Ideas. Lessons Learned, and Occasionally, Opinions
A salesperson called me a few days ago. He was so convinced of the value of his product that after our initial pleasantries, he praised its attributes for several minutes. I asked one question and he talked on for several more minutes. His mistake was that he didn’t stop talking long enough to find out why I might need his product or how it could best serve me. He lost the deal because he knew how to talk about what he was selling but he didn’t know how to listen to me.
How does this relate to serving clients experiencing loss or transition? Like the worst salespeople, the least supportive advisors are those that don’t know how to ask good questions and listen.
There is often a chorus of objections at this point. Usually they sound like these:
Sound familiar? Let’s look closer.
First of all, consider the flip side. What are the consequences of refusing to ask questions? If you carefully avoid the topic and do not bring your client’s grief into the room, there is a big white elephant sitting on the table between you. You both know it’s there but you are trying to ignore it, look over it, slide it to the side, or otherwise pretend it’s not there. It adds a level of tension as you participate in the game of mutual deception.
This feels very familiar to grieving clients, because they encounter it everywhere. Most people, from family to casual acquaintances, don’t know what to say so they say nothing at all. They talk about anything and everything except the person who died. They try to cheer grievers up, hoping to make them feel better. The bereaved people, not wanting to make others uncomfortable, go along with it, but it feels inauthentic and they walk away alone, isolated, and unsupported. Is that how you want your clients to leave your office?
The minute you acknowledge the truth, the big white elephant disappears. For instance, you can ask something simple such as: “What do you wish people knew about what it’s like for you now, a month after Paul died?” or “What has surprised you about the experience of going through Paul’s death?” When you ask an invitational, open-ended question like these, the big white elephant disappears and the tension evaporates. They know you care enough to ask, whether or not they choose to accept your invitation and talk about it. They know you aren’t avoiding the topic or hiding behind your spreadsheets.
Additionally, if they do choose to tell the story and you listen with care, you offer them support they aren’t getting from others. You genuinely help and comfort them, and at the same time you distinguish yourself in the field. You build a level of trust and loyalty you can’t get anywhere else. It’s good for your clients, and it just happens to also be good for business.
The bottom line: You have a lot to lose if you don’t ask; you have nothing to lose if you do.
In the past, the holiday season was a time of warmth, surprises, celebration, and hugs. Yet for grieving people, these days are cold and bleak. Hearing holiday songs, reading the ads, and walking into festively decorated stores only serves to rub the scab raw and thrusts the cold spear deeper into broken hearts.
The worst thing you can do is ignore your recently bereaved clients in this painful time. The second worst thing is sending them the same “Happy Holidays” card that you send to everyone else. Do something a little extra for a grieving client that acknowledges the loss. Send a card wishing Peace instead of Happiness. Consider sending a small gift with a card that reads: “Nothing could make up for Jim’s absence this season. Still, I hope you can enjoy this small gift from someone who cares. We are thinking of you, especially at this time of year.” Or “A single rose in memory of Karen. Her love for you and for so many people lives on in our hearts forever.” Or “It may feel out of place as everyone raises a glass in celebration this holiday season. We hope that in your own way, you can use this little bottle of Nate’s favorite wine to toast the memories of past holidays with him and the love that you carry with you through all the holidays yet to come. We’re raising a glass in his honor with you.”
If you really want to make a long-term impression, consider organizing an event early in December for clients whose loved one has died. You can segment if you’d like, i.e. by inviting your widowed clients. Host them for a breakfast or brunch, and do it up right. Have a nice meal, an attractive centerpiece, and attentive staff, so they feel pampered. When all are seated, welcome the group, saying you know the holidays can be difficult for grieving people and you wanted to give them something fun to anticipate along with the pain the coming weeks are sure to bring.
Print a list of questions for discussion and have them placed at each table to break the ice and get them sharing with each other. Introduce it by saying that everyone grieves in their own way, so what one person finds helpful may not be helpful to someone else. However, most grieving people do find some comfort in sharing experiences. Invite them to pick one card at a time and go around the table with answers, accepting whatever someone else has to say.
Examples for the questions: Tell one thing you loved about the person who died, and one thing that drove you crazy. Tell one well-meaning thing that someone said to you after the death that was unintentionally hurtful to you. Tell one thing you wish people would do or not do around you this holiday season.
After the meal, thank everyone for coming and tell them you plan to make this an annual event so they can return the next year. Perhaps have a drawing for the centerpieces at each table. Tell them you will call after the holidays to see what they liked best and if they have any suggestions for how you could improve the event next year. Then, of course, do call and take their feedback seriously.
These suggestions bracket the range of possibilities. The important thing is to be there for your clients in ways that most other people aren’t. When you demonstrate that you understand their grief and you care about more than just the money, you gain a client for life. And when their friends and associates experience a death in the family, what will your clients tell them about their uncommonly wise and compassionate advisor?
