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How to engage clients to uncover their hidden retirement needs

OCT. 26, 2018

One of the best parts of my job as Nationwide’s Chief Innovation Officer is meeting with customers all over the country, in their homes to learn about their lives and what is most important to them.

On one of these recent trips, I met Mark and his wife Lori. Mark and Lori are a middle-aged couple who live in the suburbs of Columbus, Ohio. As we sat at their kitchen table, the conversation centered around retirement and whether they were really saving enough money in their 401ks, IRAs, etc., especially given their fear of balancing retirement savings with unexpected health care costs. This was not a shocker, since a recent survey by the Nationwide Retirement Institute found that six in 10 people are terrified of how health care costs may derail their retirement plans.1

Our team could have easily stopped there, wrapped up the conversation and left satisfied that we had confirmed our assumptions. However, if we are truly going to innovate for our customers, we need to dig deeper to uncover unexpressed (some call them latent) needs that might be hiding below the surface. It’s not that customers hide these from us, it’s that they just don’t think to share them and sometimes can’t even express the needs if they do think about them.

To get a more detailed picture of Mark and Lori’s world, and perhaps to identify some unexpected opportunities, we pressed on and continued to ask open-ended questions about their lives. Toward the end of our discussion, the couple shared something that surprised us. At the end of the day, their main goal for retirement is to buy and run a bed and breakfast. To them, retirement wasn’t at all about sitting back, taking time off, and eating into the money they saved their whole lives. It’s about an ability to live comfortably in retirement, where comfort is more of a gig than a retirement. That is a very different objective than just balancing retirement and health care costs, and it creates an opportunity for us to offer a broader range of solutions for people with similar goals.

This story is a perfect example of a hidden desire that clients may have in the back of their mind, but might not think to mention during the natural course of a conversation.

Empathy interviews make for delighted customers

At Nationwide, we define innovation as “delighting people by solving their needs in ways they can’t even imagine.” What does that feel like for a customer? Imagine a product you didn’t know you wanted, but then once you used it you couldn’t imagine going back. That is true innovation, and it starts with uncovering people’s hidden challenges and desires – just like Mark and Lori’s dream to run a bed and breakfast.

We call the type of discussion we had with Mark and Lori an “empathy interview” because the goal is to put ourselves in our customers’ shoes and develop a deep understanding and empathy for them and their problems. Establishing empathy is the first step in our innovation process, which is commonly referred to as design thinking. But, before you can walk in someone else’s shoes, you have to take off your own; and doing that is harder than most people think.

Tips for conducting an empathy interview

Though you’ve probably never referred to your client conversations as empathy interviews, your role as an advisor is very similar to the work we do in innovation. In fact, we’ve heard from many of you that the more you listen, the better you can help your clients. Ultimately, it’s about listening closely, understanding your clients’ needs and helping to address them.

If you think some of your clients may have unexpressed pain points or goals that you could help them solve, here are some tips to help you facilitate a conversation and enhance empathy.

Start with an open mindset (like a child’s)

Perhaps the most critical step in conducting an empathy interview takes place before the conversation even starts. You have to begin with an open mind and without a predetermined idea of where you want the conversation to go. Kids are great at this; they don’t know how the world works, so their observation and curiosity skills help them understand it. It’s much harder for adults. Approaching the discussion this way, however, helps ensure the client is in the driver seat and your own biases and assumptions don’t influence the path.

Ask open-ended questions

Another way to remove personal bias is to ask open-ended questions, and especially open-ended questions based on real situations, not on hypotheticals. For example, “Tell me about the last time you found yourself really concerned about retirement. Why?” or “What was the last conversation you had with a family member or friend about retirement? What did you talk about?” Listen actively and encourage them to talk.

Then, follow up and dig deeper to really get to what’s most important to your client. Asking questions like “Why is that?” and “Tell me more about that,” can help pull out details that provide the deepest insights.

You could also employ the “Five why” method which involves asking “Why?” questions five times in a row. To avoid sounding like a broken record, mix it up with questions like “Why is that important to you?”, “Why are you concerned about that?”, “Why does that cause you frustration?”, etc.

Listen to understand – not to sell

To establish real empathy with your clients, it’s important to focus on listening to understand their problems first. The temptation to jump right to a solution is hard to overcome, and this approach may feel like you’re not selling as directly as you would like. However, by more deeply understanding people first, you not only build more trust and rapport with your client, but you also may discover needs they didn’t even to know to ask about.

It’s often said that customers are the last source of innovation because they can’t imagine something that’s different from what they have today. However, in my experience, if you sit down and engage them deeply, ask “why” throughout the conversation, and put yourself in their shoes, you can uncover expressed and unexpressed needs you can help them solve.

At Nationwide, I believe that we should fall in love with people’s problems, not our solutions. If we truly want to delight someone, solving a problem they didn’t even think to ask about is a great place to start. Just ask Mark and Lori.


  • 1

    Nationwide Survey “Health Care and Long-term Care Consumer Survey.” Consumer study of U.S. adults ages50+. February 2018.