This time we hear from Christopher Hibbard, an advisor with CUNA Brokerage Services Inc. at Teachers Federal Credit Union in Holbrook, N.Y. He recounts how working with a recently widowed client early in his career taught him not only to listen to his clients’ stories, but also to keep a record of them.

Just 10 months after I started work as a life insurance agent, a very distraught client showed up in my office. It turns out she had recently lost her husband and was now a widow with three young children, a part-time job and very limited means. She did have a sum of money from her husband’s life insurance but had no idea how to manage it. She also had very little financial knowledge. She had never even written a check in her life, and here she was suddenly faced with a mortgage and the prospect of eventually having to put her kids through college.

Reflecting on this first meeting, which lasted a few hours, I realized I had an enormous responsibility to help this woman beyond insurance and investments. She had so much going on that it would be easy for important details to get lost in the cracks. I would need to pay careful attention and take notes on everything she told me so I could help her piece her life back together.

We had many, many visits during which we established a foundation to help her pay her bills and get a handle on her daily living expenses. At each meeting I took copious notes, which I would review before our next meeting. Every time we sat down we would go to our checklist and review it, and then decide what we needed to do next.

Christopher Hibbard

At every meeting, I learned another piece of the story. When we started looking at her future, I discovered she had been taking classes but hadn’t completed her bachelor’s degree. When I suggested she finish her degree, she said she didn’t have the confidence to keep going. By that time, we had built enough trust that I was able say, “You can do this. There are evening classes so you can go to school and work, too.”

Working with this client taught me how important it was to stay organized and keep track of her story, which required taking really great notes. This became a standard practice with all my clients. All of my clients have a story that goes beyond just the facts of their financial lives. To really help them, I have to learn what their story is — and keep track of it from meeting to meeting. Today, after every client meeting, I take my notes and type them up. Then when that client walks into my office -- one year, two years, three years or just three months later -- we can immediately pick up where we left off.

I structure my meetings to support this process. The first 35 to 45 minutes with every client is spent catching up on personal and family goals. Then we devote the remaining time to financial topics. No one is interested in talking about betas, alphas and performance ratios. They’d rather talk about their families — and that’s the story I want keep track of so that I can ask them, for example, “Hey, how was your trip last year with your granddaughter?”

When you take notes on a client’s story and not just their finances, you make it clear that you really care about them and their goals.

Ultimately, this particular client finished her degree, got a full-time teaching position, and was able to finance college for her three children. By the time she retired, she was able to walk away with a very nice pension – something she never thought she would accomplish. Today, she’s been comfortably retired for about five years.

Part of the story she told me was that one day she hoped to be able to buy herself a red convertible. About nine months after she retired she came by the office and asked me to come outside. In our parking lot was her brand new, shiny red Volkswagen convertible. She was smiling from ear to ear and said, “I couldn’t have done this without you.” I told her, “This is your gift for yourself and I’m glad you got it, so enjoy it.”