There are many situations where you might find yourself having a conversation that makes you feel uncertain.
Being uncertain isn't a bad thing. It means that your senses are kicking in, that your adviser instincts are heightened. So what can make you feel this way? Possibly when a client:
- develops a new health condition or is given a terminal diagnosis
- does not remember conversations that you have had
- loses their job
- experiences a bereavement
- shows impulsive behaviour
- tries to arrange cover for a family member and is reluctant for you to speak with them
I use the word uncertain here, but not in a negative way. This means that we realise that there might be a client vulnerability, and we need to stop and double-check we are taking the right approach. This is so that we can safeguard both the client and us.
When you speak with a client that is in a potentially vulnerable situation, there are some key things that you can do to help them. One of the first things is not to assume that a client is vulnerable. I have been involved in organisations where we advisers are told that anyone over the age of 70 is vulnerable and must provide a letter of authority to say they are of sound mind so that advice can be given.
There may be people over 70 that are vulnerable, but some people in their 80s can be far less vulnerable than some in their 30s; however, it is sensible to be cautious of cognitive decline as people become older.
You might instinctively think that someone with a mental health condition is more vulnerable than someone who doesn’t. But someone with a mental health condition knows their symptoms and has coping mechanisms, could then a person that has never experienced mental health be more vulnerable to a shock life event?
We need to train ourselves not to act upon assumptions, to realise they are there and do a double-check evaluation to make sure it’s not affecting our advice process. To start, don’t assume:
- Providing advice to the client could put you at a higher risk of a complaint if they are struggling to understand or remember what you have said. You are also at risk if you don't provide support.
- If you speak to one partner of a household, that the other partner knows what is going on.
- You have all the options in the world, and if you can’t find a solution for the client, that no one can.
- That because someone has a disability that they can’t do certain things. You can get wheelchair users on the ski slopes and jumping out of aeroplanes.
- If someone is experiencing a bereavement, change of health, or have lost their job, they know how to seek out support services.
All of this is good to know, but it’s hard to know what to actually do to help. We can be tied by compliance rules, we might have limited time to speak with the client, your instincts might be firing but the client might be guarded about sharing their situation. It’s essential that you adapt your approach when you are faced with a difficult conversation. This is your tone, your language and your thoughts. It can feel quite strange, but it is vital that you aware of:
- Your tone. Speak in a softer tone and try to slow your pace slightly. Imagine speaking to a friend or a loved one rather than using your professional voice.
- Actively listening. The last thing you want to do if you are speaking to someone living with a strong mental health condition is to say "Oh, the kids have been driving me crazy!" You also don’t want to miss a vulnerability as this could be detrimental to the client and potentially to you if a complaint is made.
- Your words. Avoid saying the word ‘suffer’. This has a very negative tone, especially if you are speaking to someone with a medical condition. It is much better to say, ‘living with’. Thank the person for being so open with you. They are likely sharing something with you that makes them feel vulnerable, and you are a confidant.
- Making clear records. When someone tells you about a sensitive situation, take notes so they don’t need to repeat themselves.
- Tested procedures. Become familiar with the TEXAS, IDEA, ALGEE and CARER’s action plans.
Keep in mind that you are only human. You might make a mistake and instinctively regret a choice of words you have used, or look back and realise that you have not paid enough attention to what was being said. Admit this to yourself and learn for the future.
When you have a difficult conversation with a client, you need to look after yourself. Some conversations and life events that we hear about are hard to process. It's important to make sure that you take time to talk to someone or do something that relaxes you e.g. get out for a walk. You might need to arrange a time to speak with someone for mental health support, depending on what you have heard.
Going back to the client conversation, if you are concerned that the client is not able to understand your advice, subtly suggest that an advocate is present. This does not need to be made into a big thing. You can ask the client to have a family member, or trusted friend join the conversations. Say it's a good idea so that if anything happens to them, their trusted person can step in and help.
Having a vulnerable client policy, register, and someone to help you review that you are taking the right steps to support your client, are essential. For the register, a simple spreadsheet can do, it doesn’t need to be anything fancy. Record the date, the client's details and why you feel there is a vulnerability. A compliance oversight can then step in, review and help you to plan the next steps.
Another point that I would like to impress upon you is that if you are uncomfortable having difficult conversations or run out of options that you can provide, it is essential that you signpost them to someone that can help them further. It is not ok to walk away from a client without offering them some form of support.
You should have a clear list of support services for your clients. Mental health charities and debt advice agencies are just a couple of examples. You should have the contact details of other trusted advisers so that you can signpost clients to specialists that can support them. I do protection insurance and have mortgage, pension and wealth specialists to hand, so I can direct my clients to people that I know.
Kathryn was a recent guest on Illuminate Live, if you missed it, you can watch the replay here: