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The Danger of Greeting Clients With “How Are You?”

How do you greet your clients? 

Whether answering the phone or shaking a client’s hand, overwhelmingly financial professionals tell me their first words are: “Hi, how are you?” That’s not surprising, since it has become the standard greeting in the United States. However, if you want to deepen your relationship and build loyalty with clients when they are going through transition or grief, it is not a good question to ask for two reasons.

  1. Everyone asks, yet it is impossible for a grieving person to accurately answer that question. Grief is a roller coaster of ups and downs, sometimes swinging hour-by-hour or even minute-by-minute. For example, a client whose loved one died may wake up feeling lighter than at any time since the funeral, creating hope that the worst is past. But at mid-morning she walks into the coffee shop and that song is playing. She runs out in tears. Then she has lunch with friends and it perks her up, but then it only serves to highlight the loneliness of eating dinner by herself that night. At any one point, she can tell you how she is doing, but that may change very quickly.

    In moments of exasperation, what grieving clients tell me they are tempted to say is, “How do you think I am? My wife just left me!” Or “My child just died!” Or “We just got a terrible diagnosis!” Or whatever the situation may be at the time. They squelch the temptation, recognizing that people generally do care and at least are not avoiding them altogether. But it gets frustrating to be constantly asked the same question and to feel incapable of giving a complete, honest answer.
  2. In most cases, you will get little to no information from your query. Grieving people are acutely aware that the majority of people don’t truly want to know the answer, especially if the answer is not good news. They also want to guard their own emotions, not “dumping” on just anyone who asks. Finally, they know an honest answer would take time and involvement, whereas the question is often asked casually, in a situation that doesn’t lend itself to deeper conversations. So they rely on a standard response such as “Fine” or “OK.” It’s not the truth, but it gets them by for the moment.

Given all this, there are a couple of strategies you can take when grieving clients come into the office. The principle to follow: Invite your clients to talk about what is really going on and be willing to take the time to listen to the answer. Remember they are probably aching to talk.

Step 1: Preface your questions with something like “Hi, it’s good to see you.” Or “Hi, I’ve been thinking about you.” Or “Hi, I’m happy you could make it in given all that’s happening for you right now.”

Step 2: Ask an open-ended question such as:

  • So what kind of a day is it today? Has it been up, down, or all over the place?
  • What’s happening in your life right now?
  • What has changed for you since the last time we talked?
  • It can take a long time to fully comprehend what happened, so in what ways has the reality sunk in now, and in what ways or what times does it still just seem unreal?
  • Transitions like this are so volatile. Let’s look at both sides. Tell me something good that happened today and something that disappointed or saddened you.
  • What do you wish people knew about what your life is like now?
  • People don’t intend to be cruel, but sometimes they say things that hurt despite their intentions. What is one thing someone said that was comforting and one thing that you wished they would quit saying?

Asking open-ended questions like these lets your clients know you have a clue what they are experiencing and, unlike so many others, you care enough to listen to the truth. You also gain valuable information that can help you serve each client uniquely and personally, deepening their trust, connection and loyalty.

It’s the right thing to do for your clients; and like always, doing the right thing for your client also happens to be good for your business. 

Amy Florian is the CEO of Corgenius, combining neuroscience and psychology to train financial professions in how to build strong relationships with clients through all the losses and transitions of life. 

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