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How to help clients through financial downturns


as featured in Investment Executive



Since the great depression, dips, downturns and nosedives in the financial markets have set investors on edge. In the wake of Covid-19, the razor’s edge has never been thinner. As financial advisors well know, sleepless nights often transform into decisions that are more ill-conceived than prudent. Coaching investors through these uncertain times — before, during and after a crisis — is critical.


When the market drops, conversations with your clients become vital. The importance of those exchanges does not wane as a crisis abates or, in the case of the coronavirus, isolation becomes standard operating procedure. “Financial advisors need to connect with their clients to find out what concerns them,” says April-Lynn Levitt, a certified financial planner and business coach with The Personal Coach, which offers customized business coaching for advisors, in Oakville, Ont.


Dig deep, advises Chris Hornberger, a certified executive coach in Halifax. “You need to understand your clients’ specific concerns. Identify what they are worried about.”


Forward projections help you do that, Hornberger adds. Determine where clients want to be financially (and otherwise) in five years’ and 10 years’ time. Review their financial plans to see if, even in the midst or the wake of an economic upheaval, those goals still can be attained. If not, discuss how a plan could be revised to make them attainable.


Taking a step back in time with a client also can be beneficial, says Hornberger. “Ask them to recall a similar time previously when they were concerned. Ask them how they got through it. Ask them how their life — and their finances — were affected.”


Coaching clients is fundamentally about building trust. Will clients naturally turn to you after the storm has passed? “That is a measure of their trust in you when they reach out,” says Hornberger.


Hornberger adds that not receiving calls from clients is not necessarily a good thing before or after a crisis. “Do not assume if you are not hearing from clients [that] it is because they are not worried. If they do not hear from you, it can create distance.”


Looking at the issue from more than one angle and time frame can also help clients put any declines in financial markets in perspective. Covid-19 aside, market downturns are status quo. “Remind clients that we [recently were] in the 11th year of a bull market, which is historically much longer than normal, so downturns shouldn’t [have been] unexpected,” notes George Hartman, CEO of Market Logics Inc. in Toronto.


Coaching clients through uncertain times is about more than pointing to longer-term projections. “Play a leadership role when things are bad. Go beyond the investment information. See the big picture,” says Levitt. Coaching is ultimately about building a relationship that will stand the test of time and tumult. That relationship requires ongoing touchpoints as situations change, often at breakneck speed. “Communicate before, during and after,” says Levitt. “Define your market philosophy.”


Clients need to know you are there when they need you — and even when they don’t. But during downturns and their aftermath, visibility is paramount. “It’s about sharing. It’s about being proactive,” says Hornberger. “Reach out. Communicate early and often. Reassurance is central to this process.”


In situations such as market downturns, when you may be concerned that clients may blame you for poor performance, there’s a natural tendency to be guarded. “Our first instinct is often to defend,” says Levitt. “Our recommendation is to step back. Ask the client what concerns them; then you can offer solutions and advice.”


Stepping back can be hard, Levitt adds: “Clients can be confrontational. There is so much uncertainty, and it is not just financial.”


Clients aren’t the only ones who have anxious nights when the markets go in unwanted directions. You’re adversely affected in two significant ways. First, you’re worrying about your clients and their concerns. Second, you’re worried about your own business in both the short and long terms. Frightened clients can go elsewhere or exit the investment market altogether.


You also must focus on yourself when the going gets rough. “You need to take care of yourself. Meditate, exercise, get out in nature,” says Levitt. “You need to handle the stress and not get sick.”


You can feel better knowing you’ve laid a solid foundation for whatever crisis — natural disaster, market crash or pandemic — clients are in the midst of weathering. Indeed, your coaching role begins before there is anything to worry about, says Hartman: “The key to mitigating concern in market downturns is to prepare clients ahead of time for the inevitability that markets will likely be volatile during the time [clients] are invested.”


Hartman suggests you make a point of talking with your clients about the ups and downs of market performance during every annual review: “This should include historical performance illustrations, magnitude of decline [and] recovery periods.”


