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.
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.
Our speaking engagements put us in contact with many of you smack dab in the mayhem of one of the stock market’s most volatile 60-day periods in memory and the worst December since 1929. Clients have a "relationship" with their money, and when that deeply personal relationship ends or takes a unilateral relational break, they grieve. So when this period happened, and when it inevitably happens again, what do you say to frightened, angry, grieving clients?
Many advisors told us they said (in language that was sometimes more colorful to emphasize the point): "I know how you feel. My portfolio is doing the same thing, and it hurts!" We saw similar words in various sources, but the gist of the message was the same: "I get it. I know exactly what you're going through because I have money in the market, too."
I understand the good intent. You want to reassure clients they are not alone in their sorrow over wild volatility and steep market declines, since your portfolio took the same proportional hit. Still, the basic grief support principle holds: each person’s grief is unique, even it’s a similar loss. Saying “I know how you feel” during market volatility is as unhelpful as saying it when your client’s parent dies.
Seek First to Understand
The old saw "seek first to understand" is precisely the correct tool to use here. It is fine to acknowledge that you have a similar experience, but don’t stop there. Allow for each client’s uniqueness by asking questions that allow them to tell their story and get you on the same team.
One option could be something like this: “I’m a financial professional, but when things like this happens in the market, everyone gets twitchy. I know it's not rational when I feel that knot in my stomach. I know it’s not going to last because I always allocate every client’s portfolio just like my own, in ways designed to withstand these market swings. But logic doesn't dictate emotions, and so I still feel it. Do you feel it that way when you hear the market news, or how is your reaction different?” This helps allay the fear and blame, because you are treating the client’s portfolio as if it were your own. It also creates a sense of teamwork and problem-solving.
If you rode out the 2008/2009 mayhem with clients, you can include: "In your mind, how is this one similar or different from 2008? Are there things we did or discussed then that might be helpful for us this time?"
Then you can follow up with: “So tell me, what is the worst that you could imagine happening to you financially right now?” Keep asking “What else?” and saying “Tell me more” until you have all the major fears on the table. Then ask, “Since these are your worst fears, what can we do together to keep you safe? I think we’ve done good work together to set you up to weather the storm, but we can always tweak things if you want. Perhaps we should stay in closer touch during this time, too. What seems right to you?”
When you ask open-ended questions like these, you find out what's going on in their heads. Knowing those things doesn't make money come back. It doesn't mean you haven't got work to do to help them sort out their choices and stay the course. But it might make the difference between clients switching away from you vs. ensuring that you are moving in lock-step together through frightening times.
We teach about grief and transition, and usually our focus is on helping you to support and communicate with your clients. There is another aspect, though, because it’s not just clients who are aging. So are your co-workers and colleagues. As data from Cerulli Associates suggests, the average age of a financial advisor in the U.S. is now over 50. Only 23% are under 50.
As a result, you need to learn the skills of grief support for your team as well as for your clients. A few things to look at:
Do you have a compassionate bereavement leave policy? There is no federal law requiring one, but most firms give three to five days for an immediate family member. Consider expanding that to allow at least a week, and to include any relationship that is very important. For some people, for instance, an aunt was more influential than their mother, and her death has great impact. A best friend’s death, especially if it is sudden, can be as difficult as a sibling’s. Be as generous as you can with bereavement leave in your office.
When someone returns from bereavement leave, don’t ignore what just happened. Hug. Have a big box of tissues and a card on the person’s desk, perhaps with a little comfort food like a small box of chocolates. Ask what it’s like now, a week after the funeral, and listen to the stories.
Give more flexibility and support than usual for at least a month or two, recognizing the normal lack of focus and the up-and-down nature of grief. Allow a more flexible work schedule, more breaks, and a back-up person to catch errors that may occur (with assurance that performance reviews won’t suffer during this time).
Continue to check in regularly, saying the name of the one who died. Be particularly mindful of days like a birthday or wedding anniversary, and do something such as taking the grieving person to coffee or bringing in a cake. Acknowledge the void of such a day, while trying to make it a little easier to bear.
You can get more information on how to support your colleagues by reading this article that appeared in the Chicago Tribune in which I am interviewed.
Resolve that in 2019, you will learn to better practice effective, compassionate grief support for your clients, your team, and all those who are important to you. Make a difference when they need it the most.