Better client onboarding: Understanding your client’s family tree

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Think about the last time someone outside your family asked how your kids or grandkids were doing — and referenced them by name. How did that make you feel? Pretty good, right?

Next time you meet with a client, instead of just making small talk or asking, “How’s the family doing?” take it a step further. Be specific, as in: “How is Claire doing with her ballet lessons? I know she’s starting earlier than most kids do and you were nervous about that.” Or, “How is Jake adjusting to his freshman year of college? I saw he had a birthday last week. Was it tough celebrating his birthday away from home?”

Again, it’s not just about making small talk. It’s about showing clients that you know a level of detail about them few of their other advisors have. Make no mistake, your client’s kids and grandkids are some of the most important things in the world to them. Trust me, the relationship with your client will get much closer after asking caring questions like that.
If you want clients to listen to you, they need to trust you. If you want clients to trust you, then you want to start asking them questions that accelerate trust. For example:

  • “John, I see your son's getting ready to head off to college.”
  • “Mary, I understand your daughter is getting married next year.”
  • “Dave and Dana, I understand you’ll be caring for Dave’s mother now.”

These questions lead to conversations about important financial (and emotional) decisions that will radiate throughout your client’s family tree.

Is there a successful parent, sibling or relative who is helping to support your client financially? These are all important family dynamics that you need to understand in order to provide clients with excellent advice. Mapping out your client’s family tree can be immensely helpful for understanding “the why” behind important financial decisions. Contact me if you’d like a sample family tree worksheet.

Be the advocate

Suppose your client’s mother is suffering from dementia? Is your client responsible for some (or all) of her support? Does your client have a blended marriage? You need to understand how estate planning can change dramatically when there are children from more than one spouse involved. Does your client want to set up education planning for their grandkids? Do they have lots of liquidity, but aren’t sure how to utilize those assets for gifting?

An ancillary benefit of understanding your client’s family is that many of these questions will stir conversations among the family. As a result, other members of the family may come to you for guidance.

Family meetings

One good way to understand a client’s family dynamics is to arrange an extended “family meeting” with your client and their adult children and other close relatives. When it comes to wills and estate plans, the lack of communication between family members is what causes most of the friction, not the actual terms of the documents. Don’t underestimate the importance of getting everyone in the room together (or on the same conference call).

“Mom would have wanted me to do this or have that,” one sibling might say. But the resentment often stems from a family member feeling they were not involved in the process. Interacting with your client’s estate attorney and bringing all the relevant parties in your client’s life together will firmly cement you as the trusted family coordinator. That way, the children of your client know you’re the one to call whenever there’s a family financial issue. This further enhances the value that you’re creating for your client. In addition, the attorney is going to see a professional who goes above and beyond normal advisory work for their clients. This is rare. They’ll be impressed and will likely introduce you to their clients.

Using the family tree worksheet

Introduce the worksheet to your clients by reinforcing that you want to help them make the best possible decisions. “In order to do that,” you could say, “I need to know who the most important people are in your life. I need to spend 10 minutes with you to get familiar with those people so I can get a better understanding of your ‘Family, Inc.’”

There are usually poignant stories behind each of these relationships that go far beyond the numbers. These are the kinds of conversations — not your acumen with numbers — that builds great client relationships.

When you’re building out your client’s family tree, you may want to start at the top. What’s the financial dynamic between your client and their parents (or spouse’s parents)? Do they need to care for their parents? Will they need to do so in the future? Are the parents of your client wealthy? How about the parents of your client’s spouse? Does your client expect significant proceeds from their parents after the parents pass away? What about your client’s brothers and sisters? Is there an adult sibling that the family supports? These are all important financial and emotional dynamics.

You not only want to know the relationship your client has with those important people, but key details, such as each person’s birthday. Suppose your client is a grandfather and each of his three children has two of their own children? That means you’re dealing with nine important people in your client’s life. There's a high likelihood that someone in that group just had a birthday or is coming up on a birthday. If you take the time to ask them about Grandchild X’s birthday, that will build tremendous trust in your relationship. All this information can be incorporated into your family tree.

Suppose your client is thinking about setting up an education fund for a grandchild. Most CPAs will respond, “Well, a 529 plan is a tax efficient way to save for higher education.” But if you really understand the client’s family dynamics, you might say, “David, I know you have four grandkids. What do you want to do for the other three? How do you want to handle their college funding?”

By the way, you can use the family tree worksheet for all your clients, not just your new ones. It’s a great way to re-engage with clients who you are looking to build a better relationship with.

Don’t just be your client’s tax preparer or financial historian; be their advocate. Be the trusted advisor who’s always in their corner — the person they know they can always turn to for advice about financial matters. In order to be the advocate, however, you need to understand the family dynamics. Again, every one of your client’s financial decisions has an impact on other branches of their family tree. If you don’t know anything about your client’s family dynamics, it’s hard to offer them the best possible advice.

Again, contact me anytime if you’d like a sample family tree worksheet.

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