Advisor Advice: Good Notes Are Critical

Ronnie Colvin, MS, CFP® | July 9, 2023

Dear Advisors:

When you're ready for your firm to be more than just a purely solo operation, your ability to take good, clear, and consistent notes during your client meetings will be a massive piece of your success or failure. Your notes provide the trail of breadcrumbs that your assistant, paraplanner, junior associate, or contract planner must follow to provide the service you hired them for in the first place; without good notes, we can't give you our best.

Good notes allow us to get as much of the work you need to be done as possible without having to bombard you with emails, phone calls, text messages, or CRM entries that ask questions, so if you don't have good note-taking habits now you have to commit to building them up or the help you hired might end up causing you far more headaches than they cure. But what are good notes? Let's talk about that ...

Step #1 - Good notes start with consistent conversations

Most client meetings that are part of your process have pre-determined purposes, unlike meetings that the client requests because they need to tell you about something that happened in their lives. For your process meetings, you already know the kinds of data the meeting is designed to elicit, and those conversations should happen systematically. You should have a series of topics to cover and questions specific to each topic, and these should be gone through in a consistent, regular fashion each time you meet with any client.

For example, suppose a meeting in your process is specific to estate planning. Each topic area might be particular to the documents you review, like the Will, Living Will/Healthcare Directives, Powers of Attorney (Financial and Healthcare), Trusts, etc. Whatever order you want to do them in, do them the same every time. Then, when you cover a specific document like the Will, have a set of questions that every client has to answer ready to go and cover those in the same order every time.

Why is this a big deal? Why can't you have a freeform conversation and go with the flow? Because when you do that, things get missed; questions don't get asked, or, if they do, they're not in the same order or asked the same way, so the answers may not get recorded in the same place. Your staff must be able to find the relevant data in the same place every time. If they have to call you and ask about it and you have to say, "Oh yeah, we covered that at the end of the meeting this time instead of the beginning like normal," you've just cost yourself and your staff time and frustration.

Bonus Reason To Do This: Now that AI tools like Fathom (available inside Zoom calls) are out there to help you with transcription, note-taking, summaries, key points, etc., you will enable the AI tools to more accurately learn to capture what you need if your format, questions, and answers are clear and consistent.

Step #2 - Good notes are organized

When you input your notes into your CRM, where your staff will find them to start extracting the information they need, the order you put that data into the CRM is essential. Like #1, always put the data into the CRM in the same order each time, so the staff doesn't have to go hunting through all the notes to find what they need when needed.

It can be beneficial if the predefined conversation flow from #1 is the same as how the notes are put into the CRM. Alternatively, if you, as the advisor, will edit or clean things up for your staff beforehand, consider using a meeting notes template that follows the flow of whatever planning software you use in your practice.

For this example, let's assume that you use MoneyGuidePro as your planning software. Well, you know then that the data entry process into MGP follows a particular flow with basic demographic information (names, dates of birth, employment status, income, state of residence, etc.), Goal Setting, and then moves on through dependent info, Social Security, Pensions and other income, Investments, Insurance, Liabilities, Other Assets, etc. If you know the order in which the staff needs to input the info, why not give it to them in that same order so they don't have to go hunting for it? Use a pre-built template in Word, Google Docs, or whatever tool you use to capture your notes (Remarkable tablet even!). This template can also work if you use it as the basis for the consistent conversation in Step #1

Step #3 - Good notes capture the big picture

Some section of your notes needs to capture the aspirations and fears of your clients and their lives, financial and otherwise. You need to know their values, feelings about their current situation and where they ideally want to be, the tradeoffs they may or may not be willing to make, and their legacy desires. Your staff needs to know these as well so they can more properly build the initial planning scenarios, handle client questions and concerns if they are client-facing (like your assistant), know what to be more sensitive to when interacting and planning, etc. These big-picture items matter to the client, so they should matter to your staff and be accounted for.

Step #4 - Good notes capture all the details

You're an experienced advisor and planner, so you already know the devil is in the details. Part of the goal of financial planning is to help client document and organize their financial lives, which means we have to ask for a LOT of data. When clients provide documents and data, key items are often missing, and we have to ask them to find another document or ask them outright for the answers. Things like how assets are titled, start dates and initial loan amounts on mortgages, matching formulas for their 401k, P&C insurance details when they don't upload declarations pages, etc. These are all things your staff needs to accurately do their part of the work so it needs to be acquired either in the meeting, in a follow-up meeting after the initial data has been processed and the missing pieces identified, or even an email requesting all those missing bits. When you get that data, make sure it goes in the correct sections of the notes for consistency and organizational goals to be met as well.

I know that taking good notes can be challenging, but if you establish the processes, build the templates, and use the AI tools to transcribe video meetings, etc., available these days, it can be done if the desire is there. It will take the value you get from your support staff and contractors to new levels, both in internal efficiencies and, ultimately, client satisfaction, when you don't have to keep returning to them for more and more data. Think about it and talk about it with your staff to get their input on the idea.

View A Sample Client Notes Format