What is the No. 1 reason clients come to you for advice? The answer, I think, is that they are going through some kind of personal or financial transition, and they are trying to figure out how to manage it. It may be an inheritance, a divorce or a career shift or the simple realization that retirement is looming and they’re not sure where their money is going.

But where in all your training did anyone prepare you for helping clients through complicated life transitions? You can offer financial guidance, of course, but helping clients through a major life event, at a time when they may not be thinking clearly, requires something more from you.

CLIENTS UNDER STRESS

Susan Bradley’s Sudden Money Institute is addressing that challenge. The Institute’s training materials include a chart that shows how most people respond as they move from the status quo into a destabilizing event: confusion, a sense of being overwhelmed, physical and mental fatigue that can lead to fear-based decisions and avoidance of problems. Yet many advisors expect clients under severe stress to respond to their bar charts and technical estate planning advice.

It’s time to recognize that the traditional tools of life planning aren’t going to help you in these kinds of situations that every client will experience; a different set of tools are needed. “A life planner will take a client who is experiencing the shock of a transition and say things like: ‘What are your goals in life?’ when the better response would be: ‘What’s going on with you right now?’ ” Bradley says.

The Sudden Money Institute offers a yearlong curriculum that leads to a Certified Financial Transitionist designation. The course begins by training advisors in a five-step triage process that helps clients make a list of concerns and organize them into three categories: Decisions that have to be made immediately, others that can be put off temporarily and a third group that can be processed later. The goal is to stabilize the situation until the client is in a better mental state to make sound decisions.

At this point, advisors are trained to use one of the most powerful tools in the Sudden Money kit: the decision-free zone, where the advisor agrees with the client not to make any non-essential decisions for six months to a year. The client and advisor are able to concentrate on a much smaller list of things that absolutely must be handled immediately, which gives the client some breathing room.

Certified Financial Transitionists will also take clients through a “purpose, method, outcome” exercise to help advisors recognize the motivations that underlie their clients’ behavior. To see how effective this can be, consider the small business owner and his son who never take an interest in the fancy estate plan that a team of advisors has created for them. The attorney and tax advisor never realized that the business owner’s most important goal was not to minimize estate taxes, but to use his money to benefit his heirs. “If you create a plan without an emotional connection,” Bradley says, “you shouldn’t be surprised that clients are not really committed to it.”

CHANGE MANAGEMENT

The motto of the Sudden Money Institute addresses the fact that most advisors are trained to solve every client problem with technical expertise. It comes from an article in the April 2004 Harvard Business Review, which says, in part: “The biggest source of failure in change management is treating adaptive challenges as technical problems.” Spreadsheets and risk/return graphs are not the solution for clients in emotional distress.

Recently, Bradley discovered that many of the same tools she has been applying to pre-retirement transitions are applicable to the next big challenge in the planning field, what she calls long-life planning. “We started looking at the challenges that clients face in the later stages of life, and discovered a lot of applications almost immediately,” she says.

“Rather than a script that focuses on endings and deterioration,” Bradley explains, “we create one that focuses on possibilities, vitality and even beginnings.” The process emphasizes resilience: the ability of the client and the advisor to adapt to new situations and absorb the shock of change.

To earn the certification, advisors take an introductory series of four 90-minute workshops. These include case studies, where the new tools are introduced and applied. Then, during the following 12 months, advisors participate in four quarterly group coaching calls, which review the characteristics of transitions and how to spot them, explore communication preferences, teach how to present a financial plan in a one-page overview, practice implementing the decision-free zone and train advisors in a process for initial client discovery and onboarding that is deeper and perhaps more effective than traditional life planning tools.

Twice a year, the institute offers a two-and-a-half day formal certification process that begins with a review of the training protocols and tools, and concludes with competency testing and an oral exam.

As a result of the training, Certified Financial Transitionists tend to develop a very different relationship with their clients than more technically oriented planners. The development of a financial (and life) plan becomes an exercise in co-creation, rather than the application of formulas, and there is more interactive and mutual feedback. Discussions are driven more by curiosity than expertise, and the advisor not only provides excellent technical advice, but also helps monitor the client’s ability to effectively process the information while navigating life’s many challenges.

I suspect that clients get a lot more benefit from this kind of relationship when it’s paired with technical planning. As asset management becomes increasingly commoditized, and as the planning profession once again finds itself moving to higher ground and attempting to offer value that is not easily replicated by a computer, the Sudden Money Institute offers a path up that hill — to higher ground.

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