Ideas. Lessons Learned, and Occasionally, Opinions


On March 26, 2019
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Advisors are increasingly faced with deaths among their clients and the clients’ families. In large firms, there may be more than one a month.  If you can serve clients really well in those most difficult times, you create a bond of loyalty with the client and with the family members. Those who don’t know how to talk with grieving people are going to lose clients to those who do.  Here are a few ideas to consider when communicating with a client after the death of a loved one:

Welcome the client

When a client comes into the office for that first appointment after the funeral, you can recognize the reality that is right in front of you and yet genuinely make them feel welcome with something like this:  “I’m so glad you were able to make it in today. I only wish it were under better circumstances. Still, there is so much we can do together and I’ll do everything I can to make this very difficult process just a little easier for you and your family.”

Then, before you get to business, remember that grieving people hunger to talk to anyone who is willing to listen.  So invite clients to tell you about their experience. They will let you know if they don’t want to talk and you always follow a client’s lead, but most of the time telling the story is the most healing and cathartic thing they can do.

So ask an open-ended question such as:

  • Many clients tell me the time after a loved one’s death is like a roller coaster. What kind of a day is it for you today? Is this an up day, a down day, or all over the place?
  • What do you wish people knew about what you’re going through right now? 
  • People intend to be helpful but sometimes they say all the wrong things. Tell me something someone said that was helpful, and something someone said that you wished they hadn’t. 
  • People always grieve in their own way, and everyone is different. What differences do you see among your family and friends as they cope with this?

If you knew the person who died, also offer a story or a memory. For instance: “I will always remember her mischievous sense of humor. She caught me off-guard so many times, and all I could do was laugh! What else do you hope people remember about her?”Asking open-ended questions like these lets your clients know you have a clue about what they are experiencing and, unlike so many others, you care enough to listen to the truth

Establish common experience while recognizing uniqueness

Even if you had a similar grief experience, do not say “I know how you feel” or “I understand just what you’re going through.” Doing so is a sure way to alienate grieving clients because you are always wrong. 

Instead, let them know you’ve had a similar experience or have some knowledge of the grief process, but then allow for their unique situation by asking a question such as “How is it different?” or “But what is it like for you?” 

For instance: “When my mom died, I kept picking up the phone to call her before I remembered there wouldn’t be an answer on the other side, and that was one of the hardest things for me to accept. Is it like that for you? What do you struggle to accept?” This so much better than “I know how you feel” because you don’t.   

Encourage patience

Tell your clients that some things have to happen on a timeline, such as estate tax filings and trust funding deadlines. Show the list of those things and reassure them that you will make sure they get done without letting anything fall through the cracks. 

Other than that, most financial professionals understand that it’s not a good idea to make major decisions too soon, especially if they are irrevocable. In practice, though, this too often means advisors leave clients alone until they call to say they’re ready to talk. That is a mistake, because surely clients will be inundated with ideas from others about what they should do with their money, who they should talk to, or how they should handle things. 

Instead, after reassuring about the timeline, say something like: “Did you know that both science and financial regulations say that it’s better not to make major decisions right now? Physiologically, your brain just isn’t ready yet. So this is my recommendation. Take some time to breathe, take care of yourself and your family, get the estate settled, and just put one foot in front of the other. I will be calling you every week or two just to check in and see whether you have any questions or ideas you’d like to talk about. In fact, if someone offers you an idea that sounds good, bring them in. I’ll help you objectively look at whether that’s the best thing to do, and whether it’s best to do it right now. We’ll work together to make sure we’re protecting your loved one’s legacy and your financial future.”

These are just three examples of skills that distinguish you in the field and build lifetime loyalty. Remember, when deaths occur, as they inevitably will, survivors have their choice of hundreds of thousands of financial professionals who do a really good job investing money, insuring people, advising on retirement plans, and more. What is the differentiator clients want? They look for relationship and a financial advisor who understands their lives and knows how to support them in their grief. That is who will get their business. 

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On March 7, 2019
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We sometimes hear advisors assert that they don’t need training in grief support because their client base skews younger. Nothing could be further from the truth. 

First of all, remember that grief is triggered by any break in attachment. In other words, any life transition. So a client or a client’s child will grieve when they go to college, break up with a significant other, don’t make the sports team or get knocked out of a competition earlier than hoped, have a pet die, lose a job or get hired for a new one, get married, move to another part of the country, and so much more. In addition, over 1/3 of college students are within two years of the death of a family member or friend, and just over 30% of college students experience a death each year. This figure has always been partly due to accidents, but is increasing due to the rise in suicide rates and opioid overdoses. It is not just elderly parents or grandparents who die; it is too often classmates, friends, or siblings. 

As advisors, ignoring these facts serves no one. Acknowledging and addressing them places you front and center with your clients as the go-to resource for the entire family, not just the parents. So what do you do? 

Consider developing a program for teens in your office. Hold a one-hour session on financial literacy periodically and invite the high-school-aged children and grandchildren of all your clients. (Need more than information to attract them? Try pizza. It seems to be the Universal Attractant for teens!) Cover how to set up a budget, the facts about compound interest and how that affects both student loans and savings programs. Talk about accounts to begin putting money aside now, and teach them how to use the Wolfram Alpha Retirement Calculator. The quants in your crowd will especially love it, and best of all, it's an app. What’s not to like?  

Then include a brief segment on the grief. Acknowledge the many grief triggers, and the fact that so few people learn how to help themselves or each other get through it. Consider giving them the Corgenius book “A Friend Indeed: Help Those You Love When They Grieve,” telling them to keep it with them so they know what to say and do when a friend is going through a loss or transition. (Of course, it will also help them in their own grief, but it’s easier to put the focus on what is often so important for young people – helping their friends.) Among others, another potential resource is the Young Adult Grief Camps, which are specifically intended for ages 18 -22 and hosted by Actively Moving Forward. 

Finally, let the teens know they can always come to you with questions. If the questions or situation is non-financial and out of your sphere of expertise, you will help them get the answers they need. 

Following a protocol like this helps build your business for the future, ensures better retention of assets when they pass to the next generation, and builds personal satisfaction as you know you are making a difference in young people’s lives.

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