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Have a Client in Crisis? Take It Slow and Easy

March 17, 2017

This time we hear from Pedro Silva, a financial advisor with Provo Financial Services in Shrewsbury, Mass. He recounts how a client’s breakdown helped him realize he needed to slow down his process when working with clients in crisis.

When people are going through a major transition we’ve learned that what they need is listening and support, not problem solving. This lesson became particularly clear to me when I met with the widow of a long-term client who had recently died.

During our first meeting after her husband's death we started talking about important next steps to get her finances in order, including putting her name on the accounts, adjusting the blend of investments in the portfolio, and changing beneficiaries. When it was her turn to talk, she looked at us with tears in her eyes and said, “I’m sorry, I’m not ready to do this.” She explained that even though she knew these steps were necessary, she wasn’t yet ready to take his name off of the accounts or change the investments he had picked.

That was the moment we realized there was something very off in our process. When she needed us the most we were offering solutions that didn’t make sense to her. Our timeframe and our to-do list were completely different from hers. A few months after that meeting the client took her accounts to another firm – something we know often happens with widows.

Around that same time I heard an advisor named Kathleen Rehl describe her own experience of becoming a widow. She talked about the fears and pressures she felt at that time, and how the process of grieving left her temporarily unable to make plans for the future. She outlined a slower, methodical approach to decision-making that was much better aligned with how widows cope with loss.

These two events -- losing that client and hearing Rehl speak -- made me realize our firm needed to completely retool our process for working with widows so that we could feel confident we were addressing pertinent financial issues, but on a timeline that worked for them. We developed a new process to help widows transition from their initial fog of grief to a place where they would be comfortable making decisions in a thoughtful and proactive way.

As a first step, we started to give all our widowed clients a copy of Rehl’s book, Moving Forward on Your Own: A Financial Guidebook for Widows, either in person or through the mail. We also created a to-do list that addresses what they will experience in their first year. It includes items both big and small, everything from donating the deceased spouse’s clothing to changing living arrangements. We bring up the option of therapy as another way help them with their transition. We’ve developed relationships with therapists who know what our firm does and who sometimes send us referrals.

Pedro Silva

Most importantly, we tell our widowed clients that there’s no rush — that they can take their time making these financial decisions. I would say that the biggest overall change in our approach is that we frame these next steps as part of a process, not a transaction.

I’ve seen firsthand how this new system can benefit widows. We had one new client who was referred to our firm after her husband died. At first we did almost nothing but check in with her. We let her know her money was safe and that there was nothing that needed her immediate attention.

When she came back a few months later, she looked like a new person. She had a new haircut, she was wearing brightly colored clothing, and she was a lot more present and confident. She asked us questions and engaged with us in a way she hadn’t been able to right after her husband died. Her transition really made us feel we were on the right track, and that waiting had been the correct decision.

Today we embrace the reality of widows’ timelines and the emotional complexity they are dealing with. Our role is to make sure they don’t make bad financial decisions during that time. We want to be part of the solution, not another problem for them.