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Older Clients’ Priority Shifts Can Come as a Shock

June 19, 2015

This week we hear from Jonathan Murray, a UBS advisor in Hunt Valley, Md. He recalls how an unusual request from a dying client caused him to realize that older clients’ needs go far beyond portfolio management.

I worked for a couple for more than a decade before the husband was diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer. We took care of some important end-of-life decisions to ensure his assets would be tended to as he wished.

But then, weeks before he passed away, he paid an unexpected visit to my office. That was the first surprise. The second was that he was alone. He usually came in with his wife.

He wanted me to do him a favor. He handed me a sealed envelope. “When I go, I want you to set up a meeting with my wife to give her this card,” he said. He explained that his wife had always wanted to drive a Jaguar, but he had never been on board with buying a car that expensive. Now he wanted to be able to give her the car she’d always dreamed of.

He died soon after that, and his wife and I began the long, sad process of taking care of his affairs. Meanwhile, I called the local Jaguar dealership and explained the situation. At our next meeting, I asked the client to get in her car and follow me. We arrived at the Jaguar dealership, where they had a brand-new car ready for her in the showroom, and I gave her the card. She broke down in tears.

Jonathan Murray

It was a beautiful moment, and I felt privileged to have been a part of it.

This experience illustrated something crucial to me. In the end, our clients don’t really care about performance, or asset allocation or a portfolio’s Sharpe ratio. What they really want to know is, am I going to be OK, and are my loved ones going to be OK? Even if clients aren’t asking these questions outright, they’re thinking about them — more so as they age.

As advisors, we need to recognize that our roles are going to change as clients age. If we go into a meeting armed with performance charts at a time when our clients are more focused on thinking about their legacy and their loved ones, it’s going to be a mismatch.

Eye to Eye

I still think about the last time I saw this client, when we said our final good-bye. I was pretty sure it would be the last time I’d see him. I was able to look him in the eye and say, “I’ll take care of her; she’s going to be OK.” But you can’t just say something like that — you really have to believe it. You truly have to have the patience and concern for your clients as individual people. People who are facing end-of-life decisions don’t want to be pitied; they want warmth, sensitivity and understanding. And they can tell if you’re faking it.

Since the over-80 age group is the fastest-growing age segment in our population, advisors are going to be dealing with such situations more and more frequently. As clients age, we need to shift our processes and our focuses to meet their changing needs. And doing so provides our clients with a service that’s so much greater than just delivering investment performance. Fundamentally, these trusted relationships are what we are able to provide that automated services can’t.

So, if you’re a hard-driving advisor, I think it’s important to shift gears — consciously — before a client meeting. I switch off my cell phone. I start by asking my clients what’s the most important thing to them right now.