Making the Numbers Empathetic

Blog Empathetic Numbers

Financial professionals get a bad rap. We’re seen as “numbers people” as opposed to “people people.” This reputation isn’t entirely unwarranted. We do like our numbers. Numbers don’t lie. They tell the story of a business without the emotional baggage. They cut through the “gut feelings” many business owners use to run their businesses.

Numbers help us see the truth more clearly.

The problem is, business owners want someone who can relate to them as people. And when we keep pointing to “the numbers” or “the data,” we’re not relating to our clients in a language they can understand.

If we’re going to get through to our clients, we must make the numbers empathetic.

Translating the story of a business

“Making the numbers empathetic” might sound like woo-woo nonsense, but you’re already halfway there. You already know that numbers tell the story of the business.

You just have to translate that story into language your clients understand. And you probably already know how to do that, too.

As a financial professional, you know that the purpose of most businesses is to generate a profit. The exception is non-profit businesses. Non-profit businesses exist not to generate a profit, but to fulfill a purpose. That purpose is the “story” of the business. Any net assets (the bottom line on a statement of activities report – the non-profit equivalent of a profit and loss statement) are used to tell that story and fulfill the non-profit’s purpose.

Most small business owners look at their businesses through this same lens. It’s not that they don’t want to generate a profit – they absolutely do – but they are more focused on what the success of their business means for them than they are on profit alone. In other words, they focus on the purpose of their business and the story they can tell with it more than they focus on the numbers.

How do you make numbers empathetic?

You can make your business clients’ numbers empathetic by connecting the dots for them. Ask your clients what they want from their businesses. Then ask why they want it. You might have to dig around a little, but if you’ve built good rapport with your clients, you’re going to get a lot of emotional, touchy-feely answers.

This is exactly what you want. The emotional, touchy-feely responses – freedom to work on their own terms, flexibility to spend time with children or aging parents, providing jobs to people in their communities – tell the client’s story in their own words.

Once you’ve gotten a client to tell you their story in their own words, you can translate the story for them. And the question you have to answer to complete that translation is:

“How much money do you need to make that happen?”

Aha! Now we have our client’s story in a language we can understand, track, analyze, and use to guide the client as they work toward fulfilling their purpose. Now we have a Rosetta Stone we can use in our conversations with them to help them see where their “gut feelings” might be leading them away from the plot of their story.

Now we’ve made the numbers empathetic.

It takes practice

Just like learning any new language, it takes practice to make numbers empathetic. Start with a client you already have a good relationship with. One who already values your advice from the perspective of a “numbers person.”

Ask them, “What do you want from your business?”

Ask them, “Why do you want it?”

Then ask that all-important Rosetta Stone question: “How much money do you need to make that happen?” Write that number down.

Over the following months, translate the numbers you see on their financial statements into the elements of the story they want to tell for themselves and their family.

This is going to feel awkward and – dare I say – hokey at first.

Stick with it.


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