SEATTLE – Life expectancy continue to rise, but death is still as sure as taxes. As the number of Americans working with advisors also rises, experts say many wealth managers need to upgrade their strategies for working with clients coping with grief or risk losing them to other advisors.

Amy Florian, CEO of Corgenius, which specializes in training professionals to effectively support clients handling a loss or life transition, told a crowded session at the Investment Management Consultants Association conference on Tuesday that it’s crucial to “ask good questions and really, really listen.”

Florian has developed her message through first-hand experience: Three decades ago, a time when she and her husband, John, were both 25-year-olds living in their newly purchased home with their 7-month-old son, she abruptly became a single parent following a car accident. Struggling with her grief and her new responsibilities, she lamented to a friend that she had no future.

“You still have a future, Amy,” the friend told her, “it will just be different than you had planned.”

She emphasized that financial advisors must help clients see that future by respecting their emotions and guiding them forward.

“If you handle the process well, you’ve got a client for life,” Florian said. If not, she noted, studies have shown that 70% of widows switch advisors within three years following the death of their spouse.

Florian offered four tips for wealth managers working with grieving clients:

  • Be sure to ask clients or potential clients, What are you afraid of? By approaching those fears directly, it will be easier to try to assuage them with facts.
  • In the aftermath of a loss, never say to a client or potential client, “I know how you feel.” That’s a sure way to alienate many people, she said. Instead, “Establish your experience, but allow the uniqueness of their experience.” She noted that this kind of sensitivity is important even if a client’s loss is that of a pet. Reject an urge to say to the person that at least they had not lost a human being. That only diminishes the perception of your sympathy for their loss, Florian said -- prompting one audience member to mention that, upon hearing that a client’s cat had died, she called the locale animal humane society and made a donation in the pet’s name, a gesture Florian applauded.
  • A sympathetic support staff is not enough. Advisors need to train administrative assistants to help clients and potential clients know that their needs will be foremost, such as asking someone when it’s convenient for them to come in, rather than suggesting available times for an appointment.
  • Don’t merely offer to be available if someone has follow-up questions after a meeting. Take the initiative and contact them yourself, advising ahead of time when you plan to check in.

Florian, the author of the newly published, “No Longer Awkward: Communicating with Clients Through the Toughest Times of Life,” told the crowd, “It takes time to listen … but it’s not a waste of time – it’s an investment in time. Sometimes I think people should invest in grief education as part of their marketing budget. How much money do you spend getting and acquiring and retaining clients? … You walk people through the toughest times of their life, they will not keep you a secret.”