It’s almost time to send out holiday greetings to your clients. Yet what if your client’s family member died this year? If you send them a card wishing "Happy Holidays", then at best you tell them you treat your clients generically, sending the same card regardless. At worst, it lets them know you don’t understand at all and, like the rest of society, expect them to paste on a smiley-face and “be happy for the sake of the season”. In either case, the card heads straight to the trash, never to be remembered.
It is never a good idea to wish “Happy Holidays” to people going through the toughest time of their lives. Instead, you can offer authenticity and genuine comfort, distinguishing yourself from everyone else and helping your client at the same time. The first step is to choose a card that does not say Happy Hanukkah, Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, etc. Choose one that either has no words or that wishes peace or hope. Then include a hand-written note inside and consider including a gift card for a cup of coffee, a movie, a massage, or something else comforting.
Here are some possibilities:
When a client or colleague receives serious diagnosis or needs to undergo surgery, chemotherapy, or other treatments, people often rally around with support. They offer to bring food, provide rides to doctor’s appointments, watch the kids, etc. While grateful for all the offers, most people are still overwhelmed by trying to keep their network informed of medical progress, juggling responsibilities at work, and coordinating the needed help, all in the midst of the intense emotional and physical drain of the situation.
You can help alleviate that stress. There are several ways you can provide support that is different than what most people do. For example,
Spare your client or colleague the legwork by providing resources like these. Depending on your relationship, you may even wish to participate in offering practical help to the family. Regardless, let them know you care by providing concrete assistance at a tough time
When we talk about medical decision-making, especially in the later stages of life, there is a huge disconnect in our society between attitudes and implementation.
In fact, according to the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, only 26% of Americans have living wills or advance directives, even though 86% says it’s important to have their wishes written down.
As a financial professional who cares about your clients’ lives and the impact of healthcare on their finances, make it a part of your practice to recommend advance directives for every client, and offer the following basic information as a guide.
In broad terms, an advance directive is any document that allows a person to state “in advance” how they wish to be treated if they are unable to make those choices themselves. The most common advance directive is a living will. Contrary to what many people think, living wills do not have to limit treatment or “pull the plug”; they can also be used to request every medical intervention available. It is up to your clients to state what they wish.
Also, if someone is conscious, capable of making decisions, and able to sign permission forms, there is no need to consult the living will. Living wills only take effect when a patient is unconscious, demented, in the recovery room after surgery, highly medicated, or otherwise incapable of making their own decisions.
Rather than a cursory document with a couple of boxes checked off, the living will ideally is the clearest description possible of that person’s desires. Clients often list their wishes based on various situations, as they may want different treatments when imminently dying of cancer than when in a coma from which recovery is likely. Because perspectives change with age and state of health, these documents should be revisited at least once a year.
The advantages of living wills:
Common problems of living wills:
Just because there are a number of valid concerns about living wills doesn't mean that financial advisers should discourage their clients from creating the documents. Instead strongly encourage clients to write their desires as clearly and specifically as possible.
Some of these concerns are addressed by another form of living will. Consider giving your clients a form called The Five Wishes. It is available at www.agingwithdignity.org for $5 per copy, or $1 per copy when purchased in quantities of 25. It’s a very inexpensive way to provide real value to clients and their families.
The form includes everything found in a standard living will from the states. It also includes one legally binding part: The appointment of power of attorney for healthcare. Additional directives include comfort measures a person desires in their room (music, lighting, blankets, religious items), messages to leave with loved ones, and wishes for services. It is a more comprehensive form than the states provide, and almost all states accept it in lieu of their standard form. The only exceptions are AL, IN, KS, NH, OR, OH, UT, and TX, which accept it as long as it is attached to that state’s standard form.
In other words, The Five Wishes is a more complete form that addresses several concerns rather than only one, and it is accepted in every state (given the minor restriction in the eight states named.) If you are working with estate planning attorneys in your COI network, inform them of The Five Wishes and of your desire to have all of your clients use that form. Then there is less chance of discrepancies and overlap between your work and theirs. Like all forms of this nature, the latest one that is signed, notarized, and dated supersedes all previous copies, so it is not a problem to complete the more comprehensive form even for clients who completed the state’s standard form already.
Regardless of what form clients choose, schedule a follow-up to ensure they actually do complete a living will/Five Wishes, and that it is properly signed and notarized. Encourage them to distribute copies to their family members and to any person or institution involved in their care, including primary doctors, specialists, nursing home, hospice, rehab center, and hospitals. Offer to keep a copy in the client’s files at your office, in case a family member needs one and cannot locate it.
When you educate your clients and prompt them to complete a living will, you ease their fears that someone else will dictate their medical decisions. You keep them in greater control and take a burden off their family members. The resulting peace of mind is invaluable to your clients and consequently good for your business.
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.
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.
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:
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.