Ep 067

The Power of Human-First Financial Guidance

With

Ross Marino

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Inside This Episode

Today, I’m talking with Ross Marino, the founder and CEO of Transitus Wealth Partners, as well as Advisor 2X. Ross is a seasoned financial planner with over 35 years of experience and a pioneer of the human-first financial guidance movement.

As Ross wisely says, “Life happens, plans change.” As a financial advisor, your role goes beyond crunching numbers and discussing products. It’s about truly understanding your clients—their thoughts, emotions, and experiences. By connecting with them on a deeper level, you can provide the guidance they need to navigate life’s uncertainties. That’s what human-first financial advice is all about.

In this episode, we dive deep into the human-first process and how a better understanding of your client’s circumstances and story, will allow you to create a clear plan to help them retire with confidence.

3 of the biggest insights from Ross Marino

#1 What the human-first approach is – and how focusing less on the numbers and more on the person can transform your business.

#2 Two simple, yet very powerful questions, you can ask new clients to get them to open up and uncover their money story.

#3 What “mission meetings” are and how they can build trust, strengthen relationships, and help you provide better financial guidance

KEY TAKEAWAYS: 

  • Ross’ journey from stockbroker to financial advisor
  • The shift to “Human First” financial planning
  • Transforming the onboarding process
  • The 4-question Transitus Process
  • Unbelievable client stories
  • 2 human first questions to ask prospects
  • The evolution of going 100% virtual
  • Transitioning to a 4-day work week

HUMAN-FIRST FINANCIAL GUIDANCE

HOW TO DIFFERENTIATE YOURSELF AS A FINANCIAL ADVISOR

2 QUESTIONS TO UNCOVER YOUR CLIENTS MONEY STORY

SELECTED LINKS FROM THE EPISODE: 

PEOPLE MENTIONED IN THE EPISODE:

THIS WEEK’S FEATURED REVIEW

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MIC DROP MOMENTS WITH ROSS MARINO

  • The best way to worry less about what could go wrong is to get organized.” – Ross Marino

  • Challenge: Am I doing work? Am I doing life? Review regularly, is the balance where it should be? And I think you’ll be okay.” – Ross Marino

  • I have to see you as a human, understand you as a human, how you think, how you came to think the way you think, what you feel, how that influences what you’ve done, how you’ve invested money in the past. I’ve got to understand who you are before I do all the data gathering and before I look at all the numbers there. That’s the human-first approach.” – Ross Marino

Brad Johnson: Welcome back to another episode of Do Business Do Life. Have Ross Marino here with us today. Welcome to the show, Ross.

Ross Marino: Thanks, Brad. Good to see you.

Brad Johnson: Yeah. Good to see you again. And, in this business, it’s such a small world. Mutual friend, Jay Coulter, introduced us, and excited about this one because what’s fun about your story, you’re running your own personal financial planning practice, Transitus Wealth, but you’re also running another business, A2X, Advisor2X, where it’s really a personal development company or a training company for advisors as well. So, that crosses over into a little bit of my world, as I’ve been doing a lot of that over the last 15 years. So, let’s just kick it off. Those that aren’t familiar with you, which probably is not a lot out there, but how did that journey come to be, the kind of the advisor path and then getting over into sharing a lot of what you’ve learned along the way with other advisors?

Ross Marino: Yeah. The advisor path started before I knew it was the advisor path. When I was in the ninth grade, I received a birthday present of Money Magazine. So, that’s pretty much geek alert right there but was always fascinated by business and investments. Got the Money Magazine, loved it. First job out of college was basically being a stockbroker, late 1980s. That’s what we called ourselves back then, the smile and dial days where you just got the phone, actually, two phones I had, and it was 500 times a day. And that’s what you did, and that’s how the business started. So, yeah, while you were dialing one phone, the other one was connecting. So, you would go back and forth on the phones. It was just crazy stuff.

Brad Johnson: So, I have to just ask you about this because I also grew up in this space, cold calling, but you do literally because I have never heard this before. So, you’re a stockbroker. I’m thinking like the scene out of Wolf of Wall Street. We’ve all seen it at this point, but so you actually had two phones. So, one is dialing and it was the old school I had to punch the number in and you would have another one that you were dialing in case that one hung up. Like, how did that work?

Ross Marino: Yeah. So, the rhythm that I developed was I would dial the first phone and it would take, of course, a few seconds to connect. So, I would have the handset in my hand. And while that one was connecting, I would start dialing the second phone because I had some boards in front of me with the phones. And I would dial it slowly because if you dial too fast, it connects too early. If you dial it slow, it goes to the dial tone. So, I had a pace where I would dial it slowly that if someone picked up on the other end, I would just hang up phone two and I would stop. But if someone didn’t pick up phone one within a second, phone two would start connecting. Then I’d hang up phone one, and then have phone two, and then I’d start dialing phone one slowly. And I just did that back and forth, and the goal was to hit 500 dials a day, and you’d talk to about 100 people. And typical cold call numbers, you know, ten of them said, “Yeah. Call me back. I’d love to hear whatever you’re talking about.” And, yeah, that’s how I built my first book.

Brad Johnson: Man, where were you back in ‘07? You could have been coaching me up. I only had one phone. So, I could have doubled my dials, man. So, Colin, if you’re listening to this on our team, it could be… Now, Colin has these days it’s like an auto dialer sort of technology but, yeah, that’s cool. Okay. So, where do we go from Ross, the cold caller guy, stockbroker? How did it evolve from there?

