Maya Angelou wrote, “People will forget what you said. People will forget what you did. But people will never forget how you made them feel.”
This salient quote is particularly true for financial planners who find themselves serving people following the death of a loved one. While you can navigate insurance claims, estate issues, and unexpected financial needs, there is a secondary need here that complicates the situation. These clients are deep in grief—a complex process of letting go of a cherished person, building a memory out of what can no longer be, and moving into a future very different than what they had planned. They are often deeply emotional, with underlying feelings of vulnerability, insecurity and doubt.
There are countless advisors who have the requisite financial and technical expertise, but there are far fewer who know how to implement it with the sensitivity unique to the emotional needs of grieving clients.
So how do you handle these situations wisely to genuinely help your clients and retain their business?
Understand “Tissue Etiquette”
Common wisdom says that when someone starts to cry, you immediately hand them tissues. Although most people believe this is helpful, it can send an unintended message: “You’re making me uncomfortable. Dry your tears. Here, use this.”
Consider the difference if you use this approach: Keep a box of tissues on your desk within easy reach of a client. When tears well up and the client starts to sniffle, simply look toward the box and casually say, “Oh, you can use my tissues if you’d like.” You’ve provided the tissues your client might need, yet the implied message is that you’re comfortable with their tears. They have permission to feel whatever they’re feeling, and you keep them in control.
You can follow up by saying, “A lot of people feel they need to cry. They think they’re being strong if they don’t cry. That’s what our society tells us, but they’re wrong. What takes real strength is facing these difficult, painful emotions. It’s hard work to assimilate the loss into your life. My goal is to help you achieve your life goals. So your biggest goal right now is to get through this, to put the pieces back together, to find a way to heal and transition into a different future. I want to support that goal. So in my office, anything you’re going through is OK. Here, you can cry any time; no apology necessary.”
What a relief that is to a grieving client! Not every client will cry, but everyone needs permission and acceptance when they do.
Avoid Phrases Like “At Least He’s Not in Pain Anymore”
In an attempt to make mourners feel better, many people try to frame the loss in the best possible light, to help them see the bright side and recognize how fortunate they are. We say things like, “You should be grateful he went so fast. He didn’t have to suffer” or “At least he’s not in pain anymore” or “She’s in a better place.”
These things immediately alienate clients. Your well-meaning attempt to help them feel better instead makes them feel you’re minimizing or denying their pain. They hear you telling them how they should feel, rather than asking them how they do feel.
Your aim is to validate their experience, rather than minimize it. A better approach is to tell your clients that you'd like to better understand what this is like for them, and encourage them to tell you more. Ask what they hope people will remember about their loved one. Share memories and stories. Then, really listen.
Be an Active Listener
The value of this active listening cannot be overestimated. Your clients feel invisible in the midst of our death-denying society. In fact, grieving clients are accustomed to having people avert their eyes, avoid talking with them, and change the subject when they start to tell their story. So act contrary to “most people.” Lean in toward your clients. Look them directly in the eye and give your full attention. Know that when you hear their story, you help them heal and at the same time you help yourself serve them more effectively.
The bottom line: Treat your grieving and emotional clients with understanding and compassion which they rarely get elsewhere, especially from financial professionals, and you build enduring trust and loyalty in the process.
After all, every grieving client will eventually have friends and associates whose loved ones die. When that happens, what will they tell them about you? They’ll tell them how you made them feel.
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.