It's been interesting to me to watch the shift that's occurred in this industry since the early '80s in the skills required to adequately serve our clients.
Thirty years ago, a technician could thrive in this industry. If you could construct a retirement spreadsheet, design an investment portfolio, read an insurance policy and deliver a set of recommendations to a client, those skills would take you a long way. Twenty years ago, everything changed. With life planning and similar disciplines coming on the scene, you had to actually listen to your clients about things without dollar signs in front of them-things like desires, values and principles.
In so doing, many of us squirmed uncomfortably, feeling ill-suited to hear and appropriately react to a client's thoughts if they didn't concern college planning or pension funds. Yet this trend-in my humble opinion-will never reverse. In fact, our industry steadily progresses in defining these counseling skills, and "specialties" have even emerged.
One such specialty is dealing with aging clients, and that means more frequent deaths and serious illnesses. One day you're meeting with an 80-year-old couple, and the next day the wife is calling to say her husband-who you just saw the day before in apparently good health-died in his sleep. You express surprise, but what do you say next?
That one question became a career opportunity for Amy Florian, when she learned that the things most people say upon hearing of a friend's or client's death are off-putting. "We think responding to such news with 'I'm sorry for your loss' is adequate, but you can do much better than that," says Florian, "and the failure to do so may sound so unsympathetic-just the opposite of your intention-as to lose you the relationship." (Rather than saying "I'm sorry for your loss," it's better to say something like "I can't imagine what you're feeling.")
Florian, who was widowed herself at age 25 with a seven-month-old child, heads up Corgenius Inc. (www.corgenius.com) of Chicago, a firm dedicated to teaching professionals in financial services and health care about the grief process so they can support clients going through a life-changing loss. "When I first started doing bereavement work, people seemed to be touched by what I said, so I did more," says Florian. "Then I realized I needed education to back up my experience, so I got a master's with a concentration in bereavement and became a fellow in thanatology-the study of death and grief."
The problem, she says, is that financial advisors need to know how to talk about more than just the money. And they're hungry for this knowledge, she adds. After coaching and facilitating workshops on grief for over 20 years, Florian estimates that more than 2,000 people have come before her to learn how to better console those in loss. I experienced her empathy firsthand when Florian found me on LinkedIn and then we talked by phone-before she found out I'd lost my wife just last year. Upon hearing this news, she was instantly comforting in a way even close friends sometimes aren't.
Florian's Web site is a tease, listing just a few of the questions you need to know the answers to in order to serve grieving clients-but it doesn't give the answers. I asked her a few.
For example, what is the one thing a financial advisor must never say to a grieving client? "I know how you feel."
Explains Florian, this is always the wrong answer and it immediately alienates the grieving parties. Instead say something like, "When my mother died, I felt like this ... is it like that for you?" This way, you're making a connection and inviting them to express their feelings.
Another question is how long does it take for a grieving person to heal? The answer is that there is no definitive answer, except that it will take longer than most people think. In our society, we give people three days off work and then expect them to be normal. By three months, people are saying, "Put this behind you and get on with life." If at the anniversary the person is still grieving, people say, "Don't you think you should get some professional help?" Each person grieves differently and for different periods of time-sometimes years-and that's quite natural.