Ross Marino: Yeah. That was my early 20s. So, within a few years, you go from pretty quickly stockbroker to portfolio management and portfolio management to financial planning. So, by age 27, I’m in the CFP program and I’m becoming a certified financial planner. And that was about 30 years ago. So, that’s pretty much the journey and still a financial planner. But along the way, I started teaching retirement planning and employee benefits for the CFP program. And that was early 2000s, and I loved it. I enjoyed teaching it. I had a lot of 401(k) plans way back when. I spent a lot of time just answering questions to the advisors who were in the CFP study class. And some of it was just one-on-one during the class, but also they would send me emails from their personal email because they didn’t want their broker-dealer having them send an email to some advisor at Raymond James.

So, I ended up really coaching a lot of these advisors, answering questions. I loved it, had a blast with it. That was the beginning of the teaching, and during that time I had my own system to monitor 401(k) providers. So, I won’t go into all the details on it but I basically created a spreadsheet and a system so I could keep track of it. I showed that system to a wholesaler one day and he said, “This is the coolest thing I’ve ever seen. You have to meet my national sales manager. He’s got to hear about this.” I’m like, “Okay, whatever.” We had a conversation. Fast forward, we said, “Let’s start a company called 401(k) Recon to help financial planners like myself manage and understand 401(k) plans for their clients.” So, that was the shift to helping the advisors. We created this database, this online tool. It was very cool. We launched it at a conference. Everybody loved it. They looked at it. Nobody would pay for it.

So, crash and burn. It was a great 48 hours. I was very cool for a couple of days and really loved it, “Hey, check this out.” Everybody had a blast. But we knew by the end of the conference that the revenue model wasn’t going to work. But I did listen to a lot of the advisors, and the wholesalers basically complained about the sessions at the conference because they were so long and most of them was boring. So, while we were at the conference, I said, “You know, I got an idea for you. Why don’t we take these same sessions that have decent amount of meat in it but they’re just a little too long, why don’t we just cut them in half and let’s do like a local or regional type event?” So, a couple of people I was with said, “Hey, great. Why don’t we do that?” So, by Friday, we had a little map for, “Hey, here’s how we would do a one-day event.”

And fast forward that, for the year, the event worked. So, by the end of the year, we had 25 on the calendar and the next year we put 90 on the calendar. And next thing you know, we’re doing over 100 events a year moving around the country as 401(k) Recon, helping financial planners learn the 401(k) business and then, of course, it just grew from there.

Brad Johnson: Wow. Cool. So, basically, what I’m picking up in these stories, you’ve always been a very systematic guy it sounds like. Whether it was cold-calling two phones at the same time, here’s my spreadsheet, I’m assuming a lot of that’s applied over to your financial planning practices as well. When you think about systems in your business, how has that allowed you to scale?

Ross Marino: Yeah. Our mission at Transitus Wealth and it ties into the system is to help people worry less about what could go wrong so they can focus more on what to get right. Now, most financial planners would say, “Well, that’s what I do, like I get it. We all do the same thing.” I tie that into the only way or the best way to worry less about what could go wrong is to get organized. And that’s how we launch into the financial planning process. So, it’s very systematized in the sense that we have a human-first approach, which we can talk about, but we tell the prospects as they come in that we are going to get organized. We do have a system. It usually begins with the asset map. So, we create a financial map, get the big picture, and then if we have to dive deeper into financial planning, we do.

But everything’s systematized, everything has a process. And it’s not just what we do internally, but we communicate that with the clients to let them know that this is a process we do and we always tie it back to. And it’s so you can worry less about what could go wrong and focus more on what you want to get right.

Brad Johnson: Cool. Because our time is limited, let’s just jump right into it. You brought it up. Before we hit record here, we were talking about SHIFT, which is also a conference that you’ve done that’s focused on behavioral finance that if I was investing in stock and things that are skyrocketing in finance right now, behavioral finance would be like, “I put all my money right there with the growth I’ve seen there over the last handful of years.” Brian Portnoy came on to the show a few episodes back. I know Daniel Crosby is also a friend, mutually. Two guys that are doing big things in behavioral finance. So, you mentioned you’d done some work with Brian Portnoy on kind of a human-first approach that then leads into the systematic approach you just mentioned, and you’re also doing a conference around behavioral finance. So, maybe we focus there right now. It sounds like that focus start in your own personal practice and then it led to a conference. So, maybe just share that journey a bit.

Ross Marino: Yeah. So, the journey with the personal practice would have gone back, I don’t know, 30 or so years. And I’ll do it rather quickly because too many details. I mean, I get bored talking about it. So, I can imagine what it’s like listening to it. So, when I first became a financial planner or started studying, I had a back injury, spent six years basically working on a room over my garage, laying on the floor on pillows. So, had a wonderful plan of this is going to be my life and then realized my plans are irrelevant, and had to deal with the struggles of having limitations and not being able to build a business. Basically, life happens, plans change. So, that was my first intro to: It doesn’t matter what you plan, life doesn’t actually care. And understanding how to navigate that.

That first six years, it really rocked my world, where I figured out that this whole, this nice, neat financial planning process looks great in the textbook, and it sounds good if we’re going to gather data and we’re going to get to know you and we’re going to make projections like, yeah, that’s great. But when you’re laying on the floor, you’re thinking, “Am I even going to be in this business in a few years?” And a lot of people go through that. So, that was my intro to kind of the BeFi world. Then I have some family issues along the way. I have a daughter who developed special needs. We adopted her. Didn’t know that, had to figure out how to navigate that, and also have a wife who has some significant health issues. So, the financial planning process that we normally think of as financial planners didn’t work real well for me in my life. And I understood that you have to deal with the moment and also how that impacts your decision-making.