Managing clients’ expectations is essential, agrees Levitt: “Everyone will see a slowdown. Before anything happens, you should be talking to your clients about downturns.”


It is important to ensure you have a current market meltdown plan in place, Levitt notes: “This does not have to be complicated. If something happens, how can you be ready to reach out and to whom do you reach out personally? This is not a case of sending out just one email.”


Your meltdown plan will contain such information as which clients need to be on speed-dial for reassurance and which clients like to buy during a downturn. Your plan also will contain draft emails and templates that can be sent quickly to all or certain clients with little revision. Where appropriate, the information can reaffirm that there is insurance in place and/or a rainy-day fund.


“Emphasize [to] clients [that they] are working toward a goal — not reacting to market downturns,” stresses Levitt.


Post-crisis is an ideal time to update your plan: review what worked well, what worked as planned and what needs to be revised and rethought. As a crisis wanes, it also is an optimal time for you to identify gaps in your market meltdown plan and ensure those gaps are addressed for next time — because there will be a next time.


Your updated plan also must spell out how you will connect with clients, and continue to connect with them if you can no longer get to your office, if power service is more than sporadically interrupted or if concerned clients cannot meet with you face to face — perhaps because much of the community has been shuttered. Literally.


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Are you a Finder, Minder, or Grinder?

Advisors should use their strengths to grow their businesses. Are you a finder, minder, or grinder?


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Succeed with Succession

     Bill was the owner-manager of a small IT company in Manitoba.  He loved owning his own business but was worried about the long-term future of the company and wanted to focus more on his technical skills and less on running the business.  He approached the largest competitor in his area and they entered into a “handshake deal” for the competitor to buy his company based on a rough valuation that Bill provided.  Bill started working for the IT company and as six months went by, they became all too busy to have Bill’s business formally valued, draw up documentation or purchase insurance.  Unfortunately, Bill passed away before any of this could happen.  He left a wife and two young children, little insurance, and financial records of his small company that were a mess.  The IT company ended up paying Bill’s widow a nominal amount for his client contacts but likely much less than the contacts were worth and the process took much longer than it would have with a planned agreement in place. 


Unfortunately, this scenario is likely to play out again as more business owners get closer to the sale of their businesses and retirement.  According to the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, 77% of small business owners plan to sell their business in the next 10 years.  Only 9% of small businesses have a formal succession plan; 40% have an informal plan.  That leaves a staggering 51% with no plan at all.


As there are currently 1.14 million small businesses in Canada, this provides a great opportunity for financial advisors to play a key role in helping business owners create and implement a formal succession plan.  It’s critical to have a process in place to help business owners.


The following outlines the steps required to grow your brand as a specialist for small business succession:

Get Your Own Plan in Place – unfortunately, most financial advisors do not have their own succession plan in place!  This can be one of the most powerful steps to build your own expertise in small business succession.  By modelling this process for your clients, you can show your leadership, expertise and share the experience with your clients and potential business owner clients.​


