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Just wear black

The trouble with today’s financial advisers is that they don’t go to enough funerals.

Some of the best financial advisers I’ve met were sales reps for the direct-sell companies like Canada Life, Pearl and Prudential, in the days when life assurers regarded having a sales force as part of their job description.

Despite being sales reps, these guys – there were almost no gals in those days – gave good, often excellent generic advice and always ensured their clients bought enough protection. OK, clients probably paid a bit too much for it, and didn’t get great returns from some of the savings plans, but these are small failings compared with putting all your client’s money into an AIG product because it couldn’t possibly fail.

These advisers went to lots of funerals. The cynical among you will think they went in search of business. Not so. They went to affirm their relationship with their clients, who they aimed to know well enough that the client would feel glad that their adviser showed up at an aunt’s or uncle’s send-off. After all, these guys had plenty of experience of funerals and knew how to be supportive in a restrained, dignified way. And yes, of course they picked up business as a result, and who’s to say that’s better or worse than acquiring it at a Freemasons’ lodge or the golf course?

Funerals remind us that money both does and doesn’t really matter, and that’s valuable for financial advisers who spend too much time thinking about it. Money doesn’t matter because funerals tell you about the central role played in most people’s lives by character and fate, which money doesn’t often make much difference to – mostly, money is a result rather than a cause. Money does matter because the widow with the term assurance payout has the chance to make a different kind of life for herself and the kids. Advisers who can hold both propositions in mind will probably do a better job for clients.

While today’s advisers could make more effort to wear black, the fact they go to fewer funerals isn’t entirely their fault. Fewer people are dying young, and most are dying so old that the funeral is a celebration more often than a lament. Showing up at such a funeral is still worthwhile for the adviser, but it doesn’t demonstrate the strength-and-support-in-adversity that was so beneficial to the older generation.

How do you make up this funeral deficit? Make sure your clients talk to you about bad stuff. Losing their job, divorce, their kids’ problems. For most people, as soon as you move from the concrete to the abstract money becomes incomprehensible, exposing the inadequacy of their reasoning abilities, and is therefore placed in a box separate from everyday life. Which is also what we do with death.

Actually, deep down we know we’ll be more content if we can crack those boxes open. But it’s an axiom of screenwriting that the movie hero only reveals his true character when he’s put under pressure. It’s usually only the experience of death or disaster that enables people to connect the rational and the emotional in the money world – and until you do that you can’t claim to understand it. You don’t have to buy George Kinder’s life planning stuff to engage with this, and a lot of older advisers do it instinctively. Unfortunately for them, younger advisers won’t find it in the exam syllabus. They need to go to funerals.

Chris Gilchrist is director of Churchill Investments

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