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What RIAs should NOT say to clients during the coronavirus pandemic

This crisis has already spawned insincere cliches, 'Stay safe!', false wisdom and other told-ya-so atrocities that advisors need to stop grabbing for

Monday, March 30, 2020 – 4:47 PM by Guest Columnist Sara Grillo
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Sara Grillo: Show them that you can bring new ideas to a dismal situation.

Brooke's Note: Writing is not ever easy, and effective. Gains in effective communication are usually preceded by pain -- from thinking, rethinking, writing, reading what you write, realizing it stinks, rethinking, rewriting, letting a third party or two tell you it blows, editing and then praying. There is a solution that 99% of us use to get around all that agony and humiliation. We grab for cliches, toss out throwaway lines, embrace jargon and keep it all neutral, devoid of original ideas and otherwise sanitized like a pandemic kitchen. But as bad as we usually are at writing, we are even worse writing to people during times of crisis and tragedy like a Covid-19 shutdown. Our pain is higher so we double down on the talking points -- and worn-out humor -- to assuage it. Sara Grillo is here to stop us all from taking this self-destructive behavior too far.

For a financial advisor, no time of higher perceived value exists in the eyes of the public than a crisis like the coronavirus pandemic. Yet most advisors will continue to speak in jargon that seems permanently endemic to the financial industry.

If you want to reach the many people desperate for sound financial advice during the coronavirus pandemic, avoid these communication traps.

1. “Don’t forget to stock up on toilet paper!”

For a profession so focused on maintaining a staid, snobby, upper-crust image (to a fault, I may add), I am utterly perplexed. How did we go from the Grey Poupon image of a product associated with the wealthy to this bathroom humor?

I guess we’re trying to poke fun at how panicked everyone is. But did it ever occur to you this is not the right profession for this kind of humor?

I mean, in normal times any financial advisor would be horrified to even mention the word “toilet” in a conversation. So why is it that everywhere I turn I’m seeing:

  • Videos of financial advisors surrounded by rolls of toilet paper;
  •  Emails with pictures of bidets;
  • Toilet paper jokes as the closing line of economic commentaries.

It wasn’t a funny joke to begin with, and now it’s overdone to the point of being downright irritating. Can we stop saying this, really?

2. Emails that start with 'hope you are well' and end with 'stay safe'

Did I miss the memo on the new way to write an email? Did Microsoft Outlook initiate some autocorrect feature that automatically inserts “hope all is well” after “Hello” and “be well” every time somebody types “goodbye?"

Yes, I know, you financial advisors want to show everyone how caring you are. You’re so altruistic all you want to do is give everyone a bear hug.

To some extent I understand the need to demonstrate that you’re not tone deaf to what people are going through. Using the same exact lines as everyone else, though, makes it come across as highly insincere. It’s almost as if the words don’t have personal meaning anymore.

I suggest we declutter from now on.

Can we just, as a population, agree not to assume the person doesn’t care if someone sends you an email without these pleasantries? One thing we all have a lot less of right now is time--so let’s make communications briefer, not more cluttered with meaningless jargon.

3. Wash your hands

Thanks, mom.

This is where I think we are deviating a little bit from the image of the financial advisor as the bastion of analytical intellect and embarking into the realm of Care Bears. You think I don’t know to wash my hands? Every adult knows this. Making this recommendation is a nice gesture, but when you think about it, what you are insinuating is slightly demeaning.

4. Fear mongering social media postings

I have to be on social media for my work, but I have to admit that several times over the last few days I have considered point blank cutting myself off of Twitter, just so I can get away from all the bad news. It’s not that I want to live in ignorance, it’s that all of the negativity can get pretty demoralizing.

Yet everywhere I go, it seems, every other financial advisor is fear mongering. Thanks for sharing the graph of U.S. COVID-19 cases compared to Italy with all of your LinkedIn followers. You know, the one that shows an exponential spike every two days and then the graph escalating to infinity. How much original thought did that take? I already saw this on CNBC three times today. Above all, it’s a supreme example of social media laziness. Whenever I see a posting like this, I completely ignore it.

People look to you at times like this for solutions, not to make them feel worse about problems they can’t control.

5. “This is why it’s so important to have 3- to 6-months of cash in an emergency fund!