That’s what drove me down the BeFi world because this is not a math business. We think it’s about the numbers. We think it’s about charts, and mountain charts, and let’s look at what this looks like 20 years from now. If you don’t know what’s going to happen 20 days from now, do you think you can carry a conversation about what could happen 20 years from now? So, that’s the shift of the BeFi and towards the human first is to realize that there’s value in financial planning but what most people have to deal with and I dealt with that a lot is life happens, plans change, I need to make decisions now. To me, that’s the art of financial planning that we can do but in order to do that, you have to understand behavioral finance. You have to understand, on my coffee cup, how people think, what they’re feeling, and how that impacts ultimately what they want to do or what they’ve done in the past. So, that was my shift towards the BeFi. So, I saw it personally, I’ve lived it for a few decades, and eventually, we realized I’ve got to do a conference to help other advisors do the same thing.

Brad Johnson: So, really, I mean, it came out of your personal journey where you’re like, “Hey, this isn’t just all rainbows and butterflies when it comes to real life.” And so, then was it at that point because this goes back quite a while, at what point did you really start to develop the language inside of your practice to basically model your different approach? Because some of the things you were sharing before we hit record we take a human-first approach. I think a lot of people say, “Oh, yeah. We do this,” but you actually did the work and you did the messaging and did the process. So, where did that come into play? Was that to work with Brian? Was it before the work with Brian? What did that look like?

Ross Marino: Started about eight years ago when it really hit me that we have to help people adapt to life. In Transitus Wealth is when we rebranded to that. Transitus is “transitions” in Latin. Great story. Terrible name. So, we’ll be rebranding and changing it later but that was about eight years ago where I realized I had to help advisors take a different approach to financial planning. Felt that that really was a need and ran into Susan Bradley from the Financial Transitionist Institute. That’s where the journey really started academically. The institute has fantastic resources, spent a couple of years going through that, wrote a book with Susan Bradley called Shaping Change. So, that was probably about five years ago. That was the process where the messaging and the wording and really reordering in your brain, this is the new financial planning process. That’s where it all began.

Well, right before the pandemic, I wanted to do a conference called, The Retirement and Longevity Summit, where there was going to be a heavy human element to it. Because any time you talk about retirement or longevity, the numbers are just one piece of it. And we know that as advisors so it’s kind of Captain Obvious, but to actually have a curriculum and a conference and a community that supports that, that wasn’t out there. So, I said, “Okay. We got to do this.” It was supposed to be March of the year that the pandemic happened. So, we launched this conference, we had over 300 advisors come in year one. I’m all excited but then we had to scratch it. Waited two years, brought it back in 2022, and we did The Retirement Longevity Summit. Brian Portnoy spoke there, Susan Bradley spoke there, Amy Mullen spoke there. There was a whole bunch of people from the BeFi side where they came and they spoke.

The advisors loved the conference but what I noticed, Brad, was all of the conversations during the breaks, during the meals, my interactions with people, it was all around the sessions that were the human side of financial planning. So, I tried to initially do an integrated type of conference where you had a human element, but It was the last day there on breakfast. I’m sitting at the table with Jay Coulter, our mutual friend, and Brian Portnoy and Susan Bradley. We’re at breakfast and everybody’s just saying, “You just got to go all in on the human side.” I’m like, “Okay. We’re going to go all in.” So, for 2023, right after that conference, I told my team that this was great, people loved the conference, it was a success, and now we’re killing it. Welcome to the world of entrepreneurialism, right?

I said, “We’ve got to do something deeper. We’re going deep in on the human side.” Like, “Okay. What are you going to do?” I’m like, “I don’t know. Give me a couple of months.” I had conversations with Brian Portnoy, Susan Bradley, and a few others, and we really tried to hash through or hash out what the conference would look like, what it would be. At that time, I went through building the behavioral advisor with Shaping Wealth and Brian Portnoy, and that was really kind of the aha moment for me. And that’s when I realized this isn’t just about bringing in the human side of financial planning. That’s important and I understand that wording but there really has to be a shift. And that’s where the name of the conference came from. And actually, I have a Post-it right in front of me, “Shift the conversation.”

Because whenever a client approaches me or a prospect, they’re going to approach me with a financial planning question or some type of question with financial implications. I could dive into the numbers, but really, that’s what I don’t need to do right up front. I have to shift the conversation. I have to find out what’s going on. So, that’s the first part. I thought, “That’s what we have to do. We have to help advisors shift the conversation.” And then as we thought through it, I thought, “This really isn’t the human side of financial planning. It’s more specific. It’s human first.” And what that means, Brad, is when someone approaches me, they want to start talking all about the finances, and we’re going to get to all that because I was the kid with Money Magazine in ninth grade. I’m a geek. I love that stuff, so I can’t wait to talk about it.

However, before we get into any of that, I have to shift the conversation. I have to see you as a human, understand you as a human, how you think, how you came to think the way you think, what you feel, how that influences what you’ve done, how you’ve invested money in the past. I’ve got to understand who you are before I do all the data gathering and before I look at all the numbers there. That’s the human-first approach. And when I do human first, now I don’t feel like I’m a financial advisor because I don’t feel like I’m giving as much advice because that’s very prescriptive, do this, do that, here’s how you do it. I feel it’s more guidance. So, I thought if we can help people shift the conversation, it becomes human first, financial guidance. I think that’s the future of our profession. That’s where a lot of people were already going long before I said, “Hey, let’s shift the conversation.”

