3 Communication Skills for Working with Grieving Clients

Journal of Financial Planning: March 2017


Everyone realizes our society is aging, illustrated by the well-known fact that more than 10,000 baby boomers turn 65 every day. But few realize this further implication: we had a baby boom, and we are in for a death boom. One large broker-dealer reports that more than 5,000 clients die every week, and across the country advisers are increasingly facing deaths of clients and their family members. Yet, how many professionals ever receive training in what to do and say to survivors when someone dies?  

Most of us simply pick up what everyone else does and perpetuate their mistakes. At best, that means you are unhelpful and generic. At worst, you unintentionally alienate clients in the most difficult times of their lives. Because industry statistics have shown that 70 percent of new investments and referrals come during times of transition, this is also a crucial juncture for the business. Those who don’t know how to talk with grieving people are going to lose clients to those who do. On the other side of the coin, if you serve clients effectively and compassionately in these times, you create a bond of loyalty that will last a lifetime. It is absolutely critical for financial planning professionals to gain greater knowledge and training on grief support.  

Following are three communication strategies to help.

Opening the Initial Meeting in the Office 

When a client comes into the office for that first appointment after the funeral, set yourself apart immediately with the way you greet them. In the usual scenario, advisers shake hands and ask, “How are you doing?” That’s not a good idea, no matter how compassionately you ask it. Grievers have a hard time answering adequately and often suppress the urge to say something like, “How do you think I’m doing? My husband just died!” They are also acutely aware that although everyone asks that question, not many are truly interested in the answer. So they get by for the moment with “Fine. I’m doing OK. I’m hanging in there.”  

Instead, greet them with something like this: “I’m so glad you were able to make it in today. I only wish it were under better circumstances. Still, there is so much we can do together and I’ll do everything I can to make this very difficult process just a little easier for you and your family.” Then invite them into your office and offer something to drink. It can also be helpful to have a little comfort food in a dish, such as pretzels, chocolates, popcorn, or nuts.  

Before you get to business, remember that grieving people hunger to talk to anyone who is willing to listen, so invite clients to tell you about their experience. Then always follow their lead. Most people will gladly follow your invitation; others will let you know by their answers that they don’t want to talk. For those who do, telling the story is healing and cathartic, while listening gives you valuable information that helps you understand and serve them better. It’s a win-win. 

Ask an open-ended question such as: 

“Many clients tell me the time after a loved one’s death is like a roller coaster. What kind of a day is it for you today? Is this an up day, a down day, or an all-over-the-place day?”  

“What do you wish people knew about what this is like for you or what you need from them?”

“People intend to be helpful but sometimes they say all the wrong things. Have you had that experience? Tell me something someone said that was helpful and something you wished they hadn’t said.”  

“People grieve in their own way, and everyone is different. What differences do you see among your family and friends as they cope with this?”

If you knew the person who died, offer a story or a memory. For instance: “I was thinking about her this morning when I knew you were coming in, and I realized that I will always remember her mischievous sense of humor. She caught me off guard so many times, and all I could do was laugh! What else do you hope people remember about her?” 

As you ask questions, listen well to the answers and invite more information based on what they said. It can be as simple as, “Tell me more about that.” It takes time and emotional energy to hear the truth of your clients’ experiences, but it is never a waste of time; it is an investment in time.  

Establish Common Experience while Recognizing Uniqueness 

Even if you had a similar grief experience, do not say, “I know how you feel,” or, “I understand just what you’re going through.” Doing so is a sure way to alienate grieving clients because you are always wrong.  

Instead, indicate your experience or knowledge, but then allow them to express their unique situation by asking a question such as, “How is it different?” or, “But what is it like for you?”  

For instance: “When my husband died, the hardest time for me was waking up in the morning and reaching across to the empty pillow. Is it like that for you, or what are the hardest times for you?” Or, “When my mom died, I kept picking up the phone to call her before I remembered there wouldn’t be an answer on the other end. Is it like that for you? What do you struggle to accept, or how is your experience different than mine?” This is so much better than, “I know how you feel,” because you don’t.    

Stay in Constant Communication 

Most financial professionals rightly understand that it’s not a good idea to make major decisions too soon, especially if those decisions are irrevocable. In practice, though, this too often means they leave clients alone until the client calls to say they’re ready. That is a huge mistake, because clients will be inundated with ideas from others about what they should do with their money or who else they should talk to about it. You need to position yourself well and then stay in constant communication. 

Here’s how: Initially, tell your clients that some things have to obey a timeline, such as estate tax filings and trust funding deadlines. Show them the list of those things and reassure them you’re on top of it. You will make sure all the necessary things get done without letting anything fall through the cracks.  

Then say something like: “Did you know that both science and financial regulations say it’s better not to make major decisions right now? You may think you’re deciding rationally, but grief affects your brain in many ways that you can’t control. Physiologically, you just aren’t ready yet, so this is my recommendation: take financial issues off your plate for now. Take care of yourself and your family while we get the estate settled, and just put one foot in front of the other. I’ll make sure those important things get done, and I’ll call you very week or two just to check in, see how you and the family are doing, and see whether you have any questions or ideas you’d like to talk about.”  

Follow up with one more point, because there is nothing like a tragedy to make people come out of the woodwork telling your clients what they should do with their money or who else they should consult. Position yourself to handle it by adding: “If someone else brings up an idea for your finances that you think is worth exploring (and they probably will), bring them in. I’ll be your objective advocate, evaluating options and helping you decide whether this is a good thing to do, and whether now is the best time to do it. We’ll work together to make sure we’re protecting your loved one’s legacy and your financial future.” 

Then make sure you do follow up. Call every week or two. Listen to their experience first, then ask whether they have questions or ideas they want to bounce off of you. By doing this, you stand a much greater chance of serving the client well and keeping the business.  

These are just three examples of skills that distinguish you in the field and build lifetime loyalty. Remember, when deaths occur, as they inevitably will, survivors have their choice of hundreds of thousands of financial professionals who do a really good job investing money, insuring people, advising on retirement plans, and more. What is the differentiator clients want? They look for relationships. They want financial professionals who “get them,” who understand their lives, and know how to support them in their grief. Can that be you?

Amy Florian is an educator, author, public speaker, and founder/CEO of Corgenius (corgenius.com​), the first professional training firm to focus on life transition support. With a style that combines grace, good-natured humor, and rock-solid science, Florian travels the country teaching financial advisers how to better serve and support clients experiencing loss, grief, and transition.

General Financial Planning Principles