Banishing the Big White Elephant When a Client is Grieving
A salesperson called me a few days ago. He was so convinced of the value of his product that after our initial pleasantries, he praised its attributes for several minutes. I asked one question and he talked on for several more minutes. His mistake was that he didn’t stop talking long enough to find out why I might need his product or how it could best serve me. He lost the deal because he knew how to talk about what he was selling but he didn’t know how to listen to me.
How does this relate to serving clients experiencing loss or transition? Like the worst salespeople, the least supportive advisors are those that don’t know how to ask good questions and listen.
There is often a chorus of objections at this point. Usually they sound like these:
- I am a financial professional, not a psychologist. I’m not going to ask my clients about their grief.
- I don’t want to make my clients cry in my office. That’s bad for business.
- I don’t want to get in over my head. I’ll ask questions, but only about investments.
- I don’t want to intrude into a client’s personal life, or force myself into areas where I don’t belong.
- If clients bring it up, I will be happy to listen. But the last thing I want to do is ask about their difficult experience.
Sound familiar? Let’s look closer.
First of all, consider the flip side. What are the consequences of refusing to ask questions? If you carefully avoid the topic and do not bring your client’s grief into the room, there is a big white elephant sitting on the table between you. You both know it’s there but you are trying to ignore it, look over it, slide it to the side, or otherwise pretend it’s not there. It adds a level of tension as you participate in the game of mutual deception.
This feels very familiar to grieving clients, because they encounter it everywhere. Most people, from family to casual acquaintances, don’t know what to say so they say nothing at all. They talk about anything and everything except the person who died. They try to cheer grievers up, hoping to make them feel better. The bereaved people, not wanting to make others uncomfortable, go along with it, but it feels inauthentic and they walk away alone, isolated, and unsupported. Is that how you want your clients to leave your office?
The minute you acknowledge the truth, the big white elephant disappears. For instance, you can ask something simple such as: “What do you wish people knew about what it’s like for you now, a month after Paul died?” or “What has surprised you about the experience of going through Paul’s death?” When you ask an invitational, open-ended question like these, the big white elephant disappears and the tension evaporates. They know you care enough to ask, whether or not they choose to accept your invitation and talk about it. They know you aren’t avoiding the topic or hiding behind your spreadsheets.
Additionally, if they do choose to tell the story and you listen with care, you offer them support they aren’t getting from others. You genuinely help and comfort them, and at the same time you distinguish yourself in the field. You build a level of trust and loyalty you can’t get anywhere else. It’s good for your clients, and it just happens to also be good for business.
The bottom line: You have a lot to lose if you don’t ask; you have nothing to lose if you do
I Have A Brand And It Haunts Me
I was talking to my pal “Jonas” who recently decided to freelance (vs building a multi-consultant business) when he left a bigger firm to do his own thing.
Jonas is a global talent guy who works across the planet for some of the world’s most well known companies. He decided his best play—the one that would allow him to focus on what he loves most and live the life he’s planned—is to freelance for other firms.
His plan got off to a bit of a rocky start because—get this—none of the firms he approached believed he’d actually want to “just” freelance. He’d earned his rep by steadily building deep, brand name client relationships, practices and business, not by going off by himself as a solo.
Or as he put it “I have a brand and it haunts me.”
We both had a good belly laugh because he was already rolling in new projects, thrilled with his choice to freelance.
And yet, isn’t that the truth?
Good, bad, indifferent—our brands DO haunt us.
They whisper messages to those in our circle “trust him, he’s the bomb”, “hire her for anything creative as long as your deadline isn’t critical”, “steer clear—he talks a good game but doesn’t deliver”.
And thanks to social media, those messages—good and bad—can accelerate faster than you can imagine. One client, one reader, one buyer can be the pivot point that takes your consulting business to new territory.
So how do you deal with it?
Yep—you go for more of what comes naturally. In Jonas’ case, he stuck with what he’s known for—his work, his relationships, his track record for integrity—and won over any lingering skepticism about his move.
We weather the bumps in the road by staying true to who we are at our core.
So when a potential client says “Sorry, you’re just too expensive for me”, you don’t run out and change your prices. Instead, you listen carefully and realize they aren’t the right fit for your particular brand of expertise and service.
When a social media troll chooses you to lash out at, you ignore them and stay with your true audience—your sweet-spot clients and buyers.
And when your most challenging client tells you it’s time to change your business model to serve them better, you listen closely (there may be some learning here) and—if it doesn’t suit your strengths—you kiss them good-bye.
If your brand isn’t haunting you, is it really much of a brand?
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