So, maybe people hadn’t thought about it before but now that I know a lot of the leaders in this space, trust me, I feel like I’m late to the party. So, I didn’t create this. I may have named it, so that’s cool. I’ll take credit for that. But this has been going on with Daniel Crosby and really, George Kinder started it decades ago. So, this has been going on for a while. So, that’s where the conference came out. So, we did a shift, did it the first year, had great success with it. Michael Kitces was very gracious and gave us the top conference to go to for behavioral finance. And we just had it recently a couple of months ago, had over 500 attendees. Really good conference. And it’s just a great community. And there’s a lot of really awesome advisors out there already shifting the conversation.

Brad Johnson: I think that is so well named. If we even like, first off, congrats because Michael Kitces, one of the things I love about him, he is a straightforward guy. He’s been on the show a couple of times. I’ve learned a lot from him over the years. I know many advisors have that are listening in but, yeah, congrats on… We were joking a little bit before we went live here. I’m like, “Congrats. You were the Conference of the Year 2024 to Attend, according to Kitces in Behavioral Finance.” And I was like, “What other ones are out there?” You’re like, “Not a lot.” And I was like, “Awesome because you’re blazing the trail.” So, I love that you saw a need, Ross, and you jumped in. And if we look back and just rewind in your personal story, you talk about a shift, cold calling, selling stocks over the phone when you first got into the industry, that’s very not human first. That’s just selling products.

And one of the things we talk a lot about at Triad is it’s about the process, not a product. And product, whether insurance, whether asset management, there’s a lot of different products and tools out there. But if you’re not following a process and I am 100% all in on a human-first process because, by the way, if you’re going product-based and financial planning based, I mean, with the crazy stuff AI is coming out with these days like you’re fighting a losing battle long term. That’s all math. And one thing that robots can’t do, someday they might be able to but at this point, that’s be a human and connect on an emotional level. And so, when we look at your shift, let’s go back to your practice. I look at this as like the lab that you’re working in outside of the conferences that you’re doing. How did you shift your appointment process, maybe how you even market your business? Where probably when you first started out, you were selling products or selling stocks, and now you’re taking more of a human-first approach. How did that shift the language? How did that shift the marketing? What did that look like?

Ross Marino: When I started down the financial planning track 30 years ago, once you become a financial planner, it’s pretty easy to stay in that lane. So, people approached me for financial planning, and that’s what I did. Now, I had a human element to it, and I was able to talk about it. And I had money personality test. So, I had some different BeFi tools that I used but a lot of those way back when, people have one personality in a bull market. They have another personality in a bear market. It’s like the dirty secret of risk tolerance questionnaires like, “Great. After the market has been up two years, everybody can take a little risk.” Then when it goes down 30%, “You know I’m really conservative.” Well yeah. Join the club. Right? When they say, “Gee, I wish my portfolio was in cash.” Hey, join the club. I wish I was in cash. We all do. That’s just part of it. Bear markets stink.

So, I realize the futility of that but I was always using different tools and having those conversations. But as I went through some different life events and experiences, that’s when I went to the Certified Financial Transitionist route. Then I could start talking about how life happens and plans change. So, that was really about eight years ago when the practice was able to transform. A lot of the people that call us now, just my most recent prospect is someone whose spouse has a significant health issue. They have to retire. They have to take care of their spouse, trying to manage all that. The people that have really heavy situations, that’s who has been coming up to us for quite a while, but that’s all referral-based. So, I really didn’t have a marketing engine behind it. We don’t really market. I’ve been doing a lot for Advisor2X, so we get referrals. That’s great.

But we’re now shifting where we can focus on the practice, where we can actually reach out to the public and say, “Here’s what we do. Here’s the human-first approach.” All of that’s going to happen in the next 6 to 12 months but I can tell you what I’ve done recently. It’s worked fantastic. It has transformed our relationships. It started with going through Brendan Frazier. You may know Brendan as well. He’s inside of financial planning. He has an intro meeting and a discovery meeting that he sells as a package. And I went through the workshop and did all of it, and I told them, “Thanks for creating it. And by the way, you blew my whole weekend because I had to get all the way through and I couldn’t stop. So, that’s on you.” So, I spent a few hours Saturday and Sunday morning because once you get in, right, I wanted to go through all of it and process it.

But what he does is he has a human-first type intro meeting. So, I basically took what he did a while ago, adapted it to how we do things on our end, put my own verbiage behind it, and so forth. And what I ended up doing is instead of the traditional data gathering that may include a risk questionnaire, the traditional financial planning process, I didn’t just shift the conversation, Brad. What I actually did is I changed the sequence. And here’s what I mean by that. Instead of the typical intake that we would always do with the client, where we would get that demographic data and we would get the financials and, “What brought you in today? Why did you call?” It’s really, why did you call on 100% virtual but why did you want to have a meeting? That normal process I thought all of that is important, but if we’re going to go human first, I have to change the sequence. Before I start jotting down numbers, I want to get to know you.

So, I have an intro meeting where I talk about what we do at the practice, and I let them know that we have another meeting I call a mission meeting because it’s what’s your mission with the money. It’s meant to support something. And it takes about 30 to 45 minutes. We don’t do numbers but I get to know you because I want to get to the point where I can say, “I get you. I get where you’re coming from, and I understand that.” So, that’s the big change we made where before we dive into a financial planning meeting, I have this mission meeting, and I have a couple of questions that I ask all the time. I have a bank of maybe 5 to 10 questions that I can go into, but it’s really just to understand how someone got to where they are today. It’s all human first. That’s what cements the relationship and really helps me understand how to guide these people. And it gives them to trust that I really do understand who they are. That’s the big change in our practice.

Brad Johnson: Very cool. Big fan of Brendan too. We’re Twitter buddies. I don’t think we’ve ever connected in person but he puts out some really cool stuff around behavioral finance. Okay. So, what was your appointment process before this? Was it the typical kind of three appointment where it’s kind of the discovery fact find then kind of the overview, then the implementation?

