This time we hear from Joan Cox, senior financial advisor at Personal Financial Advisors in Covington, La. She talks about how visiting a client in her home forged a connection that benefited both parties.

Sometimes it’s hard to get a read on clients. I’d been working with one client for years before I felt like we were able to understand each other. She was an elderly, retired widow who had worked in a male-dominated profession. She projected an air of extreme self-assurance, to the point where she could come across as brusque or prickly.

At the same time, her emails didn’t always make total sense, and they were often littered with typos. I worried that she was experiencing cognitive decline, and I wanted to do what I could to help her. But when I brought up the idea of starting to plan for long-term care, she brushed me off. I didn’t press.

This client lived a few hours away, so our communication was typically via phone or email. One day, though, I was visiting her town, and I made plans to stop by her home.

As soon as I walked in, my idea of who she was began to change. Her house was beautifully decorated, with huge windows looking onto a garden and lots of edgy contemporary art. It didn’t match the image I’d constructed of a closed-off, sometimes cantankerous widow.

She clearly took a lot of pride in her house, and when I complimented it she responded warmly. I noticed a crystal pitcher that was exactly like one my husband had inherited from his grandmother. She told me she’d gotten hers from her mother. It was a small thing, but we were starting to establish common ground.

Another thing I noticed was that her computer screen was unusually large. I asked her about it, and she told me she had macular degeneration. I wondered if what I’d suspected was cognitive decline was in fact failing eyesight. Right then, I decided to start sending her emails in a larger font, with enlarged spreadsheets and other visuals.

When I left, I felt like I’d managed to forge a deeper connection with this client during my two-hour visit than I had in the previous five years.

Not long after my visit, I felt comfortable enough to reintroduce the idea of planning for a different living situation. I’d recently spoken to a social worker about how people’s capacity to make big decisions declines as we grow older, a phenomenon I’d witnessed in several clients. I shared this information with this woman, hoping to gently nudge her toward creating a plan for later in life.

This time she was much more receptive. Over the next few months, I helped her put a plan together, and about a year ago she moved into a continuous care community.

When advisors see clients exclusively in an office setting and communicate with them via phone and email, we inevitably end up assessing them using a limited set of clues — not only what they choose to share with us, but their clothes, their voices, the way they write emails. We all have biases and are constantly trying to fit people into different categories.

Most people feel more relaxed and comfortable in their own homes. On their own turf, clients are more likely to open up and share things about themselves that they may otherwise hold back. What you learn could change the way you interact with them and how you help them plan for the future.

When I shared the story of my home visit with colleagues, other advisors had similar stories. We talked about the idea of home visits as a firm, and now plan to make them a deliberate part of our practice. We agreed that visiting the homes of elderly clients — and other clients in vulnerable positions — could be especially beneficial. It’s a simple idea, but one we think could have big implications for our clients.

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