  1. Build Your Expertise – you may already be an expert in small business succession.  If so, skip to step 3.  Most advisors we work with need to develop some additional skills to work successfully in this area.  Luckily, there are many resources to help.  Many insurance companies and MGA’s have programs in place to help develop these skills.  Pursuing designations such as the Certified Financial Planner (CFP) and Chartered Life Underwriter (CLU) will help build your credibility as a business expert as well.
  2. Get Feedback – either in a focus group or in one-on-one client interviews, ask your current business owner clients.  If you have business owner clients, this is a great way to approach them by inviting them to participate in your research.  Here are some questions to get you started:
    • Do you have a formal succession plan for your business?
    • If not, why haven't you put one in place?
    • What are the biggest challenges you face in creating a succession plan
    • What are the best opportunities to sell your business?
    • What help or resources do you need to put a succession plan in place?This research can help better design your offering around the actual challenges business owners face and also builds your credibility
  3. Build your team – many professionals are involved in the creation and implementation of a succession plan.  We have seen the most successful advisors in this area have their own resources and alliances and they also work with the business owners’ existing team if they have one in place.  Some examples of other professionals are accountants, lawyers, business valuators, business consultants, advanced planning specialists, group benefits specialists and mediators.  A successful advisor who works with farm succession clients brought in a specialist on farm succession planning and had a joint workshop with a local accounting firm and a law firm.
  4. Define your process – do you have your process for business succession clearly defined in a step-by-step manner that can easily be communicated to clients?  Having this makes it much easier to begin the conversation and outline the expectations to make it less daunting. Another advisor we work with has a 6-step process that is similar to the CFP Financial Planning Process except one of her steps is to have a family meeting about the business.
    • Another advisor who specializes in the business owner market describes the second step of his process as “meet your team.”  A key part of your process should be to review the business structure of the company or companies. Another successful advisor in this area does a diagram of the corporate structure for clients and it is surprising how many times the structure is not set up in the best way for the business owner.
  5. Communicate your Business Planning Services – clients and potential clients may not be aware that you offer this type of planning.  It is important to let people know through client case studies, client stories, your marketing material, your website and social media as well as educational events. 
  6. Start the conversation – most experts suggest starting the succession planning conversation 3 to 5 years before the owner is thinking of selling the business.  The best way to do this is to help the business owner get clear in their own mind about their vision for the future.  See above for the questions under step 3 for ideas on how to start.  Here are a few more:
    • Tell me about your business.
    • What is your biggest concern about your business?
    • Why are you thinking of selling?
    • Are you thinking of working part-time or fully exiting the business?
    • Will you have enough money to retire?
    • Do you have a buyer in mind?

Help them build their vision for their life and their business – many times even the spouses haven’t had this important conversation.  The financial advisor can be an important factor in helping clients get clear on where they want to go in their life, business, retirement and eventually how they want to leave a legacy for their family. 


Some great questions to get started are:

  • Where do you see yourself and your family in the next 3 to 5 years?
  • If money were not an issue, what would your ideal lifestyle be?
  • What impact would you like your estate to have after you are gone?
  • What steps have you taken toward your retirement goals?
  • What do you see yourself doing in retirement?

Help them put a contingency plan in place for the short term – a necessary part of the conversation is covering the immediate risks of premature death or disability as outlined in Bill’s story.  Is there key person insurance in place?  What about office overhead insurance?


Some great resources in this area are:


Every Family’s Business by Tom Deans


The Business Transition Crisis by Wayne Vanwyck


The Exit Map by John Dini


Family Enterprise Xchange


For more checklists and ideas, please contact

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What's Your Theme for 2017?

We are into the first few weeks of the new year and I’m sure you’ve seen many articles talking about setting a “theme” for the year. There is definitely merit to this approach and can help bring your goals and business plan to life. Oprah asked her team to think about these questions:

  • What do we want 2017 to bring to our lives?
  • What should it show us, teach us and inspire in us? 

They came up with the theme of "Adventure” for 2017. This one might be a little tricky to apply in the highly regulated financial services industry, so I wanted to share some other examples we have seen from teams we are coaching.


One advisor wants to feel more “Dialed in” to his business and personal life.  Another team was frustrated with the lack of progress they made on some tasks last year so they set their intention for 2017 as “The Year of Getting S*it Done!” Another chose this as the year of “Strategic Alliances.” Some other examples might be improve, connection, finish, momentum and grow.


In a time when we and our clients are faced with a lot of uncertainty, focusing more on core feelings and intent may seem a bit “out there” but can help put a purpose behind purely financial targets. It can also bring your team together if you share it with them. It can help tie your personal and professional aspirations together as well so you are building a business that supports your life rather than having a business that runs your life. 


What are some of the core feelings and intentions you would like to drive you in 2017?  

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Kelly Maxwell, Marketing Specialist
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Afsar Shah, Business & Regulatory Coach
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