CPA INSIDER

6 tips for supporting clients through life transitions

Simple tools can keep clients focused during times of high emotion.
By Megan Hart

It can feel like big life changes come out of nowhere: a promotion, divorce, pregnancy, or even losing a loved one. But transitions — both good and bad, planned and unplanned — are how lives are shaped, said Susan Bradley, founder of the Financial Transitionist Institute and the Sudden Money Institute, a think tank dedicated to better serving clients and their finances through transitions.

"There are dozens of these events that can happen throughout a lifetime, so it's really important to have the skills to help your clients through them," said Bradley, who is based in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla.

Clients might look elsewhere if they don't think they're getting strong leadership through a transition. In fact, it's one of the most common reasons clients leave their financial planners, she said. Transitions can also prompt new clients to see a financial planner for the first time, which can be an intimidating experience.

On top of everything, transitions can leave people feeling overwhelmed, interfering with their ability to make decisions, Bradley said. Fortunately, many professionals who go into financial planning do so because they like helping others and have natural people skills. Those qualities are important during times of transition because clients deserve more than just technical help with their finances, Bradley said. Displaying empathy is also important when it comes to leading clients through transitions.

Bradley and experienced CPA financial planners shared these tips for helping clients through change:

Listen first. Listening is paramount. "Do more listening than talking," said Tracy Stewart, CPA/PFS, who is based in College Station, Texas, and specializes in helping clients through divorce. Focus on listening rather than thinking about what you're going to say next, she said.

Consider asking your client to bring two copies of a bulleted list that includes all the things they want to cover, she suggested — one for you and one for them. That way you can both fully focus on the conversation without worrying you'll miss something.

Ask thoughtful questions. After listening, it can be helpful to make a list of everything you've heard, and then clarify each point with your client, Bradley said. This technique, which she calls "co-creating," will help your clients feel engaged, she said. It can also help you confirm what you heard is exactly what your client was trying to convey, which is important because stress can cause people to lose some of their cognitive function during a transition, she said.

Before meeting a new client, Stewart sends an email asking them to think about how they'd like their life to be different after working with her. You can also ask something like, "How would you like to see your life change?"

"The answer to that question usually contains their biggest worry," she said.

Blend honesty with empathy. James Sullivan, CPA/PFS, is a Medicare and Social Security specialist with Fairhaven Wealth Management in Wheaton, Ill. He works with clients who've been diagnosed with a chronic or terminal illness. In his experience, it's important to treat clients with empathy and honesty, he said.

Newly diagnosed clients often put on a brave face, he said. They might tell him they're going to fight, that they're going to be different from others with their condition, or that they're not going to see a rapid decline.

"The last thing I want to do is discourage that type of positive attitude because I do think it helps," he said. "But I say, 'That could very well be how this plays out, and we'll all pray that's what happens, but let's look at these projections for the different scenarios so that we're prepared.'"

As Sullivan has gained experience in the field, he's become more straightforward, he said. He still aims to approach tough subjects with delicacy. For example, he tells clients early on that there's likely to be tension between the family, who want the best possible care for their loved one, and the person who is ill and worries the family will spend too much money on their care.

Meet clients on their level. Clients will have different responses to transitions. In Stewart's experience, some clients think they know all the answers, while others are scared or angry when they first meet with her.

Stewart recalled an older client who didn't know anything about her finances as she was facing her divorce.

"She said, 'I should have paid more attention. I should have learned all about the money,'" Stewart said. "I took a risk, and I said, 'A marriage is a partnership. You raised the kids; you did all those things to help the home run smoothly. You did your part.'"

In that moment, Stewart said, she realized that the woman thought she needed to become a financial whiz; rather, she needed some reassurance. A confidence boost was in order before Stewart dove into discussing the woman's assets. It's an important reminder that every client will be entering the discussion with a different level of financial knowledge and a different outcome in mind.

Strike the right tone. During the first meeting or two with a new client, things can get emotional, Sullivan said. Expressing your feelings — even tearing up — isn't unprofessional, he said, but he keeps the conversation focused on the client and the financial expertise he can offer. He doesn't volunteer personal anecdotes unless asked.

Make sure next steps are clear. Change can be hard, even when it's positive, Bradley said. Clients going through transition will have many choices to make, and if they are overwhelmed, they might either drag their feet or rush to make decisions, she said.

To keep clients from having too much to process at once, Bradley recommends sorting the decisions into three categories: those that need to be made now, soon, and later. This process frees clients up from making nonessential decisions during a time when they might be lacking mental clarity.

"When it's done properly, you can literally see clients relax," she said.

Before meetings, Stewart encourages clients to write their attorney's name at the top of a notepad, then title the next page "Homework." Whenever a question for the lawyer comes up during their discussion, the client knows where to jot it down. She has them do the same with tasks. That way clients leave with an organized list of what comes next.

Megan Hart is a freelance writer based in Wisconsin. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Courtney Vien, a JofA senior editor, at Courtney.Vien@aicpa-cima.com.

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