Ross Marino: Yeah. And sometimes…

Brad Johnson: Yeah. Go ahead.

Ross Marino: Yeah. So, sometimes it would be faster because most everybody that came was a referral. So, we didn’t have to take the traditional route of building trust and connecting. And most people something was happening in their life. So, they were about to approach retirement. Or there’s a health issue where they were a widow. So, the majority of my clients are either women mostly over 55 or 60, or married couples, where the woman is the financial spouse. So, that’s predominantly our practice. We have some married couples, that the men are the financial spouse, but they’re mostly older. Our people are mostly driven by or the relationships are driven by women. They know ahead of time who we are and what we do. So, that shortens our process a little bit but, yes, it’s the what’s going on. I have what’s called the Transitus process on the website. And I just have four questions. And this has always been the process.

It’s, “What’s going on,” which is, “Why did you want to meet with me?” And they would tell me what’s going on. It’s event-driven. And then, “How did you get there? Give me some backstory.” And everybody tells you what led up to that, which is great. And then I ask them, “Based on that, what are you thinking? How are you feeling?” And they share. They tell me what they’re thinking and how they’re feeling. That’s been the intake process for quite a while. Once we get through that meeting, you can go straight into financial planning. So, we’re more of a two-meeting practice. But now after we do that, those four questions, now we go into, well, we have a mission meeting first. So, let’s go ahead and do that, and then we’ll dive into financial planning.

Brad Johnson: Cool. So, what I’m hearing you say is you kind of had a two-appointment process before, and then after going through kind of what I would call Brendan’s course, you bolted on a 30-minute get-to-know-you intro meeting before you get into those two appointments, just to really focus on the human aspect.

Ross Marino: Yeah. It’s mostly the second meeting. So, the intro is going to be the same. So, intro meetings are always the same and let’s dive into financial planning is the same. That goes to another team member. But we put in a second meeting, which is the mission meeting to understand where someone is coming from. So, that’s what we put in there. So, that was mixed into other conversations but when you separate that meeting and give it space on its own, the depth that you get out of it, it’s just amazing.

Brad Johnson: What do you do? And I’ve heard this from other advisors we’ve worked with where kind of meeting number one, somebody brings in their statements and pushes them across the desk, “Hey, can you look at this for me or that for me,” in that meeting because it’s 100% not fact-finding based. You just kind of push the reports back to them and just say, “Hey, today is more about you, not about the accounts or the statements.” What’s your approach there if they try to jump the gun and get into that stuff?

Ross Marino: Yeah. It’s an interesting question. I’m Zoom first so you can’t share your statement.

Brad Johnson: Okay. Well, that makes sense.

Ross Marino: But, however, I will say that they will run down the list of here’s what we have, here’s what’s going on. The ones that are pushing hard on the numbers and the statements in the investments, oftentimes they’re not going to become clients because either they just want to talk about the money or they think it’s mostly about the money. And it’s tough to help someone like that. They’ll be chasing returns. They’re on the far end of the spectrum for emotions. Either, “I want everything mega-safe, but I do want to beat inflation,” or they’re extremely aggressive, right? “I got to go for it. My advisor only made me 13% last year. What are your portfolio?” I’m like, “Oh, I don’t know. Let me buy seven stocks. I’ll make 18,” right? They have their strategy.

So, those people that push really hard, they’re probably not going to be a good fit but it’s going to be tough for them to want to really pursue me anyway because I’m going to jump on the screen. I’m the guy wearing a pink golf shirt. You probably lost me right there at that. But, yeah, I will not dive into it. There is an exception, though. Sometimes there is an acute need, what we call in the transitionist world “narrow focus” where their focus is on something that this has to be dealt with right now. Had a recent prospect a while ago that had an issue with deferred comp, that there was a taxation issue. They had to get that question answered. It was keeping them up at night. They needed to know. What are my options? I’m approaching retirement. So, that’s what we dealt with. So, I let them know this is what we normally do but I know how important this is and we have to talk about this.

So, let’s dive in. We’re going to go technical and let’s hit it. And that was appropriate for them. So, yes, there’s a process but human first means you have to meet them where they’re at. And if they’re at a point where they’re so focused on something that you have to address that and we’re addressing it, and that’s what we’ll do. And then we’ll get to the mission meeting later.

Brad Johnson: Yeah. How have you seen that impact the prospects in those meetings when you’ve really shifted to that human-first approach? Do you see there’s like their shoulders drop, they’re more at ease, they’re more comfortable, it’s led to easier conversations down the road? Is there any before and afters? It’s just been a dramatic difference?

Ross Marino: I don’t know if I’ve had a mission meeting, and maybe it’s because this is still rather early for me. I don’t know if I’ve had a mission meeting that hasn’t blown me away. The insight that I get from these people is stuff I would have never picked up. The trust that they have to share it, knowing it’s a safe place and the connecting of the dots they have when they go through, “Well, this is what happened to me when I was younger and here’s how my mother reacted and this is what we went through,” pause for effect, “And I suppose that’s influenced what I’m doing with my money.” Well, actually it has. But to see people connect the dots and then if I have a husband and wife and this is I actually get flushed sometimes it’s so cool, you’ll see one spouse look at the other one while we’re having this conversation and say, “I never knew that story.”

So, they’re sharing stuff that they never shared with their spouse that they’ve been married to 10, 20, 30 years. But when you go back to who shaped your views on money, anything growing up, any experiences you had or what events have you gone through in life, as you go through that, they’re going to bring out things that sometimes they haven’t even shared with their spouse, and all of a sudden you have these conversations going or maybe they don’t turn their head, but instead you see this. The eyes just look over and you can tell the spouse is thinking, “I had no idea about that story.” So, it’s therapeutic for them but also we want them to connect the dots, because when you come out of that meeting, now they understand what they want to worry less about, or more specifically, why they worry about whatever it is and why it’s important to worry less.

