Ideas. Lessons Learned, and Occasionally, Opinions

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On January 21, 2016
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It happens all too often these days. You pick up the phone and there is an angry client on the other end. The market has dropped yet again. More money disappeared. Emotions are at the boiling point. How do you handle it? 

Most advisers try to calm clients by “talking them down,” logically explaining the reasons why they should not be angry, or at least not angry at them. In some cases, this seems to work. Yet once clients hang up the phone, they are just as likely to mutter, “Yeah, that's what they all say.” 

You can more effectively address these strong emotions when you realize that your clients are angry because they are grieving. They feel they are losing something very important to them. Their attachment to their money is deep and complex because of what that money represents. For example, money can represent security, success, self-worth and identity. When money gets taken from them against their will, they are thrown into grief over their many and varied losses, and anger is a normal response to that grief. In addition, people often use anger as a cover emotion for a host of other feelings like fear, and they naturally search for someone to yell at or to blame. 

The trick is to allow clients to yell and vent their emotions to you without becoming the person they blame for the loss. In simplified terms, you need to recognize, name and allow their emotions, taking everything they have to dish out. Then, when their anger is spent, you can more calmly talk with them about how you will handle things together. So how do you do that? 

First, take a deep breath. Keep your voice measured and even. One useful tool is to make yourself smile. When you smile, your voice is automatically more calming, and it is easier to keep your own emotions in check. 
Then, to validate your clients and encourage them to talk it out, you can say things like: 

  1. “I can see that you feel very angry about this, and I can see why. Tell me more.” 
  2. “Yes, it is scary not knowing when the slide will stop. What are you most worried about?” 
  3. “You're absolutely right. We're all vulnerable and at the mercy of the markets right now. Everyone I talk with is upset and anxious. Have you found anyone who isn't?” 
Notice how each of these phrases authenticates emotions your client is feeling, and then invites them further into a conversation of partnership rather than conflict. It lets them know you are on their side and you understand. If clients start to blame you anyway, always try to climb back into their boat. Use the word “we” frequently. Keep them focused on the future, rather than the past. Request their input. 

For example: 

  1. “Yes, it is a helpless feeling to see the markets at least temporarily take away some of the fruits of our work together.” 
  2. “We always positioned you in the best way possible to withstand volatility like this. In fact, if we had it to do over again, knowing only what we knew at the time, I think we would have done the same things. What do you think?” 

Continue this pattern, always asking questions based on what the client is saying. You will notice the pitch of the voice lowering, longer pauses and slowed breathing as the anger gets spent and the client calms. Only then can you begin talking about what you can do together as you go forward. Ask what steps the client would like to take. Make appropriate suggestions for portfolio review, redistribution of assets, or simply keeping in contact every week or two. 


At the end of the conversation, make sure you thank clients for being honest with you. Tell them your door is always open, and you will listen even when it is hard. Reassure them that although times are really tough right now, you can weather the storm together and come out on the other side. 

If you can master these skills, your clients will come out of even angry conversations feeling heard, supported, and most of all, loyal to you. 

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On January 15, 2016
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It is inevitable. As a professional with long-term clients, soon or later you will be face-to-face with a client in grief or transition. What do you do? What do you say? 

If you find yourself at a loss for words, you are not alone. There has never been a financial advisor’s guide that explains what to say (or what not to say) and how to handle these potentially challenging and professionally awkward situations. When I became a 25-year-old widow with a 7-month-old baby boy, believe me, no one knew the right thing to do or say around me, including the financial professionals I needed to rely on.  And I’ve heard the same stories countless times since then, from more than 2000 grieving people. Instead, what most professionals do is either ignore the painful reality and stick to business, or pick up what other people say and inadvertently perpetuate the mistakes. 

You can do better than that. You can learn to do the right things and offer genuine comfort and support, no matter what your clients go through. 

One example: 
It is never a good idea to say “I know how you feel” or “I understand just what you’re going through” because you don’t. You are always wrong, and you will alienate your client immediately. What professionals often say instead is “I can’t imagine what you’re going through.” That is better, and in the past, I have endorsed that phrase.

However, as I continue to get feedback from research and in my support groups, I find that many grieving people don’t appreciate it. They especially resent it when, as sometimes happens, the words are dripping with drama – “I can’t IMAGINE what this is like for you!” Yet even if you take care not to go over the top when you say it, you risk isolating people. They hear your implication that they are so crazy or outside the realm of normalcy that no one else can even imagine what it’s like. And since no one can imagine it, no one can be there and help. It builds a moat around your grieving client that can’t be crossed.  

