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Financial Planners on the Couch


Clients need support—but so do unnerved advisers

Opened up your retirement savings plan lately? Forget the old quip about a 201(k). A 101(k) seems more apt. The value of your home is down. Your savings have shrunk. And for this you paid thousands to a financial planner?

It's little wonder planners are stressed out. Their own portfolios have plummeted and, depending on how they're paid, their business earnings are down 30% to 40%. "They're unnerved, and then they're trying to figure out how to talk to clients," says Courtney Pullen, a Denver business consultant and coach who specializes in working with financial planners. "They can't escape. They're at the soccer game over the weekend and people come up and ask: 'What should I do with my money?' " One planner's wife, Pullen recounts, told her husband he must "feel like an oncologist." The planner's response: "At least the oncologist doesn't give patients the cancer."

Early in his career, Pullen, who heads Pullen Consulting Group, was a trauma specialist dealing with families in the aftermath of tragedy, including the murder of students and teachers at Columbine High School. During those years he studied the impact of working with trauma victims on the specialists. Those pros, like their clients, had bad dreams, failed relationships, and drank too much. So Pullen asks planners basic questions: Are you getting enough rest? Exercising? Keeping an eye on your alcohol intake? "It's like the airplane announcement," he says. "Put the oxygen mask on yourself first and then take care of others."

The current crisis is calling on planners' counseling skills. Knowledge of asset-allocation strategies doesn't help with a client who has nothing to fear about his future living standards yet wants to liquidate everything and flee to short-term Treasuries. "Clients need a lot of support," says Pullen. "A lot of advisers are uncomfortable with that."

Advisers at Accredited Investors in Edina, Minn., don't fall into that camp. The firm's president, Ross Levin, has had Pullen visit for one day every quarter for two years. He meets with about 35 employees to talk over everything from improving work flow to better communication—and to have planners do exercises like creating a list of questions to help them get inside clients' heads. Says Levin: "The message he's been giving us is to work with our clients through this rather than defend a position."

Farrell is contributing economics editor for BusinessWeek. You can also hear him on American Public Media's nationally syndicated finance program, Marketplace Money, as well as on public radio's business program Marketplace. His Sound Money column appears on BusinessWeek.com.

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