The most powerful tool financial professionals have at their disposal is the ability to ask clients probing questions about their needs, personal situations and businesses. It’s the foundation of effective problem solving for clients and demonstrating your value.

Yet, new research from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology AgeLab shows that many small-business owners believe their financial professionals or financial representatives fail to understand their businesses and offer solutions that miss the mark. It starts with a lack of probity, asking enough or the right questions, and listening for meaning.

“No two businesses are alike – this may seem like a truism – but by far, small-business owners voiced the most frustration with advisors who did not seem to know their business,” says Joe Coughlin, PhD, Head of the MIT AgeLab1. The AgeLab conducted a series of focused conversations with small-business owners to learn more about how financial professionals can best help meet their needs. Coughlin published his white paper on the key takeaways.

Too often, the AgeLab learned, financial professionals treat smaller businesses the same as larger firms. Larger businesses typically employ teams of specialists that focus on different disciplines such as information technology, purchasing, law, human resources, benefits, marketing, product development and delivery.  Small-business owners often must wear many different hats and are often scrambling to be everything from chief cook to bottle washer, according to Coughlin.

“Each owner is often navigating a continuous flow of conflicting demands and multiple roles while trying to do what is best for their employees and the future of their business,” Coughlin says. “While every owner is different, forging an informed and continuing partnership with them to help their business as well as fulfill their planning needs, will enable a relationship that will endure and grow as their business grows.”

There are essentially three ways that reps can take to better serve small businesses:

  • Learn more about the business owner and multiple roles he or she plays;
  • Know the business and its particular challenges; and
  • Partner with the owner by connecting with employees.

Know The Owner

Get to know the owner or group of owners by understanding the multiple roles they play for their business. Why did they start the business? Do they view themselves as a business owner or someone who delivers a specialized service such as a restaurateur, healthcare provider, legal or accounting expert or crafts person?

Learn more about what type of corporation they operate such as an S or C Corp, Limited Liability Company (LLC) or Limited Liability Partnerships (LLP), or Sole Proprietorship. The type of corporate entity can impact what solutions are proposed to solve business problems, including decisions about the selection of a particular retirement plan and its related costs. Offering a solution that doesn’t fit the specific needs of how a corporation is organized can be a nonstarter.

“It’s like you’re speaking a foreign language,” one business owner told MIT. “Even after you tell them (financial pro) that you’re an LLP, they bring out some plan or software made for incorporated businesses.”

Know the Business

Dive deeper into the details of the business to demonstrate greater knowledge of client needs as well as an interest in partnering for success. Know what the business sells, how they sell, what their market looks like and other insights about what makes the business successful.

Small-business owners want their financial professionals to demonstrate a greater appreciation of the nuances impacting their industry, according to Coughlin. He recommended that reps learn the company’s ebb and flow, what seasons and times of day are the busiest, and when the business owner is most likely to have time to meet or discuss problems and solutions, he says.

Know the Employees

MIT’s research shows that business owners want financial professionals to partner with them, “to help grow their business by helping them to be more efficient, more cost effective, and to better engage employees,” Coughlin says. Nearly all owners engaged by MIT expressed the need for financial professionals to engage their employees.

“I want my guys to know I care about them and I am doing the best I can for them,” a small-business owner explains. Another pointed out that helping motivate employees to save for retirement, especially younger employees, is a priority.

Engagement and education have been recurring themes from MassMutual’s prior employer studies and experience. It’s why our firm emphasizes the delivery of education through several mediums, including online, on the phone and in-person as appropriate. For instance, the demand for virtual education has soared during the pandemic and our data shows that virtual sessions are as effective or more effective than in-person meetings.

Whatever the challenge in helping small businesses, success begins with asking questions. Just as MIT’s researchers rely on questions to probe for problems, financial professionals can use questions to uncover solutions. Ask, ask, ask … and then listen.


Bob Carroll is Head of Workplace Distribution for Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Company (MassMutual®).


1Based upon interviews of small business owners conducted by Joseph F. Coughlin, PhD, Director, Massachusetts Institute of Technology AgeLab, and his Working Paper, Understanding the Jobs Of The Small Business Owner & Delivering Plan Advisor Value (2020).