Why do many widows leave their investment advisers after the death of their spouse?
Amy Florian, CEO of Coregenius and author of No Longer Awkward: Communicating with Clients through the Toughest Times of Life, asserts that clients leave because most advisers fail to maintain connections during times of adversity and do not know how to talk with clients about personal loss.
While many people can manage money, they often want someone they can trust and connect with. Client suffering, triggered by a significant personal loss, can strain or even break the adviser-client connection.
The death of a loved one, the loss of a job, a divorce, or even significant market volatility can all trigger grief. Florian said that specifically when it comes to death, advisers who want to stay connected with clients cannot put their heads in the sand. To be a positive force through the grieving process, they must address ‘the elephant in the room’.
Personal loss shaped Florian’s professional career when her husband died in a car accident. By working to heal herself, she learned how people deal with loss with the help of a grief counsellor. Later, she worked with that counsellor to help others. She holds a master’s degree in Pastoral Studies and is a Fellow in Thanatology – the study of death, dying and bereavement.
As a society, Florian pointed out, we are ill-prepared to handle death. We talk around it by avoiding the word ‘dead’. Instead, we often use substitutes like ‘gone’, ‘lost’, or ‘passed on’. Most of us have not learned what to say to a grieving person, and we end up saying nothing. However, understanding how to address a loss in a sensitive and productive way is not an insurmountable task.
Here are Florian's seven suggestions for dealing with clients who are suffering through a significant loss:
1. Take the call. Do not avoid discussing death or loss. Talk with your clients who have suffered loss by taking, or making, the call. It’s the right thing — the human thing.
2. Open the door. Invite your grieving client to talk, and open the door to the conversation. The client may not want to walk through it at the time, but the door will be open for later. Let clients know that you are there for them. Ask if they want you to mention the person, or issue, at all. Follow each client’s lead.
3. Ask open questions. Most grieving people want, and need, to tell their story. Not talking about a loss just increases a person’s sense of isolation. But using a phrase like “I am sorry” with a client is a conversation stopper. Instead, ask your client open, invitational questions about the loss like “How did you find out?” and “What happened?”.
4. Do not hand a crying person a box of tissues. Crying can be helpful, so do not be afraid of triggering tears by having a conversation. But know that handing a box of tissues to a crying person can send an implied message: “Stop crying, it makes me uncomfortable.” Instead, have a tissue box at the end of your desk when meeting with a client who has suffered a loss.
5. Do not presume that you know how the client feels. Each loss is unique, and the only way that you will really know how your clients feel is by asking them directly. During discussions, ask questions like “How do you wish people would act around you right now?” and “What do you wish people knew about how you are feeling, or your experience?”.
6. Do not downplay your client’s financial concerns. Do not downplay your client’s concerns or fears, even if you think they are not realistic. The client likely needs to feel safe, and this may be a significant issue for the survivor of a spouse who handled the family money. Ask your client, directly, what you can do to address concerns about finances.
7. Offer to call the client at a set time in the near future. Set up a time to check in, and do not put the burden of making contact on the grieving client. Most people suffering through loss don’t have a great deal of energy, and some will feel that they would be interrupting your day. Keep in touch.
Florian can teach us all about how to deal with death, life’s most difficult issue — the one that cannot be avoided. An adviser’s ability to help clients through times of grief can make more of an impact on the relationship than their financial savvy has ever done.
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If you found this article helpful, you can read more advice and insights into the investment industry on the CFA Institute blog Enterprising Investor.