So, it plugs them into the things that maybe don’t keep you up at night every night but they’re in the back of your mind. And there’s something through their history or there’s just wiring that brought them to that point. These stories bring that out. These conversations bring that out. So, to have this conversation and we record them. People know they’re recorded. People in the office watch them and we’ll come in and say, “That was awesome. That was amazing,” because I’m just listening. It’s amazing.

Brad Johnson: Yeah. It’s financial couples therapy is what it sounds like to me. I was joking with Daniel Crosby, who was a therapist before he got into this space and this business is so much of that, psychology, therapy. Your story on spouse is actually learning for the first time why their spouse makes these money decisions. We all have baggage. We all have biases that we carry with us, just how we were brought up or experiences in life. And what you’re doing is creating a space where you can unpack that and so that they can start to understand the why and maybe why they haven’t had success with their financial situation in the past. So, that’s really cool. Are there any, obviously, we don’t want to get into anything personal that’s a private information of a client or a prospect. But has there been one story that stands out over the years where you’re like, “Wow. This one like just blew me away that I experienced this kind of happened in front of me,” between a couple that was kind of going through one of those sort of experiences?

Ross Marino: Yeah. I’ll do a quick individual one, then I’ll do a couple. So, we had an individual widow. She inherited a bunch of money. Didn’t know how much money she was going to inherit. So, it was many millions so life-changing in dollar amounts, right? So, person was out of town, told him, “Why don’t you just come into town? Let’s hang out. We’ll spend time. We’ll go through this,” because it was a struggle on a Zoom call to make decisions. Something just wasn’t clicking. And I didn’t know why. So, he said, “Why don’t you come in? Let’s just have an appointment.” So, I’ll fast-forward it. It took about 2.5 hours to just having conversations and talking through “This is what my mother did.” They didn’t know. Dad kept the money. Didn’t tell anybody. Left it all to mom. Didn’t tell anybody. This lady had a modest job. My client did well. Highly budgeted, great, stays on top of money, brilliant lady, great thinker, but in the education system didn’t get paid well, but did really well with the money.

And then all of a sudden finds out, here’s this money that was there and they never got a dime. And about 2.5 hours into the meeting, she actually slams her hand on the table, leans in to me and says, “I will not be like my mother.” And there it is. Now, we shift the conversation and talk about how do we give money to charities. Because she is not going to die with millions of dollars when it could do so much good because it could have helped her and her family so much. Ten grand a year would have made a difference. And here’s mom and dad with millions saying nothing and living forever. So, to get to that point, to understand now this is your why. Here’s your mission. Yeah, you want to live well, you’ll spend a little bit of money, but you will not be like your mother. And now we’re able to help out other family members, fund education. We’re able to do things that are powerful and they matter to her. But if I didn’t keep talking through not tax strategies, but what your life was like, what went on, we’re not going to get there. And, yeah, it took 2.5 hours before she slammed the table and we finally got it.

On the couple side, what you’ll have is specifically, a traumatic event. So, here’s a prime example, one spouse had most of their wealth in a single stock and it was right before 2008. They retired. They pulled their money out of the stock. And then within like 30 days, that bank goes bankrupt. So, here’s someone that was this close to losing almost the majority of their retirement after decades. And if that don’t freak you out, I don’t know what will. So, here’s the one spouse who pay cash for everything, pay down debt. “I don’t want to take risk. If I don’t understand it, I can’t invest in it.” “Well, what do you understand?” “I’m not sure I understand any of it.” Bright guy but he doesn’t understand any of it because he almost lost his entire wealth in a bank stock. He will not invest.

The other side, the spouse, hard worker, bright lady, built everything on her own, created great wealth. They are opposite ends of the spectrum on how they approach risk and money. And in that meeting, his traumatic event, how she grew up, it all of a sudden all made sense for me to say, “You’re not going to feel like each other. One side is going to be more comfortable risk. One side is going to be less comfortable with risk. That’s not going to change. So, let’s embrace it. Let’s figure it out.” And that was something where they never had those kind of conversations. But it was how they grew up and it was some events that have wired them in a way where they’re just not on the same page like, “I don’t know why she thinks that way.” “I don’t know why he thinks that way.” Now, they know why.

And here’s one other point I’ll make. I’m not a therapist. I don’t hold myself out like a therapist. I don’t feel like a therapist. I’m literally, Brad, just asking questions so they can think through this stuff. The conclusions come out all by themselves. If someone has major conflict and I just did this three weeks ago, I refer them to a CFP that is also a financial therapist. I have no problem doing that, but normally, it’s just people talking through and you just get to the core of what their why is. So, I’m mostly asking questions. I’m not making them think I’m really smart and I have massive insight into this like a therapist. I’m just asking questions but the stuff comes out and it’s life-changing.

Brad Johnson: Wow. Thanks for sharing those stories. That’s what I love about this business. It’s just the people side of it, and it’s amazing the work we can do. I mean, that’s literally life-changing work right there that if you’re not there mediating that, that couple might be fighting for the rest of their lives when it comes to money. Are there questions you’ve found in those situations, like kind of probing questions or questions that you kind of peel the onion back a little bit that have proven to work over and over?

