Practice Management
Ask questions that move clients to action
Jonathan Young
Senior National Accounts Manager
  • Instant Influence is a motivational strategy developed by Dr. Michael Pantalon, senior research scientist at Yale School of Medicine, to help change people’s behavior.
  • By asking three simple questions, you can help someone discover their own powerful reasons they might want to make a change.
  • Instead of telling people what they should do, you can use this technique to better understand their needs and help improve your relationships. 

What’s the best way to convince someone to make a change? Most people mistakenly begin by listing the reasons. But, according to Dr. Michael Pantalon, senior research scientist at the Yale School of Medicine, executive coach and author of the book Instant Influence, it’s more effective to ask a person why they are considering making a change in the first place.

Say you’re meeting with a plan sponsor client to discuss their priorities for the coming year. According to a survey conducted by Capital Group, these priorities could include things like improving participant outcomes and participant engagement, or evaluating a target date series.

Our survey also revealed that even though DC plan sponsors identified improving participant outcomes as their top priority, many had not yet implemented consultants’ recommendations, such as utilizing auto-enrollment or auto-escalation, or completing an investment re-enrollment. There was a stark contrast between the advice the consultants provided and their actual implementation in retirement plans.

So, how might you go about getting a plan sponsor to take action on one or more of their top priorities? Applying the Instant Influence technique, the best way to convince someone to make a change is to ask them why they are considering making a change in the first place. You begin by asking a series of questions:

  1. “Why might you want to make a change?”
  2. “On a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 meaning ‘not the least bit ready’ and 10 meaning ‘totally ready,’ how ready are you to make that change?”
  3. “Why didn’t you pick a lower number?”

“The last question catches everyone off guard,” writes Pantalon. If the person you’re trying to influence has even a faint desire to do something, they will begin explaining their reasons. They move from defending their current behavior to articulating why, at some level, they want to behave differently. And that, Pantalon says, allows them to clarify their compelling personal reasons for making a change, which increases the chances that they actually will.

Ask, “Why might you want to conduct an investment re-enrollment?” Then, listen carefully to the reasons they give you. If they say, “Because I think an investment re-enrollment will help get more employees into the retirement plan,” dig deeper, and ask “Why is that important to you?” They may say, “Because I know that having more employees that are ready to retire when they turn 65 will save me money in the long run.” Or, they may say, “Because I need to protect my company from liability.”

Keep digging until you have uncovered at least one positive, genuine reason for making the change. As Pantalon says, “It doesn’t have to be emotional, but just something that really connects.” The more compelling the reason is to the client, the better they will remember the conversation and the more likely they are to follow through with next steps.

Get to the “Why” before the “How”

Instant Influence is based on three principles. According to Pantalon:

  1. No one absolutely has to do anything; the choice is always theirs.
  2. Everyone already has enough motivation.
  3. Focusing on any tiny bit of motivation works much better than asking about resistance.

Rather than dwelling on misconceptions or all the reasons not to do something, ask your client what they might like to do next. Pantalon elaborates, “You keep it tentative and hypothetical so as to allow the person to brainstorm and not be bogged down by their reasons why it can’t happen. You can say something like, ‘I understand you have some reasons for not making a change. That’s one side of the equation. What’s on the other side? If you were wanting to make a change, what would be the reasons in favor of it?’”

Whys to avoidWhys to rely on
Why don’t you...?Why might you...?
Why haven’t you...?Why would it be good for you to...?
Why wouldn’t you...?Why could it work for you to...?
Why can’t you...?Why might it benefit you to...?
Why shouldn’t you...?Why might you want to...?
Why couldn’t you...?Why might you decide to...?
Why aren’t you...?Why might you even think about...?

Source: Instant Influence, Michael Pantalon, Ph.D., 2011.

How to discuss next steps

Only after a compelling, personal, emotional reason has been identified is it appropriate to discuss developing an action plan. Ask permission to broach the topic of next steps. “Remember not to be prescriptive,” Pantalon says. “Instead, start with, ‘What do you think the next step might be?’”

In his experience coaching business professionals, Pantalon has often had to hold back advisors from telling people the reasons why they should do something. “Remember to be patient,” he says. “Sometimes these conversations work in kind of a mysterious way. It looks like nothing has happened. But even if they haven’t committed at the end of the meeting, it doesn’t mean that you haven’t influenced them. It’s starting to percolate, so leave well enough alone and agree to just follow up.”

Acknowledging what is important to investors can help financial professionals and plan sponsors improve engagement with clients and participants. Allowing clients to discover their own reasons for prioritizing retirement decisions can help improve participant outcomes with successful investment strategies.

Now, given all that you’ve heard, on a scale of 1 to 10, how ready are you to try Pantalon’s Instant Influence technique? And why isn’t your number lower?

Jonathan Young is a senior national accounts manager with 34 years of investment industry experience (as of 12/31/2023). He holds a bachelor’s degree in speech communication from Old Dominion University, and he holds the Professional Plan Consultant® designation.


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