How to build rapport with older clients

How to build rapport with older clients

Empathy and patience are key.
By Michael Velazquez, CPA/PFS

Editor's note: To help CPAs meet the needs of older clients, the PFP Section has chosen to focus on elder planning as a thought leadership topic. This is the sixth in a series of articles about planning for life transitions following retirement featuring prominent CPA personal financial planners that will appear throughout 2016. To read other articles in the series, and to access other elder planning resources, visit the PFP's Elder Planning and Life Transitions After Retirement website.

Sometimes, communicating with elderly clients can be a challenge. Generational differences can cause you and your clients to interpret messages in different ways, or they may suffer from hearing or visual impairments that impede communication. If you feel like you're failing to get through to your older clients, you may try different tactics in vain. However, there are a few principles to keep in mind that can help you build a rapport with them. Here are a few suggestions.

Learn to listen

My mom used to tell me that we have two ears and one mouth and we should use them proportionately. This is especially true when working with older people. Aging occasionally brings some changes to the brain which may cause them to take a little bit longer to get to the point. It is critical to read between the lines and pick up on the real message. As advisers, we are often too eager to be heard. Learn to listen.

Speak plainly

When you do speak, choose your words carefully and keep your messages simple. Avoid jargon and assume that your client does not know the meaning of certain terms CPAs take for granted. Ask for validation and feedback to ensure they are following you.

Allow for time

Plan to take longer with older clients than you would with young or middle-aged adults. In my practice, I've found that they are typically not in a hurry and don't like to be rushed. Sometimes my older clients like to reminisce. I've found that, rather than rushing them along, it's better to let them tell their stories and listen intently, express interest, and ask questions. When you listen closely, you may pick up valuable nuggets of information that you can use to deepen that relationship and build trust. You may also come across important details that they forgot to mention earlier.

Cutting your clients off prematurely may not only offend them but prevent you from cementing the relationship the way you had intended. Be patient.

Be aware of the culture and psychology of growing older

We cannot begin to understand the financial ramifications of growing older until and unless we adopt a multidisciplinary approach and embrace the fact that growing older has its own culture and unique psychology.

Years ago, I met with a retired art history professor to do what can only be described as late-term estate planning, considering he was 84 and still teaching junior college. "What do you want your legacy to be?" I asked. He did not understand me, but then I rephrased it: "What do you want to be remembered for?" His immediate response was "As a good father and a good man who taught his students art as a human imperative." My lesson was that legacy may be more abstract as a concept, yet everyone wants to be remembered for something.

In today's society, older people live longer lives and have better health care and recreational opportunities. However, they also may experience a breaking of social ties and loss of self-esteem. They may also become more dependent on others, which can cause them to lose relative status in our society, which values self-reliance and independence so heavily.

Incorporating the fundamental desire for independence in your planning can also help you establish solid relationships with your older clients and their families. It is a lot simpler than it sounds. Starting out with compassion, the CPA should understand clients' natural instinct to be independent even when they express it indirectly by saying, "I don't want to be a burden to anyone." CPAs can help family members recognize the sensitivity required to enhance older relatives' sense of self-worth, even when those relatives aren't as independent as they once were. Suitable living arrangements can help facilitate a sense of independence: for example, ones that have minimal or no stairs, chairs that are easy to get in and out of, phones with large keypads, and other similar accommodations.

Many resources can help CPAs who want to learn more about the psychology of aging. Some include:

  • Author David Solie's website, which contains resources on dealing with the elderly, including "How to Say it to Seniors," a great book for any Baby Boomer with aging parents or advisers dealing with them.
  • MIT AgeLab's website, which features multidisciplinary information about aging. The site features publications, resources, and tools based on the AgeLab's studies and projects, and it's a must for anyone looking to establish a benchmark of sensitivity and understanding with seniors.
  • The AICPA's PFP Division has links to a number of articles, webcasts, podcasts, and videos available on elder planning on its webpage on elder planning and life transitions after retirement.  In addition, topics of interest to elders will be covered at the Advanced PFP Conference held in June as a part of ENGAGE 2017.

Michael Velazquez, CPA/PFS, CGMA, is a wealth manager at U.S. Wealth of California and U.S. Wealth Coral Gables and a member of the AICPA's PFP Executive Committee.

To comment on this story, email associate editor Courtney Vien.

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