01 October, 2014

Three Random acts of kindness

Empathy is one quality a Financial Planner has to have in large measure. This is emphasized even more in Life Planning, who rightly consider empathy to be integral to the Financial Planning process. Only through genuine understanding of the clients can the planner help clients discover their real goals and actually assist them in their journey.

Clients are not coming to us for our dexterity with numbers.  That ofcourse is expected of a financial planner. The client is actually expecting a confidante, a sounding board for all they want to do… for they may not have someone in their family or in their association, who has the knowledge/ experience to advice on financial matters. Even more important, they would not have someone who stands apart and offers the advice dispassionately, without emotional tangles.  

When I had been to the US for attending the FPA Experience 2012, I encountered what can only be called random acts of kindness. What’s more, I encountered three of them in completely different settings. I’m recounting them here as this is the kind of spirit we need to bring to our dealings with our fellow human beings, our clients. I found the experience poignant and had since got etched in my mind.

An officer and a gentleman :  The time spent in San Antonio was fantastic; I had encountered lots of friendly Americans in and outside the conference. But it was in Austin, when I went to visit my cousin, that I really got a signal lesson in the fine art of dealing with empathy, treating people fairly & giving another individual the respect they deserve.

I had gone out with my cousin and we were driving home. It was a nice stretch of road and my cousin was driving steadily. Midway, we heard the wail of the sirens and my cousin figured that it was for us. He took the next turn away from the main road and waited for the police car to catch up.

The officer came up to the window and started talking. He wanted to know why we had the right indicator on, while we were proceeding straight on the highway. My cousin apprised him that we had a signal malfunction. The officer then talked about the danger to the traffic behind  us, more as a concerned cop rather than in moralistic, preachy tones. He checked the driving license and my cousin joked with him about how long his name is. It broke the ice. The officer checked his PDA-like-device and apparently figured that my cousin had a squeaky-clean record. He returned the license and said,” I’m not going to fine you; I’m not even giving you a warning on this; but just get this fixed immediately… you realize the danger on the road to you and to others, I suppose…”, he said. We told him, we will fix it and in a pleasant frame of mind reached home. Quite a contrast to how it would have panned out back home.

The guardian angel : On my way back, I was to fly to New York from Austin on my way back to India. There was a one-day stopover in Newyork. When I went for the boarding pass in Austin Bergstorm Airport, I was directed to a terminal where I was to scan my passport and enter some details before making my boarding pass. But the terminal had some issues and I needed help.

I located a person from Delta, to whom I explained my predicament. He had been noticing me – with my three pieces of luggage. He asked me where I was flying to. I said – Newyork. He told me that I would be charged for the luggage, as I could only carry cabin luggage on local flights. I told him I would be happy to pay the charge, as per their policy.  Then he saw my ticket and came to know that I was eventually flying to India. He glanced at me once over. I asked him, if there was something wrong. He said, ”You are a very noble guy. I’ll try to help you”. I was taken aback. I asked him why he said that. He said, ”Almost everyone tries to avoid paying the charge under one pre-text or the other. You being an international traveller, having a legitimate reason for the luggage still said you will pay as per company policy. That is very rare”, he said. He went to the counter himself, talked to them and ensured that the charge was waived-off for me. I thanked him and was on my way.  It was a fantastic demonstration of empathy and going out of the way to help clients.

The kind hearted driver… : I was in Newyork for a day of sight-seeing. After I was finished and wanted to return to my hotel room, I had to take Q6 route bus. Firstly, I had lots of trouble locating the bus stop. Then I finally located it and confirmed with another fellow commuter- Edwin. Edwin was an American and was originally from Dominican Republic. We started talking about each other’s country and had a pleasant time till the bus pulled up.

I had bought a pass in the morning, which I was told can be used on the return journey. I tried to use that to validate. But it did not work. I learnt that it needs to be used within 2 hours. I told the driver, I would pay the fare. The driver just looked at me, took my card and said “Go”. I was confused - why was he not accepting the fare… Edwin explained that they do understand genuine cases and some are kind, like the one I encountered and would refuse to charge.

I would certainly say that I learned more about client handling from these three encounters than from the conference. They had all helped me without much ado. They had all gone out of their way to ensure good outcomes for me. The people in these situations could have easily skewered me – but chose to rise above, empathise & help, rather than blame and harass. It was a rousing demonstration about treating clients with respect, giving them the benefit of doubt where due, understanding their situation before passing judgements and genuinely trying to help them in their hour of need. No lecture could have put this across more convincingly.

Clients are people, like you and me, who have various dreams about life. They are not sure if or how they can achieve it. They are wracked by doubt & uncertainty about whether their dreams. Going through life, they are tormented by various challenges which fan the fears about their ability to achieve their goals. It is in this maelstrom of uncertainty, that they see their financial planner as a refuge, who will help them navigate the rough seas of life and get to the destination, safe and sound. That looks eerily similar to what gurus are supposed to do for their Chelas or those who have sought their refuge.

Religion talks about the virtues of total surrender, where the person performs every act, as offerings to the Lord. Lord Krishna talks about performing every act as an offering to the Lord, without ever worrying about the fruits of one’s actions. This will ensure that the person maintains equanimity - is neither elated when the outcome of action is positive or despairs about the actions produce negative results.

Ofcourse, that is not exactly the kind of relationship we can expect between the planner and client. A good dose of trust between the planner and the client is what will make the relationship tick and bring home the results. Trust can be built overtime. But, it is one of the important ingredients that is essential for the success of the relationship. But trust can be engendered only by being above board in all dealings, by acting consistently in the client’s interests, by displaying integrity & ethics and by being there for them, when the client’s need the planner.

In my three encounters, the qualities displayed – understanding, empathy, going out of the way to assist - struck me as qualities that work universally, in all situations. It works wonderfully well for us – planners.         

US is down now. But, their heart is in the right place, their spirit unflagging, their ethos right. I saw in my brief visit, three acts of kindness which showcases their caring attitude. There is a lot to learn here. Maybe, the next time I should travel a lot more to learn about the art of client handling.  

Author - Suresh Sadagopan   www.ladder7.co.in   Published in Financial Planning Journal Nov-Dec 2012

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