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Home Visits Can Be a Huge Value-Add for Clients

December 12, 2014

This week FA-IQ interviewed Cynthia Conger, founder and president of Conger Wealth Management, a fee-only firm in Little Rock, Ark. Conger recalls an illuminating trip to a widowed client’s home.

Thirty years ago, I took on two new clients, a recently married couple in their early thirties. Both were executives at telecommunications companies. Because they started with me so young, I saw them through many different major life events, including the birth of their two children and various relocations. Throughout this period, the wife was the primary financial decision-maker. She was wonderful to work with — always on the ball and very quick to respond to my requests for information or documentation. And then the unthinkable happened. When her sons were 14 and 15, her husband unexpectedly passed away.

In the months following his death, I checked in with her several times. When I asked how she was doing, she always said, “Fine.” But her actions told a different story. We had to get the paperwork ready to file her estate tax return within nine months of her husband’s death. Suddenly, though, my once-capable client was dropping the ball. I’d ask her to fax over a particular document, and she’d agree — but it would never arrive. Or I’d ask her to bring her account statements to our next meeting, and she’d forget.

One day, I called her up to ask about a particular piece of information. She told me she couldn’t find it. “Why don’t I just come over and help you look?” I asked. She agreed, but sounded a little embarrassed; she told me her organization skills had taken a bit of a dive after her husband’s death. When I stepped into her house, I realized that had been an understatement. Her coffee table was piled several feet high with mail — bills, letters from the hospital and other assorted pieces of correspondence. That sight made me realize she was in a lot more trouble than she was letting on.

Over the course of that afternoon, I helped her sort through the pile of mail. One reason she hadn’t thrown anything away was that she wanted to take a closer look at the medical bills from her husband’s hospitalization to make sure she wasn’t being charged twice. But she just hadn’t had the energy to move forward with that project. I convinced her to outsource it to someone else. After that, we got through the organization process fairly quickly. I think it helped her to have me there. For me, it was a relatively straightforward task; but for her it carried a huge emotional burden, since every envelope she touched reminded her of her husband. Once we finished, I could tell that a huge weight had been lifted off her shoulders.

That was more than a decade ago, and she’s still a valued client. I work with many widows, and since that day I always make a point of visiting them at home after a loved one has passed. Some people are very good at putting on a front when they’re in your office — but if you see them in their home environment, you have a much clearer sense of how they’re actually doing.

I already have a close relationship with my clients, and I’ve usually been to their houses in other circumstances. But I think a home visit is a good strategy for any advisor who works with people going through losses, whether a death or a divorce. When people tell you they’re fine, you don’t necessarily want to take that at face value. You have to get the message behind their words, too.