Financial Planning

Building strong relationships with your clients

26 April 2021

Money & Life team

Money & Life contributors draw on their diverse range of experience to present you with insights and guidance that will help you manage your financial wellbeing, achieve your lifestyle goals and plan for your financial future.

With more than two decades’ experience in financial planning, Michelle Flanagan CFP® has delivered life-changing advice to many clients. After taking up her new role as Senior Wealth Adviser with The Wealth Designers (TWD) in 2020, she talks about her approach to financial planning and how it helps her build strong and rewarding client relationships.

As a graduate in accounting and business back in the 90s, Michelle Flanagan knew she had a head for numbers but was unsure about the career that would suit her best. “I always liked working with numbers but helping people was really important to me,” she says. “I come from a small town of around 100 people in country NSW. Being part of our community and making it work was all about helping out whenever we could, so it feels right that I’ve found my place in financial advice as a way of helping people.”

Understanding advice from every angle

While her career choice is a good fit for her skills and personality, Michelle ‘fell into financial planning’ more by chance than design. “The initial idea of working in financial advice came about when I was sitting at my Aunt and Uncle’s house after completing my degree wondering what to do next,” she says. “They suggested I speak with a financial planner they knew and that’s how it all started. It was a small boutique company with their own license, and I started there working in administration, learning everything about financial advice from the ground up.”

Experiencing 20+ years of change in the way practices operate has given Michelle deep insights into every aspect of the financial advice process. “Back in the day I was inputting data manually,” she says. “There were no data feeds, so we really got to know every single layer of information that goes into financial advice. This gives you a good grounding for knowing how to find things out and get answers.”

With the commitment Michelle was showing to taking care of every detail in her support role, it wasn’t long before she advanced to practice manager, followed by a promotion to general manager. “Throughout this stage of my career I was always involved with clients, presenting portfolio work and developing close relationships with them,” she says. “So when colleagues suggested I should become a financial planner, it seemed like a natural next step.” Michelle completed her Diploma of Financial Planning with Deakin University in 2003 and hasn’t looked back since completing her CFP® in 2018.

Advice for all Australians

Michelle’s latest career move came from a strong alignment between her own motivation to help more Australians achieve their dreams and the business strategy of financial planning practice The Wealth Designers(TWD).  “With our scale and service approach, TWD have a strong commitment to providing advice to all Australians,” she says. “Our approach is all about delivering genuine value in a consistent way, regardless of the type of client we’re working with. Through our three tiers of services – Private, Advisory and Essential – we can offer valuable advice at the right price point and scaled to our client’s needs, whether they’re complex or relatively simple.”

In recent times, TWD has grown to engage clients across Australia, with the majority of their clients still based in Western Australia, where they have their headquarters. In her Sydney office, Michelle is dedicated to helping clients by delivering TWD’s unique service offering that ranges from foundational financial planning advice like consolidating super right through to more complex matters involving SMSF strategies and succession planning for families.

“When delivering an Essential service to clients, it’s about exploring what tweaks we can make to ensure what they’re doing with their money is setting them up to achieve what’s most important,” she says. “Typically, these clients are young families or small business owners and there are always small wins we can find to help them on their journey.

“Advisory clients have more complex needs and range from professionals to medium-sized business owners and retirees. I also tend to work with a lot of women going through divorce, separation or the loss of a partner. I find in these circumstances I can add a lot of value by holding their hand and helping them navigate their finances during what is a very stressful time for them. Our Private service is generally delivered to wealthy families where I enjoy working closely and forming relationships with different members of the broader family.”

Discovering values and goals

Creating this trusting relationship and gathering knowledge of what’s most important to each client comes from the discovery and engagement process that Michelle works through. “No matter what service we’re delivering to a client or where we are on their journey, we want to be focussing on the goals and outcomes that will really make a difference to their lives and how they’re feeling about the future,” she says. “This comes from having deeper conversations within our discovery session.

“We start by talking about their fundamental financial needs to understand where they’re coming from, then we talk about what they aspire to achieve and what’s getting in the way of achieving those hopes and dreams. And we’ll also seek to understand the significance of these outcomes to each client because that allows us to grasp what they truly value and where they need help to embed those values into their lives. We use this to develop our ‘outcomes map’ and that’s what really drives forward our engagement with each client and keeps strengthening our relationship with them over time.”

Delivering value, year on year

Michelle and the TWD team complete formal documentation with an engagement letter that outlines very simply, the clients’ aspirations, hopes and dreams along with the advice and services TWD believe are most suited to help them achieve these outcomes. “We engage with every client annually on a pure value-based fee. That means each year we’ll revisit the goals and aspirations that we’re working on together, making sure they’re still relevant. Some years there is greater complexity, and we can deliver more value which means that our fees increase, other years, it’s the reverse. Clients and our professional partners find this approach refreshing and for me, it just makes sense to have fees focused on the value added each year.”

The benefit of delivering this advice proposition doesn’t only come from giving clients expert financial advice in order to work towards their goals. Creating the opportunity for them to really connect with their values and purpose is a big part of the challenge and reward. “Sometimes the discussions where we arrive at these outcomes will see couples talking together about personal, specific objectives in a way they never have before,” says Michelle. “We might have someone tell us how important it is to invest for their kids’ education because their parents made big sacrifices to help them succeed. When people open up about these things and you have the chance to support them with acting on these values, it’s a real privilege.”

“I’m truly amazed what I learn from my clients,” she adds. “The COVID pandemic has brought us even greater opportunities to really get to know them. Before, it was all about being more formal and seeing clients in the office to save time. Now we’re seeing them in their homes, and we have even more ways to understand what’s important and what motivates people and offer value and solutions where we can.”