Ideas. Lessons Learned, and Occasionally, Opinions
February is upon us, and a significant number of your clients are dreading it. No, it isn’t the cold, or the dreariness of winter. It’s Valentine’s Day.
In the past, this holiday of love was a day or warmth, surprises, celebration, and hugs. Spouses anticipated receiving a special card, candy or a carefully selected gift, extra attention, and reassurance of their lovability. Yet for widowed spouses, the day is cold and bleak. Hearing the ads and watching couples make goo-goo eyes at each other rubs the scab raw and thrusts the cold spear deeper into broken hearts.
The worst thing you can do is ignore your clients in this painful time. Remember, many people avoid calling on days like Valentine’s Day. That leaves them feeling even more alone and isolated. At the very least, send a card with a small gift. For instance: “No gift could make up for Jim’s absence. Still, I hope you can enjoy a few chocolates from someone who cares. We are thinking of you today.” Or “A single rose in memory of Karen. Her love for you and for so many people lives on in our hearts forever.
If you really want to make a long-term impression, consider organizing an event early in the day for widowed clients. Invite them to 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 Valentine’s Day can be difficult for widowed people and you wanted to give them something fun to anticipate along with the pain the day is sure to bring. Print a list of questions for discussion and place it at each table to break the ice and get them sharing with each other. Examples: Tell how you and your spouse met each other. Tell one thing that drove you crazy about your spouse. Tell one well-meaning thing someone said to you after your spouse died that was unintentionally hurtful to you.
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. As your guests leave, give them a small token such as a real or chocolate flower. Tell them you will call in a week or two 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 are widowed, what will they tell them about their uncommonly wise and compassionate advisor?
Christine Olson, a mother in Florida, experienced a nightmare. Her 22-year-old daughter died in a motorcycle accident. After her son found out there’d been an accident, it took 6½ hours of calling hospitals and frantic searching for Christine to receive confirmation that her daughter had died. The pain continued when she was told her daughter’s body was in the morgue, but it was closed for the night, and she would have to come back the next day to see her. She later found out that according to the National Association of Emergency Medicine, the average time nationally that it takes to notify the next of kin is 6 hours, and sometimes it takes up to a day. In her case, her daughter’s address was outdated on the driver’s license, so police had no idea who to contact
This mom used her excruciating experience to found a non-profit organization aimed at preventing other families from experiencing the horror she endured. The organization is called TIFF – To Inform Families First. It provides a secure way that people can enter their next-of-kin contact information into a database that is only accessible to law enforcement personnel. When there is an accident, the police use the driver’s license or state ID numbers to scan the database, and they contact next of kin immediately.
TIFF is currently is available only in six states – Florida, Colorado, Illinois, New Jersey, Ohio and Tennessee. Over thirteen million people are registered in Florida, and the organization is working to get the database active in every state.
For clients or their family members who live in these six states, let them know about TIFF now. For those who don’t, keep track of how the database is spreading across the country so you can notify clients and their families as soon as it is in force where they live.
In the meantime, encourage clients to have ICE (In Case of Emergency) information in their phone, in a wallet or purse next to their driver’s license, on a tag that can be attached to car keys, in the glove compartment of the car, on a Road ID tag attached to their shoes or watchband, etc. The more readily accessible the information is, the more quickly family can be notified of a crisis.
When you educate clients about resources like this, you let them know you care about more than just their money. You care about them and their lives.
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:
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.
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.
New FINRA regulations that passed in 2017 will take effect on February 5. One major provision requires every broker-dealer to make a good-faith attempt to keep on file an alternate contact form for every client. This will function somewhat like the medical HIPAA forms, giving permission for a specific person who can be called if the client can’t be reached or there is an emergency. I’m delighted to see this development, as I’ve been calling for this protocol for many years as a way to protect both your clients and your firm.
I believe, however, that the FINRA rule is only a start. As you may recall, I developed a Corgenius Diminishing Capacity LetterTM. It goes beyond the minimum required for compliance with the FINRA rule, since it allows clients to name more than one person plus the powers of attorney and it gives broader permissions for contacting those in the client’s trusted circle when there is a potential problem.
My simple template is as follows:
“I, [client name], give [advisor names] of [company name and location] permission to call my Durable Powers of Attorney and the following people if they suspect any diminishment in my physical, cognitive, mental, or psychological capacity.”
The form then has space to list at least three people, with their names, addresses, relationship to the client, and contact information. Your clients sign and date it, and you keep it in their files. Every year, you revisit the form to see whether names or items of contact information need updating.
With this form, you have greater leeway, as an emergency or inability to reach the client is not the triggering factor. If you have noticed worrisome signs and suspect a problem in any of these areas, you have explicit permission to call others, including those the client designated as having decision-making power over financial and healthcare matters.
In that call, of course, remember not to make a diagnosis, i.e. “I think your mom might have dementia” or “Your dad appears to be in a serious depression.” Instead, list what you see. “I’m calling to let you know I observed some disturbing signs in my appointments with your mom. She asked the same question three times in 25 minutes, even though I’d answered it each time. She has been unable to follow multi-step directions and forgets decisions we made at the last appointment. There may be an underlying medical cause, and I want you to be aware of it so you or other family members can watch for similar things and take appropriate steps. In the meantime, I am contacting my compliance department to make sure we are protecting your mom’s financial well-being in case there is an issue with her capacity.”
Be sure to document your observations and the phone call itself as evidence that you are doing everything you can to protect your client. This may also help you connect to other family members, who see you as a comprehensive advisor who cares about more than just your clients’ money. Be a wise guide for your clients, even in cases of diminished capacity.
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.
When a parent with young children is diagnosed with a life-limiting illness, the emotional devastation disrupts every facet of a family’s life. It is a nightmare all of us hope we never have to face. But, at this very moment, you may well have this occurring in your corner of the world.
Do you know what to do when this nightmare strikes one of your clients?
Beyond financial advice, how can you do more to serve these clients? One way to start is by learning to ask thoughtful, open-ended questions and following their lead on how much they’d like to talk. Excellent questions are things like:
For the kids themselves, there is a relatively new resource on the market that you can give as a gift. It is titled “Sammy’s Story” by Erica Sirrine. This simple, 25-page book is a tenderly written and colorfully illustrated read-aloud book for children ages 3 – 7 who are facing a parent’s death. It sensitively conveys concepts about illness and death, including what children can expect as the illness progresses. It also thoughtfully gives ideas on how the child can maintain a continued bond with the parent even after the death. Intended as a resource to be read with caring adults, it is perfect for family members or other adults as they support children through this most difficult anticipatory grief and what will follow.
Don’t let your own discomfort keep you away. Be there for your client and the family. You will make more of a difference than you know.