When advisors are working closely with clients to help them reach their goals, things can sometimes get quite personal.

Merrill Lynch advisor Stephen Stabile experienced this when he worked with a couple who had a special-needs child. "We had a great relationship with this wonderful client," Stabile says, but it turned out his group had no knowledge of the clients' family situation, partly because they were reluctant to talk about it, even though planning for their child was so overwhelmingly important to them.

"That immediately caused us to reflect back on our practice," Stabile says. "We asked, how well do we know our clients and are we truly solving for what's important to them? That was a really pivotal moment for us where we redefined our practice."

Stabile urges advisors to ask themselves whether they're really helping to solve the problems that are most important to clients. "If we're just investing, we're doing our clients a major disservice," he says. "Yes, we may be helping them to invest, but we're not really helping them the way we can, and should, be."

By deepening relationships with clients, a goals-based approach increases retention and referrals, advisors say. "The relationship is deeper," says Boston-based Merrill Lynch advisor Mary Mullin. "It doesn't hinge on the last stock idea. It's based on a long-term plan."

Broad-ranging discussions help her to connect with "the silent spouse," and deeper conversations naturally lead to bringing other family members to the table.

"Instead of just talking to us about a transaction, they're talking to us about pretty intimate things," Mullin says. "Then I hear, ‘Will you talk to my children? And with all these details about our estate planning, maybe you should talk to my mother,'" she says. "And next thing you know, we're working up and down the family tree."

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