Ideas. Lessons Learned, and Occasionally, Opinions
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.
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 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.
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.
When your client dies, who owns the pictures on their Facebook page? Who has control of their electronic bill-payment sites or Bitcoin account? Who is responsible for shutting down or memorializing social media sites? Digital rights ownership is an increasingly complex issue as our online lives continue to expand. Are your clients prepared to safeguard these assets after they die?
If your client does nothing in advance, disposition of digital assets goes according to the TOS (terms of service) of each individual site, which vary widely. In fact, many survivors have been shocked by sites that do not allow transfer of ownership or access upon death, or that complicate the settlement of the estate. Rules have been more flexible for minors in states that allow parents or guardians to manage deceased children’s accounts. Yet some families have had to get court orders to obtain rights to their loved one’s digital accounts, a process that can take months or years.
The Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act
Several states began to take action by passing a Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act. This gave the executor access to all digital accounts and allowed digital assets to pass according to the decedent’s will. However, it ran into legal trouble based on privacy. Some people, for instance, did not want their executor to see highly personal information such as their history of emails and texts, and lawsuits ensued.
The acts were gradually amended to resolve these issues until finally, in 2017, states began passing the Revised Uniform Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act (RUFADAA). (http://www.uniformlaws.org/Act.aspx?title=Fiduciary%20Access%20to%20Digital%20Assets%20Act,%20Revised%20(2015). Forty states have now made it law, and it’s pending in five more plus Washington D.C. It will soon be nationwide. What does this mean for financial advisors and estate planners? Digital property now needs to be part of the estate planning process, and you need to help your clients prepare now for their digital afterlife.
Access to Digital Assets
RUFADAA allows the executor or another fiduciary appointed in the will to have access to any electronic or digital sites “necessary” to settle the estate. The necessary sites are largely those involving finances or financial assets, including shopping accounts, automatic bill-paying, online banking, etc. That very narrow provision protects privacy, as it does not allow the executor to access texts, emails, and more private information.
Yet RUFADAA allows for further permissions if the decedent clearly states so in the will. These permissions can cover desires such as whether a Facebook page is closed or maintained as a memorial page, whether a blog is deleted or archived and kept, and all your client’s other desires for digital sites.
Sites that fall under RUFADAA are required to give access to the named fiduciary or executor, but that process can take time and involves proving to the site that the client died. If usernames and passwords are accessible immediately, airline miles can be transferred, sites can be closed, and other desired actions can happen with less complication. It is important to note, though, that clients should never include usernames and passwords in the will, as it becomes a public document upon death.
Your Two-Step Process
There are two crucial steps to take with your clients:
1. Ensure the will includes your client’s intent for the executor or another named fiduciary to have access to digital accounts, how broad those permissions are, and your client’s wishes for disposition. Example: Can the named person see all the tweets, emails, and private personal information, or does access only extend to closing such accounts? What are your client’s desires for each site or each category of sites?
2. Ensure that your client completes another document giving more specific instructions (i.e. to whom they wish to transfer their airline miles and hotel points), and including usernames and passwords. This document should be signed, dated, and preferably notarized, and kept with the will so instructions are accessible to the executor.
To facilitate this, recommend that clients use one of the available services (i.e. LassPass.com) that generate secure passwords for every site and store the entire array of information necessary for access. The document then only needs to include the master password to that service, plus instructions for any two-factor authentication, so the named fiduciary can easily open the entire vault of usernames and passwords. Since the password storage service is dynamic, it also allows clients to maintain security by changing passwords regularly, without having to re-do the document.
Instead of allowing individual sites to determine disposition, take these steps to keep your clients in control and remove at least some post-death headaches. They will never forget it!
When Clients Want More Than Your Financial Expertise
In this day and age, financial expertise alone is insufficient to gain and retain clients. Clients expect more. They want you to understand their personal experience, and be equipped to walk them through whatever life throws at them.
Truth is, for most advisors it’s unchartered territory when tragedy, illness, death or difficult times touch a client. There are countless advisors who have the requisite financial expertise but there are far fewer who know how to implement it with the sensitivity required to meet the emotional needs of grieving clients.
Learn Tips to Wisely and Effectively Support Grieving Clients
… and this is exactly why we started our complimentary podcast series, Clients for Life. Each of these 10-minute interview podcasts features an advisor who has completed the Corgenius Master Class on guiding clients through difficult transitions. They describe the skills and best practices they are now implementing in their own firms, both large and small, that are having the most impact on client satisfaction, loyalty, and referrals. Things like
Please take a few minutes from your busy day to listen to these interviews. Share it with a colleague. You’ll pick up a new ideas on how to more confidently support clients through difficult transitions. It benefits your clients and your business.
For many in our society, closure means leaving grief behind, a milestone they usually expect within a matter of weeks or months. Closure means being “normal”, getting back to your old self, no longer crying or being affected by the death. It means “moving on with life” and leaving the past behind, even to the extent of forgetting it or ignoring it. Yet for those who have experienced death, this kind of closure is not only impossible but indeed undesirable.
Closure, if one even chooses to use the term, is more of a process than a defined moment. The initial part of closure is accepting the reality. At first, survivors keep hoping or wishing that it weren’t true. They expect their loved one to walk through the door. They wait for someone to tell them it was all a huge mistake. They just can’t accept that this person has died, that they will never physically see their loved one again or hear the voice, feel the hug, or get that valued input on a tough decision. Usually it takes weeks or even months for the reality to finally sink in. In time, they come to know, in both their heads and their hearts, that their loved one has died and is not coming back. They still don’t like it, but they accept it as true.
As your clients accept this reality, they can more actively make forward-looking choices that help them heal. They slowly begin to envision a life different from what they had planned before, a life in which they no longer expect their loved one to be there. They still feel the pain and loss, but except for short periods of time, they are not crippled by it.
For most of your clients, especially if it was a significant person who died, this healing phase is long and slow, and it involves a lot of back-and-forthing. They may alternate between tears and joy, fears and confidence, despair and hope. Sometimes they feel like they are taking three steps forward and two steps back.
It is important to give clients permission for whatever they are experiencing. Everyone else is telling them to put it behind them and get on with life. Set yourself apart by encouraging them to tell the stories and build memories that they will never “put behind them”. Reassure them that healing does not mean forgetting; it means taking the life, love, and lessons into the future with them.
Eventually your clients are able to let go of what can no longer be. Yet at the same time they realize they are taking the past, with all its pain and pleasure, into a new tomorrow. They become different and hopefully better, more compassionate, more appreciative, more tolerant people. They fully embrace life again, connecting, laughing, and loving with a full heart.
Still, there is no point of “final closure.” There is no point at which your clients can say, “Ah, now I have finally completed my grief.” Or “Yes, now I have healed.” There is no point at which they stop missing their loved one or wondering what life would be like if they were still alive. There is no point at which they will never cry again, although as time goes on the tears are bittersweet and less common. Because we never forget, we carry our loved ones with us forever.
“Closure”? No, or at least not in the way people usually use that term. Acceptance – yes. Peace – yes. A future enriched with love, joy, and hope – absolutely. But putting a period behind the final sentence, closing the door and locking it behind you? No, life and love are much too complex for that. This part of your client’s story does not end; instead it awaits the next chapter, which will undoubtedly build on all that came before.
Stand with your clients as they grieve. Let them know they do not have to forget or leave the past behind. Encourage them to create memories out of what can no longer be, and to live their lives as fully as possible enriched by those memories. Offer them the patience and understanding that few other advisors do. You will reap rewards both personally and professionally.