simulated ‘real-life’ situation. The best part is that all participants get to practice and learn – it’s not a one-way street.

Going that little bit further, filming the role-play and having the person developing their skills observe and reflect on their performance can be confronting, but is a powerful tool in accelerating the development of relationship skills.

2. Observation and ‘Shadowing’

This is generally aimed at newer advisers, but observation and shadowing advisers (sitting in on client meetings) who are experienced and have well-developed interpersonal skills is valuable and often results in the observer emulating and adapting the practices of the experienced adviser into their own⁶.

3. ‘Speed Interviewing’

Based on the idea of ‘Speed Dating’, this can be a relaxed, fun way to develop interpersonal skills. Used by the University of Wollongong and other institutions training new financial advisers, each person has ‘3 minutes to meet and talk with another person to obtain information and create an atmosphere that would encourage a future relationship’⁵. They then move on to the next person until all participants have been interviewed.

4. Networking Events

Developing interpersonal skills isn’t just about skills when engaging clients – industry events are a great way to meet other like-minded advisers and sharpen interpersonal skills by getting to know your colleagues.

5. Self-Study

There’s no shortage of resources available to develop interpersonal skills, including resources specific to financial advice. Zurich’s Zone Education portal has a ‘zone’ dedicated to clients, where you can learn to put clients at the centre of your business. In the Client Zone, you’ll discover the secrets of successful client engagement and retention, by better understanding their needs and expectations and rethinking your communication.


This article was written based on the recently released ‘Life Confidence- Adviser insights to strengthen your risk advice proposition’ paper by XY Adviser and Zurich. A copy of this paper can be found here.

¹Characteristics of Trust in Personal Financial Planning by Michelle Culla and Terry Sloan
²Collins, R (2015), Skills that Succeed: A Communication Guide for Risk-Based Financial Advisers
AFA White Paper (May 2013)
Embedding Communication Skills for Future Financial Planners by L. Celeste Rossetto and Brian Murphy
⁶Marton, F & Trigwell, K 2000, ‘Variatio Est Mater Studiorum’, Higher Education Research & Development, vol.19, no.3, pp381-395.