Besides, it ultimately is not true. We have very active emotional imaginations. Most of us can indeed imagine something of the pain and loss, the empty chair, the unanswered phone. In fact, imagining it is one key to building empathy, which is core to who we are as human beings and serves a crucial function in binding us together in mutually helpful ways. 

So if you aren’t supposed to say “I know how you feel” or “I can’t imagine what you’re going through”, what do you say instead? Consider asking one of the following questions, modified for the situation if necessary:

  • “I’m trying to imagine what you’re going through – would you like to tell me?” 
  • "I think if my child died, my body would actually hurt and I’d wonder whether I could trust the view I’ve always had of life. Is it anything like that, or what is your experience?”
  • “You probably have people telling you that they can’t imagine what you’re going through. If you could enter their imaginations and tell them, what would you want them to know?” 

Never assume you know what someone else is experiencing. Instead, ask open-ended questions and allow a grieving client to tell you, and then let your imagination take you as close as possible. That allows you to respond more effectively and serve your clients in ways others don’t know how to do.

When you know how to walk your clients through the toughest times of life, you build trust, loyalty, and referrals.

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On September 12, 2015
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Imagine a usual day. You grab a coffee and settle in at your desk. You conduct two productive client meetings and go for lunch before the afternoon’s tasks. There’s nothing unusual; it’s just a typical day. Then you answer the phone, you hear the hospital chaplain’s voice …..and nothing is ever the same again. 

Now imagine it’s the 5th anniversary. That fateful day is seared into your consciousness and it will never be just typical. Though others may expect you to be “over it” by now, you will never forget what happened or the person you so loved. 

Perhaps we can learn something from our public memorials of tragic days. Everyone older than 50 remembers exactly where they were when JFK was assassinated, and can still hear Walter Kronkite’s somber voice. It has been 25 years since the Shuttle Challenger exploded, but we remember the name McAuliffe as we mark the day. Ten years after 9-11’s smoke, sirens, and crashing buildings, we pause on the anniversary to show videos, tell stories of heroes, wipe away a tear, and proclaim that we will never forget. Whenever we experience a major loss as a nation, we remember, celebrate, and honor that loss for years to come. 

As these examples illustrate, when you are supporting grieving clients and friends, acknowledge that the goal of grief is not to forget or “put this behind us and get on with life”. Instead, we move on precisely because we remember, because we create an enduring memory to carry with us into a future that is different than anything we could have imagined before. We tell the stories and share appreciation for the privilege of having these people in our lives. We try to prevent this kind of tragedy from happening to someone else. We change in more ways than we thought possible. We live with grief and healing, allowing both to co-exist in the everlasting interplay between loss and gratitude, sorrow and joy. 

In your practice, never assume your clients are “finished” with their grief at a particular point in time. Honor their need to remember and let them know you understand.

Two simple steps you can take: 

  1. Don’t be afraid to say the name of the one who died. Your clients never want to forget, and they hope others don’t either. Too often, people talk about anything and everything except the person who died, avoiding the issue for fear they will open old wounds or “make” the survivor cry. In reality, saying the name assures survivors that someone else remembers and cares, and it opens the door for them to talk about their loved one if they choose. If tears arise, they were there anyway; you simply give permission for the tears to be accepted. Three examples that you can say in person or write in a card: - “It must be difficult to have these meetings without Jim; after all, it’s only been four months. Yet I think we’ve made good progress as we work together to honor his legacy and protect your future.” - “By now you’ve encountered well-meaning people who are afraid to mention Kathy’s name. Though not everyone will be open to it, I hope you still find opportunities to speak her name and tell her story.” - “When I read the newspaper story about the charity golf event, I remembered how Alan used to recruit everyone he knew to play in it. He made such a contribution to the cause.” (Substitute any story or memory that is appropriate and honest.)

  2. Gently acknowledge the anniversaries of a loved one’s death for several years afterwards. Do the same for birthdays and other special events. Call, send a card or note, and perhaps include a “comfort gift”. Examples: Call or leave a voice message that says, “Today is sure to bring a mix of emotions as you mark Helen’s birthday. I just wanted you to know I’m thinking of you.” Send a single flower with a note that says, “Those we love are forever remembered. I’m thinking of you on this 4th anniversary of Anne’s death.” Send a gift certificate with a card that says, “November 18 will never be just another day on your calendar again. Although I cannot take away your loss, perhaps you can at least enjoy a cup of your favorite coffee with this gift card.” When you acknowledge their loss, even years later, they know why they chose you as their financial professional – because you understand their experience in a way few others do.
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