Ross Marino: Yeah. I’d say there’s a great list from Brendan Frazier. So, he’s got it in there. And a lot of the questions you will see circulate with other questionnaires. The ones that I focused on so I’ve practiced a few. I’ve changed the sequence to see how the meeting goes. A lot of people like, “So, what does money mean to you?” I’m like, “You’re going to lead with that? I can’t even answer that question. I mean, I don’t even know what that means,” but there’s a lot of people that lead with that. So, I’ve tried a lot of these different questions, and some of it I just wasn’t comfortable with. Here’s what I’ve come to now. I’ve got two questions that I think if you’re an advisor for one year, you can do this. You’ve been doing it for 30 years. You’re like, “I don’t want to do that human stuff.” Well, here’s two questions. You can do it. Here’s what they are.

The first is I would love to understand how your views on money were shaped because everybody’s been influenced as we grow and mature. Just as you’re nodding, everybody nods and like this is part of our life. So, if you don’t mind me asking, go back to maybe growing up, your childhood, was there anybody specifically or some people that actually influenced how you view money? Anybody can answer that question, Brad. Everybody. And what’s always amazing is, is they don’t do this where they sit and go, “Oh, let me see. Growing up. I wonder,” said by no one ever. Nobody does that. The story is there. They have their story. So, I start with who. That’s number one. Who influenced your views on money? And if they don’t come out with a strong who from the family, then I may go to authors, podcasts, or someone they worked with.

But there are people that there are experiences with them that have influenced how they view money and ultimately drives how they make financial decisions. So, that’s the who. That’s the first question. Family is a good place to start. And then the second is what. What events or what experiences influence the way you make financial decisions? And when you ask the what, just did this with a couple a little while ago, the wife had a horrible divorce a couple of decades ago, was saddled with the high-interest rate, maxed out credit cards, and it was up to her to take care of it. You know, deadbeat spouse. Very traumatic. The husband did 100% financing on the house because, “Hey, I work hard, I make money, and real estate goes up forever,” in case you didn’t know that, by the way. It goes up forever. So, he ends, of course, having to file bankruptcy because the real estate market crashed.

So, those are two events in each person that completely dictated why they have no debt. They paid off their mortgage. They don’t save much for the future because they don’t care as much about the future but they got cash and they’re okay right now, right? So, there’s always a who and there’s always a what. There are people and experiences around those people that influence what they think, how they feel, and ultimately what they do with money. And then there’s events that they’ve gone through. It could have been the first job. It could have been losing a job, getting evicted, could have been making good investments. There’s something that they did that is really ingrained, “This is what you have to do. Here’s how I do it.” If I can tap into those two things, any advisor can do this. You’ve now gone human first, and you’re able to offer much more appropriate guidance for those clients.

Brad Johnson: Those are great. Thanks for sharing this. And I can even see the what question, going back to the story you just shared of the couple, the husband that almost lost it all in the bank. I’m sure the what question that came out that was probably the first thing he mentioned. So, cool. Well, in our little bit of time here we have left, you mentioned something a while back I wanted to go back to. You said, number one, you’re fully virtual now and you said number two, almost all of your clients are either females, older ladies, widowed or divorced, or the female is the decision maker when it comes to finances. So, I’m curious, did that niche just evolve into that? Was there a specific focus on that niche and serving that clientele? How did that come to be?

Ross Marino: An interesting question, other than rebranding our practice and writing the copy for the web page seven, eight years ago, I haven’t done anything marketing-wise so it is just purely driven by referrals. The people that we connect with are comfortable and they refer other people. So, yeah, there’s no intent behind it. Going forward, we will craft that a little bit better and make that known that, “Hey, this is what we do and we’ll have some specific materials or education. I love to create content, so we’ll do some of that.” But, yeah, there really hasn’t been any marketing intention behind it. But because it’s referrals, the people who appreciate you the most and are most comfortable with you, they’re the ones who are going to drive the referral so that’s what seems to happen.

Brad Johnson: Well, I could see and I don’t want to invent a reason, but just hearing your approach and also just over the years, realizing oftentimes the female when it comes to talking finances and money, typically a lot of advisors, especially males, not purposefully, they’ll almost direct all of that conversation at the male, assuming they’re the financial decision maker, and completely forget the female and not show like the equal level of respect in that conversation. So, I wonder if just even that human first approach in some of these questions where you’re really getting into the stories and the emotions and the why behind those decisions, I wonder if that’s just naturally attracting a more female-based client. Do you think that has anything to do with it?

Ross Marino: I agree 100%. I think it does. And the focus on money and numbers is to some people unsettling because it’s not all about the numbers, and they know that. We all know it. I don’t sit around thinking, “How much life insurance should I have?” I think what happens if I pass away to my wife and two daughters? So, everybody’s thinking about the human side. They’re thinking about the why instinctively. We just don’t get there because we may be investment geeks or planning geeks, and that’s what we want to talk about. So, it’s natural that if you start asking someone, “Tell me about your history. Tell me how you grew up. Tell me about your events,” they’re going to share and they’re going to feel like, “This guy gets me. He actually understands. He care.”

So, to me, from a marketing standpoint, that’s an instant separating activity. You now are different from other advisors or what they were expecting. And we get that or they say, “Oh, I just thought we were going to talk about money.” I’m like, “Oh, we’ll get to it. I geek out on that stuff. I love talking about it, but that’s not today. So, we got to understand what makes you tick because,” and this is something I repeat regularly, “what’s appropriate for you isn’t necessarily appropriate for your neighbor,” even if they’re the same ages, make the same amount of money, and have the same amount of money. And everybody nods. They’re like, “Right.” I’m like, “Everybody’s unique. So, I’ve got to understand who you are. So, we’d love some insight into that.” So, they appreciate it. And the women, of course, I think are more attracted to that.