Nana, nana, boo, boo; you didn’t listen to me and now you can’t afford to pay your rent! Told ya so!

Nobody likes a goodie two shoes. Financial advisors are constantly harping on the emergency cash fund as a staple of financial planning. I don’t get it.

Don’t you have anything more relevant to say to highly affluent people? Think about who you are targeting with this message. I would be shocked if Zuck were to be evicted for not being able to chalk up this month’s rent. Not sure these emergency fund rebels are ideal clients for you.

Why don’t you be what you all say you are on your websites: The person who provides peace of mind in unsettling times; the person who takes the time to customize, who goes the extra mile to educate, inform and find solutions when none are obvious?

Dale Crossman: Don't lose focus when things aren't going the way you wanted.

Here’s an example of a great social media post that is genuine, inspiring, and most of all, human. So far this post from Edward Jones advisor Dale Crossman has 25 likes and three comments. Beats the tired old re-posted chart from the CDC, doesn’t it?

Here is a picture of Dale being sworn into the Navy; the caption reads:

"From being in the Navy, one thing I've learned is essential for survival: Don't lose focus when things aren't going the way you wanted. There's always a way to win, no matter how hard the battle may seem. #grit #perseverance #focus #champions

What went right about this posting:

  • Shows something people have pride in and trust such as the US military
  • Inspires hope
  • Shows grit and character
  • Not too wordy
  • Highly visual imagery of human beings not a graph or chart

Show them your heart. Show them who you are deep down inside, maybe even that you are a little vulnerable.

Show them that you can bring new ideas to a dismal situation, ones that can show people a better way to get through this.

Above all, people want to feel that you are human as well as a financial advisor, because in this time of social distancing (let’s face it), we all feel a little alone.

6. Sara’s upshot

Any crisis shows us who the real leaders are. They are the people who do and say amazing things to create positive outcomes for other people. See the coronavirus as an opportunity to rise to the challenge and choose words that reflect the highest value that a financial advisor can bring instead of the tired old clichés that everyone else is saying.

In a world desperate for any shard of hope, you never know whose hero you may become.

Sara Grillo, CFA, is a marketing consultant who helps investment management, financial planning, and RIA firms fight the tendency to scatter meaningless clichés on their prospects and bore them as a result. Prior to launching her own firm, she was a financial advisor and worked at Lehman Brothers.

Peter Giza

Peter Giza

March 31, 2020 — 4:58 AM
Sara, I agree with most of your points. However I disagree with this generalization: "This crisis has already spawned insincere cliches "stay safe"" and it's colloquialism brethren “hope all is well” and closers such as “be well”. Perhaps you write only with respect to advisor / client communications. I have used these "clichés" with sincerity for many years. When I write something I do so with a purpose and that is to engage with my audience. People know whether or not you are sincere. The contents is that which determines sincerity. I suppose if someone lacked all writing skills the recipient may see it as cliché. There is a big difference between writing "I hope this note finds you well" versus calling out "hey! How are you doing?" as you skip by someone in the hallway headed in the opposite direction. Now that's as cliché as it gets and yet it was something most of us did on a daily basis until the advent of social distancing. For myself the meaning of "hope you are well", "be safe", "stay safe", "be well", etc., become weightier with each passing pandemic day. Pete
Sam Fawaz

Sam Fawaz

April 4, 2020 — 8:42 PM
I have to agree with Peter Giza’s comments-he’s spot on. My e-mails to clients start with a sentence or two about what’s going on with my family as I ask about their’s. One client told me my personal touch was a far cry from the cold and impersonal e-mails she used to get from her former advisor. That said, knowing your client is important-if they have a “get to the point personality”, I skip the pleasantries and get to the point. Those are the vast minority of my clients, thankfully.
Jeff Spears

Jeff Spears

March 31, 2020 — 12:05 PM
Your honesty and candor are refreshing. I share your thoughts that we need to stop sending obvious email messages. A call will have a better impact. We need to call everyone we care about. We have the time.....


April 6, 2020 — 3:01 AM
Sam, I agree. But I think Sara is trying to make a more nuanced point about how you are personal. I've gotten a number of emails that seem to have a personal message that sounds canned and tacked on as a second thought. Like everything, it's how you do it. -Brooke

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