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.
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
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.
Picture this scenario, which gets repeated all too frequently:
A young man goes to college. Two months later he is rushed to the hospital and into the operating room for an emergency appendectomy. His mother calls the hospital in a panic and asks to know what is happening with her son. The hospital says, “I’m sorry; I cannot give you that information.” She says “But I’m his mother!” The response: “That doesn’t matter. For all of our adult patients, we can only give information to those authorized to receive it, and you are not authorized.”
You’ve educated your clients on the need for a Power of Attorney for Healthcare (aka healthcare proxy) for themselves, listing who can make their medical treatment decisions if they are unconscious or incapable of making those decisions. Clients may also be aware that HIPAA forms, which they regularly fill out at the doctor’s office when they have appointments, detail who can have access to their medical records.
What most clients don’t realize is that their kids need to have these documents in place as soon as they turn 18. Then they are legal adults, and no one gets access to their medical records or treatment information without express permission.
To avoid nightmare scenarios, take the following steps:
If the aforementioned young man had these documents in place, his panicked mother would have been given full access to his medical records and the details of his situation. She would also have had the right to make treatment decisions on his behalf while he was unconscious and unable to make them himself.
Especially given the state of our healthcare system, your clients and their family members need to take control of assuring who has access to medical information and the right to make treatment decisions. Addressing these areas with your clients helps you protect them and also extends your reach into the next generation. Any client who encounters such a situation will be forever grateful for your wise and prescient guidance.
Imagine a client’s daughter was in a bad car accident and is now in the hospital for what looks to be an extended stay. You call your client and spend 30 minutes asking questions and listening as the client pours out the story. As you hang up, you promise your continued contact and support.
Then what? How do you best fulfill that promise?
Here are three effective steps you can take that are different than what most people do:
These items give families a range of foods for breakfast, lunch, and snacks.
Each of these steps offers concrete, tangible benefits for the family of a hospitalized loved one. At the same time, they are things that fewer people will do, making your contribution even more notable. Use or modify these ideas to allow you to do the right thing for your client at a very difficult time.