Most people have a vision for their lives, or at least an idea of how things “ought” to be. But what happens when life doesn’t unfold as they expect? Jean and Brad, for instance, had a healthy marriage and actively worked together raising their three kids. Both held mid-range jobs, saved what they could, and kept a “dream file” of plans for the future.
One weekend, Jean and Brad were visiting friends out of state. As they stood around the pool grilling steaks, Brad collapsed. The group frantically called 9-1-1, then cooperated to administer CPR as Jean kept up a constant litany: “Come on, Brad, you can make it. Hang in there; help is on the way. Stay with me.” But by the time they reached the hospital, the doctor pronounced Brad dead, the victim of an undiagnosed congenital heart defect.
Have you served as financial advisor for people in similar situations? If so, you know your demeanor and interactions with them are crucial, with long-term business repercussions for both of you. In fact, the service you provide your clients at these junctures can determine your entire relationship with them, including whether they stay with you. The stark fact is that up to 70% of widows switch financial advisors after their husbands die. How do you handle these situations wisely, so you effectively help clients and retain their business?
At the core, your grieving clients need two things from you:
- Your technical expertise
- Your emotional presence
The first one seems easy enough. You know the monetary impact of these losses. You can help navigate insurance claims, estate issues, unexpected financial needs and more. With your thorough understanding of each situation, you and your clients can work out a financial plan that will sustain them through these times.
However, the second need is more challenging to fill. These deeply grieving clients are letting go of someone they love, building a memory out of what can no longer be, and haltingly stepping into a future that is painfully different than the one they dreamed. This process carries deep emotions, with underlying feelings of vulnerability, insecurity, and doubt.
When you work with grieving people, then, even technical aspects need to be carried out in the context of emotional presence. There are countless advisors who have technical expertise. There are few who know how to implement it with sensitivity to the unique emotional needs of grieving clients. These clients need to be convinced that you care about more than just their money, or they will find someone else who does.
The key here is to be an “active listener” as a means to build rapport and understanding. Here’s how:
- Grieving clients know that their situation makes others uncomfortable. They see people avert their eyes, avoid talking with them and change the subject when they start to tell their story. Instead of fitting that pattern, look your clients directly in the eye. Give them your full attention and encourage them to tell their story. A sympathetic nod goes a long way, as does saying something like “Yes, I can see that” or “Oh, that must have been hard.”
- Take notes to keep in your files. Your note-taking lets clients know the story is important to you. It also helps you keep track of the important information you are gathering. And perhaps most meaningfully, if you can refer back to something from this conversation in a subsequent phone call or meeting, you inestimably boost the level of rapport.
- Reinforce that you truly want to understand. Repeat back something the client said, either in the exact words or in a paraphrase. Then ask for clarification, or ask what happened next.
- React without judging or criticizing. Use soft and kind words, giving the benefit of the doubt even if you disagree with what is being said.
The value of this active listening cannot be overestimated. In fact, the psychologist Karl Jung says we have the power to “listen people into existence.” Your clients feel invisible in the midst of our death-denying society. When you willingly hear their story, you help them heal and at the same time you help yourself serve them more effectively.
The bottom line: Most businesspeople stick to business and avoid difficult feelings at all costs. Allowing emotions into the office distinguishes you as uncommonly supportive, and consequently opens doors to business that might otherwise remain closed as they refer you as the compassionate and wise advisor of choice when their friends and associates experience a family death or other difficult transition.
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.