Brad Johnson: Yeah. Was there any focus specifically? Was there a shift where you went, “Hey, we’re going to focus virtual only? Because, I mean, I would assume with you doing it as long as you have, it was very much a sit across the desk, “Let’s have an in-person appointment,” when you first started. Was that an evolution where you’re like, “No, we’re going 100% virtual at this point”?

Ross Marino: Yeah, I was always there but not because I thought virtual was cool. So, when I told you earlier when I was dialing two phones, I would cold call people that were at least three hours away because basically, I didn’t want them to know there were some 22-year-old kid calling them on the other end of the line. So, I built my book with all out-of-town people in my first couple of years and in different states and had different strategies, but nobody was local because I was just afraid they’d meet me and say, “I have grandkids older than you.” I’m like, “Well, that’s a great way to start a relationship.” So, I was phone only for a while. And then of course, when I injured my back and was in a room over my garage for six years, the last thing I wanted to do was meet someone because I would have to tell them, “Why don’t you come over to my house?” Because I couldn’t stand much and I couldn’t really sit, so I had to keep that on the phone as much as possible. And I still don’t sit really well.

So, I’ve always been mostly phone. But when the pandemic came, I was really able to shift towards Zoom, and for me, it was the greatest thing that ever happened professionally because now I didn’t have to sit in meetings. And I don’t go out to lunch with clients. I don’t go out to dinners. All the normal networking stuff never did it, can’t do it, or even when I could, I don’t care to do it. But I eventually went to Zoom and realized that 99% of our clients are comfortable with Zoom and ones that aren’t, other than maybe one, they love the fact that they figured out how to do Zoom. I know one guy, 90-plus years old. He spent like an hour and a half. He was not going to let his iPad beat him. He is going to figure out Zoom. And he had called Liz in our office. Went on with me a little bit. They eventually got it on the iPad. He was so happy. He was like, “There you go. Look at this. This is great.” Happiest could be.

So, nobody’s getting offended or upset or anything like that. You connect so much better by video. So, I’ve been virtual for years and years due to other situations but once the pandemic came, I just drove all in and I told everybody. We’re virtual first. And a primary reason is you’re not going to make an appointment with me if you don’t have time to see me. So, if you have a quick question, you’re not going to make an appointment. Or even if you have the time, you’re going to feel that if you just have a question, you don’t want to really ask that in a meeting and take up everybody’s time. But we Zoom with clients sometimes for ten minutes. Had a quick question? No problem. Let’s jump on. We contact people and interact with them more because of Zoom than if we would have in person. Deeper relationships were more accessible. We connect more, makes for a better client relationship.

Brad Johnson: Awesome. Thanks for diving into that. That makes a lot of sense. I mean, especially with your background, I mean, you kind of had to be virtual for quite a while there. You were just ahead of the game, man. That’s all.

Ross Marino: Yeah. I wish it was from wisdom but I’ll take it anyway.

Brad Johnson: Well, hey, as we wrap, Ross, this is the Do Business Do Life show and one of our approaches at Triad is to help our members, to help our team create unlimited growth, joy, freedom in both their business and their life. And so, I would love to hear what is your definition of doing business and doing life as we wrap here.

Ross Marino: Yeah. I think it’s where you don’t feel like you’re working too much or you’re not working enough, and you’re able to be home for dinner, if that’s what’s important to you. I’m real big on balance. I’m entrepreneurial. So, instinctively, balance means work 70 hours a week. It’s because, isn’t that normal? Isn’t that what successful people do? I wake up early. I’m usually up at four in the morning and I have a morning routine. But I think to figure out how to work things together to where they balance and always adjust is something you have to do. I just am in the middle of a realignment of doing business and doing life so today is actually a great question. We’re recording this on Friday. This is the last Friday I have everything on my calendar for the foreseeable future. So, I have now made Friday, Health Day and Family Day. And even just texted my wife saying, “Yeah, last day.” And then I’m hanging out at home on Fridays and I’ll work out or play pickleball or golf and hang out with my family, and that’s okay.

So, I cut it down to four a week. Doesn’t mean I’m not going to work too many hours, but I’ll do them early in the morning. I’ll do them when other people aren’t up, but always, always analyzing, looking at your values, looking at what matters, and trying to adjust your schedule accordingly. Because sometimes you got to work a little more, but sometimes you don’t. And if you don’t, then put some more time in the family. Or sometimes family needs pop up and you got to spend more time with the family and less at work. And guess what? It’s okay. So, it does not matter, right? And you know the old joke is nobody’s on their deathbed saying, “Man, if I would have worked a little harder. I can’t believe I didn’t work 70 hours a week or work hard or make more money,” right? No, nobody’s saying that. So, challenge: Am I doing work? Am I doing life? Review regularly, is the balance where it should be? And I think you’ll be okay.

Brad Johnson: Love it. Well, hey, good for you, man. I love that you’re taking Fridays off, so thanks for sharing your last Friday working at least for the foreseeable future with us. And you brought a ton of value to the audience out there. So, thanks for sharing so openly and hopefully someday our paths cross in person. This has been awesome, man. So, thank you.

Ross Marino: Now, I appreciate you having me on the show. I love the questions. Love what you do. You’re obviously an influencer in our profession. You’ve been helping people make decisions as well. So, thanks for what you do for the advisors out there.

Brad Johnson: Thanks, Ross. Till next time.

Disclosure

These conversations are intended to provide financial advisors with ideas, strategies,
concepts and tools that could be incorporated into the advisory practice, advisors are
responsible for ensuring implementation of anything discussed is in accordance with
any and all regulatory and compliance responsibilities and obligations.

Copyright Triad Partners, LLC 2024
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