Structuring The Getting to Know You Process

Imagine that you can ask your prospective client only two questions before deciding if they are a good fit for your practice. What would you ask, and why?

The statement above is an example of a structured interview question. Structured interviews are a systematic way to get to know a client, applicant, or other new colleague that links interview questions to topics or competencies that are critical to understand at the beginning of that relationship. For example, you might want to know how a prospective client typically reacts when he and his spouse don’t see eye to eye on a financial matter, or you might want to know how a prospective new advisor handles constructive criticism from his clients (or from you). Each of these types of competencies can be measured using a structured set of well-thought-out and open-ended questions.

In the context of getting to know prospects, structured interview guides can serve as a critical time saver and a key component of how you determine (a) if the prospect is going to be a good fit for your practice, (b) what potential challenges might arise when working with that client, and most importantly (c) the key problems or concerns facing your prospective client. Below we’ll discuss (a) and (b) to help you consider how structured interview questions can help you understand other competency related characteristics about prospective clients.

Here are the steps to take to creating a structured interview guide.

  1. Determine how and when you want to use the interview. Highlight all the ways in which you would use the guide and when it would be appropriate so that the way in which you write it will facilitate the its proper usage.

  2. Identify the key characteristics you’re trying to measure/assess. Define what you’re trying to measure. We recommend writing out a short definition of what you’re trying to assess with the interview. This will help you when you start writing questions.

  3. Write interview questions and probes for each. This is where the art and science intersect. Just as in our assessments, we believe the best types of questions ask about past experiences and behaviors to help predict what the prospective client might do in the future (unlike our example at the top, which asks what you would do). Use the StAR method: ask questions that allow the prospect to tell you the situation, the action he took, and the results of that action. Here’s an example when trying to assess the personality characteristic of conscientiousness:

  • Tell me about the most detailed financial task you’ve had to do for your household. What challenges did you face when trying to accomplish it, and what was the result?
    • What details were the most challenging to deal with and why?
    • What was the importance of completing the task accurately?
    • What steps did you take to ensuring you completed the task accurately?
  1. Test out your questions. Use your colleagues, study group members, or friends/family as a pilot study to test out the questions. Do they make sense? Are the answers you’re receiving allowing you to gauge their standing of that competency? Choose the questions that seem to (a) get the best reactions from your pilot group and (b) provide you with the most information about that particular competency.

  2. Create a guide to capture responses. Whether online or paper-based, having a guide can help you when thinking about your interaction with your prospective client and also help you capture the StAR aspect of the responses from your prospect.

  3. Measure its effectiveness over time. Are you able to get to know prospective clients more quickly? Are you gaining valuable insights about them? After implementing your guide, evaluate the usefulness of both the competency you’re measuring and the questions you’ve created.

A quick side-note: as I spent the majority of my career writing test and interview questions for organizations who were hiring and promoting individuals, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention how employment-related decision-making requires extra care. If you’re considering the use of structured interviews with prospective new employees (or any other type of decision-making process), note that there are certain laws that govern employment-related decision making, including Title VII of the Civil Rights Act (1964), the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990, and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967. For example, see this guide from the Office of Personnel Management to see just how much it takes to use decision-making tools like interviews or assessments in governmental hiring. Interviews in the context of hiring are subject to all of the same laws as any type of assessment and, therefore, their creation requires ample documentation and testing. SIOP (the Society for Industrial-Organizational Psychology) also has a good outline of how to create and use interviews in the hiring process and links to what it takes to use assessments in hiring.

Using structured guides along with behavioral assessments can give you a comprehensive view of your prospective or new client’s patterns of financial behaviors, attitudes, and experiences. But the next step, helping clients make the best financial and investment-related decisions, is where you can demonstrate the value of a behavioral approach.

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