Outside voices and views for advisers

How to respond to the unexpected call from a recently widowed client

Follow these six steps to make sure you adequately address the needs of the bereaved

May 8, 2014 @ 12:01 am

By Amy Florian

Imagine that you get a call from the wife in a middle-aged client couple you enjoy. She chokes back tears as she tells you her husband has just died after having a massive heart attack. What do you say?

Though no one can be totally prepared to hear such news, your response is crucial. If you effectively walk her through this tragic situation, you can serve her in ways she desperately needs and gain a client for life (and likely family and friends, as well).

Here are a few practices to use on that call:

1. Ask, don't tell. Use open-ended questions that invite her to talk, and then follow her lead. If she does tell the story, listen attentively. She needs to talk about what happened to make it real.

2. Never say “I know how you feel.” You're always wrong.

3. Keep the focus on your client. Talk about yourself only when it serves her needs or to segue into a question.

4. Provide personal support. Genuine expressions of concern and empathy are invaluable.

5. Offer concrete help with specific actions. This helps her think more logically about her needs and gives her the scope of what you're willing to do so she doesn't worry about asking too much.

6. Assure her that no financial decisions must be made immediately and that you are on her team.

Let's put this all together with one example of how you could react, knowing you will modify it to fit your style and client relationship.

“I'm stunned! I can hardly believe it. And if I am so shocked, I can't imagine what this is like for you. Would you like to tell me where it happened, how you found out, or what is happening now?” Though some widows will decline to talk, most will launch into the story. Encourage her by saying, “Tell me more” or asking follow-up questions. Let her speak for as long as she wishes.

Go on to personal support.

“This will be the most difficult thing you've ever been through in your life. One thing I can guarantee is that the next week is going to be a whirlwind. Remember to breathe. Accept help from other people; it helps them as well as you. Be patient with yourself and with them, and take it slow. Do only what needs to be done. The rest can wait.”

Then offer practical and immediate help.

“I'd like to take a few things off your plate if I can. Would you rather I pick people up at the airport, contact newspapers and help with the obituary, get in touch with Social Security or arrange to have someone house-sit during the services? It's fine if you'd like me to do all these things, or perhaps you need others done instead. If you can't choose yet, I'll check back in tomorrow morning.”

She may gratefully take you up on one or more of your offers. Regardless, consider calling back the next day to check in.

Finally, offer reassurance about the finances and your role.

“There's one last thing I want you to know. Some financial things have deadlines, like estate tax filings. I know what they are; I won't let them slide. And not a single one has to happen in the next week. So put financial things aside and don't give them a second thought right now, even if someone tries to push you into it. Focus on yourself and what you need to do these next days. That's enough. I'll stay in touch and we'll handle things as necessary.”

End by thanking her.

“I am so grateful that you called me. We're really going to miss Jim, and I'll be here for you for the long term. I will do whatever I can to make this very difficult time easier, and to honor Jim's legacy.”

Hone your skills in answering these calls. Set aside 15 minutes every week in your office to role-play scenarios. Remember that, especially with women, transitional periods are when people decide what they most need from an adviser and which one can meet those needs. When you learn how to serve them during the toughest times, it is gratifying to know you offer real comfort — and it also happens to be very good for your business.

Amy Florian, chief executiveof Corgenius Inc., uses neuroscience and psychology to train professionals to build strong relationships with clients through all the losses and transitions of life. Amy is the author of the book “No Longer Awkward” and teaches a graduate class at Loyola University Chicago.


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