Picking up the pieces

There’s a movement going on in the world of financial planning. A movement away from calculators, products and spreadsheets; towards emotional connection, engagement and experience. As the profession continues to evolve, so too does the way we operate as financial planning professionals and businesses. We are entering the renaissance; away from grey suits, grey hair and grey reports, into a vibrant new era of light and colour, where we focus on experience as well as service. Service is what you expect from any street corner fast food chain; efficient, simple, unremarkable and largely forgettable. Experience, on the other hand, is what you get from a high-end Michelin Star restaurant; elegant, ambient, comfortable and memorable. How would you prefer your clients to describe your business to their friends and family?

We must use the responsibility bestowed upon us as financial planners to make a real difference in people’s lives and offer an experience they actually value and fully engage with. To do anything else would be an incredible waste of the fortunate position we find ourselves in, to touch the lives of hundreds, if not thousands of people with the work we do throughout our careers. We have a duty to the people we serve, not just the money we look after.

This brings me to my story about a client of mine (let’s call her… Ruth), which I hope will illustrate the importance of truly connecting with people on an emotional level, with empathy and understanding of what they really need from their experience with a financial planner.

Ruth became a client of mine three years ago, just after her husband (we’ll call him George) tragically lost his battle with prostate cancer. For just shy of 50 years, George had been Ruth’s soulmate, her rock, her best friend and partner in crime. To say the loss left her reeling would not quite do justice to the heartbreak and sadness she felt in the weeks and months following George’s passing. As someone who, at the time, was just setting off down the road of marriage and starting a family myself, I could only imagine how it must have felt for Ruth to have the person she leaned on and built a life with over such a length of time, slowly taken away from her like that. I suppose death comes to us all in the end, but it is the people we leave behind who hurt most.

Ruth and George had worked together in the medical profession, both Doctors by trade, and while George eventually managed to set up his own private clinic on Harley Street, Ruth committed her vocation to the NHS as a paediatrician. They both loved their work and somehow managed to balance their careers with bringing up three children and maintaining their active social life, often entertaining guests at their lovely home near Wimbledon Common. Although I was never fortunate enough to meet George, it wasn’t difficult to notice Ruth’s deep fondness of him and the time they had together. Even now, her home is often filled with visiting friends and family – a real hub of activity, reflecting the legacy of their charming and welcoming nature, as well as their standing within the local community.

Ruth got in touch with me shortly after George’s passing to seek a second opinion on her financial situation, which had now become her sole responsibility. As a couple, they had been using an IFA with whom George had developed a relationship since his retirement some years earlier and, although Ruth was often involved in their meetings, any decisions were invariably driven by George and the adviser. Ruth would later confess to me that she had never really developed a strong bond with her adviser and, now that she had little choice but to take control of the situation, she wanted to be sure she was moving forward with the right person in her financial corner.

Now, there may have been nothing wrong with the advice George and Ruth had received up until George’s passing. By all accounts, I could see their investments had been “proactively monitored and structured in a tax-efficient way”. However, at a time of stress, discomfort, confusion and vulnerability, Ruth did not have the complete confidence in her adviser (the person who had taken care of the family finances for years) to help her through this difficult transition in her life. Ruth felt the need to reach out to somebody else because her adviser had not consciously made an effort to develop a meaningful relationship with her as an individual. That is to say, she needed somebody to empower her to make collaborative decisions about her wealth and wellbeing, during an incredibly difficult period in her life.

I remember my first meeting with Ruth as if it was yesterday. As a young, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed financial planner, what I had in aptitude and enthusiasm, it’s fair to say I lacked in good old-fashioned “life experience”. Dealing with a recently bereaved client is not something I’d had to do before; to say I was a little apprehensive about meeting Ruth for the first time would be putting it mildly. Truth be told, I was bricking it. How on earth was I supposed to talk to her about Inheritance Tax strategies and Evidence-Based Investing, while she was reeling from the loss of her lifelong companion? The answer, I decided there and then as I awaited Ruth’s arrival, was to forget my agenda, throw my metaphorical paperwork in the trash, remove my tie and simply be there to have a conversation with the human being I was about to meet for the very first time.

This was a seminal moment and decision in my career. I don’t know whether it was because of my conscious decision to not make the meeting about money, or just a release of tension that we had both built up in the moments before our encounter, but as soon as Ruth and I laid eyes on one another, I felt a sense of relief wash over the both of us. There is no doubt that she would have found the prospect of our meeting just as daunting as I did. I don’t think I’ll ever forget that feeling – the sense that we were there together in that moment not in a professional capacity, but as friends.

We sat for almost 3 hours over coffee while Ruth told me all about her life, her family, her time with George and her grief over his loss. We laughed, cried, contemplated life and joked about the little things that leave a lasting impression. Not one word was uttered about tax planning, portfolios or pensions. Ruth didn’t need any of that. All she needed was somebody there to listen and help her through the process of losing her soulmate. It’s a meeting I will never forget and has shaped my approach ever since.

We met several times over the following months and, slowly but surely, began a working relationship together, picking up the pieces of her financial life and beginning to move forward with meaning and purpose. Throughout the process, I noticed a growing confidence in Ruth. She began to ask impactful questions around gifting money to her family and causes close to her heart, how we could structure her retirement income going forward and eloquently describing her deepest desires for the rest of her life and beyond. From feeling apprehensive just leaving the house following George’s death, Ruth was now telling me about her plans for a 3-week trip to Japan and a local cancer charity she was now actively involved with.

I witnessed somebody pick themselves up again from a loss that had rocked their entire world. To know that I had in some way enabled this transformation will leave a lasting impression on me. If I’d focused that first meeting all around me and my company’s products, there is no way Ruth would have trusted me to help in her time of need. As Carl Richards says ‘People don’t care about your solutions. They care about their problems.’

We can have all the financial optimisation strategies in the world, but if we do not connect with people on a purely human level first, with real empathy, compassion and understanding; we will never experience the magic we all have inside of us to truly change people’s lives for the better. To work with people in this way is a blessing. A blessing we must not take for granted.

This story is very personal to me, and perhaps has far deeper meaning than I can articulate. Nevertheless, I hope it illustrates the importance of putting people before plans, products and instant solutions. In any walk of life, we can all make conscious decisions to forget our own agenda and really be there for someone else.

For me, there is simply no other way.

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