Beat the odds: Don’t get fired by widows

You risk losing recently widowed women as clients, as 70% of widows fire the couple’s advisor after their spouse dies. This impacts many of your clients who are couples since women are more likely to outlive their spouses. In fact, 70% of all married women will experience widowhood at least once during their lifetime.  

As financial advisors, understanding how best to help widows, including what to say to them and how to connect, can help you retain these clients and attract referrals in this market.

To keep or attract clients who are widows, try these ideas:

  • Listen deeply to her story and talk less. Ask questions. A good starting point with a new widow is “How has today been for you?” Then hear what she tells you, and focus on what she’s saying rather than thinking about the next thing you’ll talk about.
  • Help new widows feel secure and safe. These women are not interested in beating the market. Their main question is “Am I going to be OK financially?” High on their priority list is understanding their current financial position and how to maintain a good lifestyle.
  • Encourage widows to take their time with decisions that don’t require immediate attention. She doesn’t need to rebalance her portfolio instantly. If she talks about paying off her home mortgage with life insurance proceeds right away, suggest that she temporarily park this money in a secure, interest-earning account until she has time to think through her options for this money, which she may need for other purposes.
  • Avoid cliches. These can be turnoffs. Avoid things that start with “at least”: “At least you had 19 good years together,” “At least you have your children” or “At least you can be glad he’s not suffering now.”
  • Be her new “thinking partner” as she trusts that you hear her and “get” where she’s at emotionally. A widow’s “brain freeze” is very real in the early phases of her grief. She will hear your words but not necessarily understand or remember what you say. That’s the widow’s brain. Provide a written one-page summary of your meetings, noting action items for you and her. This is especially important during a widow’s stressful early grief period when she’s often highly forgetful. It’s good if she writes this herself.
  • Show compassion and care. In addition to your empathetic support, encourage her to participate in grief support services as appropriate. Many women enjoy, and find hope, reading books that include other widows’ stories. You can assist with activities that may overwhelm her. I’ve accompanied new widows to the first meeting with their estate settlement attorney, for example. Or share recommendations from other widows, such as for handyman-type work or for a trusted onsite computer technician.

Use a “Now, Soon, Later” one-page summary of what to do that you’ve talked about in a meeting. For example, here’s what I did with Linda after Bill’s death. A Now task was to spend time with family who were in town for the funeral service. Also, locate Bill’s life insurance policy. Soon tasks included listing all her regular income and expenses and canceling a trip to Germany. Later tasks would be rebalancing the investment portfolio and deciding what to do with Bill’s car.

Mistakes to avoid

During her grief, don’t be insensitive with your language. Avoid these phrases:

  • “I’m so sorry for your loss.” This phrase is a platitude. Rather, say something like “This must be an extremely difficult time for you now.” Keep the focus on her rather than on your feelings.
  • “I know just how you feel. My brother-in-law died two months ago.” I don’t ever say this to a widow because each woman’s journey is unique.
  • “God needed another angel in heaven.” This may not be comforting. For me, I wanted my husband by my side not elsewhere.
  • “Call me if you need anything.” Rather, identify a specific way you can help. “I notice that you have a lot of unopened mail on your kitchen table. Would you like assistance to help you go through this together in a couple of days?”

Rather, say this:

  • “How have these past weeks been for you?”
  • “How are you sleeping? Eating?”
  • “I can’t imagine what you’re feeling right now. Please know I’m sending good thoughts your way.”

Put the focus on her, not you

Don’t say “I was shocked to hear about Bill’s death.” Instead, talk about Bill. “I will always remember his big smile and his great laugh. Every time we got together, he had a joke to share.” If you didn’t know her husband: “Unfortunately, I didn’t know Bill. How would you want others to remember him?”

As you help widows move into a new life after the death of their spouse, you’ll be richly rewarded. These women will greatly appreciate your caring and compassionate client-centric relationship. Plus, your widowed clients will be loyal and great referral sources as your reputation spreads as being a compassionate and trusted advisor who really does know what’s best for widows. These women are wonderful to work with.

This was excerpted from the 2018 MDRT Annual Meeting presentation “Working with widows.” (MDRT member exclusive)

Kathleen Rehl is a widow who was a certified financial planner. She now speaks, writes, mentors and does research about widows and money. After her husband died, she wrote the award-winning book “Moving Forward on Your Own: A Financial Guidebook for Widows.”

To learn more about working with widows:

  • Watch “Empower women after a spouse dies” to learn what works for a Top of the Table member. (MDRT member exclusive)
  • Read “Women and wealth: What do we really want” to understand more about how to talk with female clients, including when they become widows, since internationally, women control $40 trillion — or approximately 30% of the world’s wealth. (MDRT member exclusive)
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