4 Ways for Financial Advisors to Deal with Grieving Clients

Effective Empathy For Grieving Clients: They Want It, Your Practice Needs It

There was certainly a time in the financial services business when advisors looked at clients in mathematical fashion, quickly trying to surmise how much revenue and new assets a prospect could bring to the practice. Likewise, clients previously assessed an advisor on a single merit: the ability to generate what the client deemed “impressive” investment returns.

Obviously, how well an advisor manages clients' capital will always be of the utmost performance, but gone are the days when managing, protecting and growing wealth was a rote numbers game.

Today, clients are demanding more than money management. They want life management, too, and with that, there will be times when the advisor has to put on a psychologist/therapist hat.

What we're talking about here is emotional and pain management, areas that represent significant challenges (and opportunities) for often analytical financial advisors. Advisors that have a lot of long-lasting client relationships, you're likely to “see it all” in terms of clients experiencing rough, unexpected bumps in the road on their life journeys. These events can include everything from an unplanned family addition to divorce and death.

Opportunity With Emotional Engagement

Painting in broad strokes here, advisors are very rational, analytical people that act in log-driven fashion, but those traits should not be a deterrent to proper emotional engagement with a client.

Let's use a basic, hypothetical example nearly all advisors will encounter over the course of their careers. Among your clients is an older couple that has been married for 40 years. They have a decent amount of liquid assets and maybe even reside near the high net worth spectrum. The husband falls ill and passes away and a few months later, you've got a still mourning, confused widow in your office.

This isn't the time to discuss to investment strategies or specific vehicles for putting the widow's capital to work. Yes, the advisor that does this will come across as professional, but that same advisor could be seen as intimidating at a time when the client needs empathy, not a hard pitch or numbers-driven ideas.

A staggering percentage of advisor assets can come by way of life transitions, such as birth, death, divorce, retirement and terminal illness. However, advisors need to know that success with clients grappling with emotional pain isn't rooted in asking “How are you holding up?” or “Is there anything I can do?”

“Thousands of financial professionals compete for this business, touting their skill in investing money, minimizing taxes, utilizing insurance, and coordinating estate planning,” according to a synopsis of Amy Florian's No Longer Awkward, a book regarded as the seminal guide for advisors dealing with grieving clients. “Those who succeed in getting the business have one additional skill: they understand the grief triggered by every life transition, and they know what to say and do to effectively support clients through the process. People look for professionals who understand their lives to give them their business.”

It's Not About “I'm Sorry”

Anyone, advisor or otherwise, can say “I'm sorry” to a friend or client experiencing grief. Friends give each other more latitude, but a client may expect more and rightfully so. Here are some tips for advisors dealing with grieving clients.

  • Ask open-ended questions, such as “What do you wish people knew about what you’re going through?” This gives the emotionally strained client a chance to share their story, which they likely want to do.
  • Consider hiring experts to help you as an advisor better understand the pain management process. This doesn't need to be a large financial commitment or mean having a therapist on staff, but it can a go long way toward preparing advisors for the inevitable emotional conversations they'll have over their careers.
  • Understand grief isn't based on gender. Men and women are clearly different, but when it comes to grief, we grieve in similar fashion. However...
  • There are two defined methods of grieving: instrumental and intuitive. A person in the former camp is likely to grieve in their minds, attempting to analyze and apply logic. Conversely, an intuitive griever is a “wear their heart on their sleeves” type of personality. Again, advisors don't need a PhD, but some brief reading on these grieving traits can go a long way in improving client relationships.
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