Saturday, February 7, 2009 has become known as Black Saturday. On this day, Mother Nature showed us how fierce, terrible and unpredictable she can be. Despite the best plans and equipment, lives and infrastructure simply couldn’t withstand 1000-degree fire temperatures.
Buildings exploded; whole towns were wiped off the map; stock perished; lives were lost; it seemed that life itself was crushed.
As an active member of Victoria’s far-reaching 4WD community, in the aftermath of the fires, on the Sunday, I attended a local 4WD event. Whispers were already starting to spread that Marysville was gone; Kinglake and Kinglake West had experienced horrors; Yarra Glen and Healesville were under threat.
Our first thoughts (and prayers) went to our clients in the affected areas. Were they OK? Did they need help? Did they even survive? Our very next thought was: when we do speak with them, what can we do to help them?
Sure, we pride ourselves on our communication methods and client review/contact mechanisms, but how were we supposed to contact our clients if all recognised forms of said communication were themselves destroyed?
So for the next few weeks, we went about the arduous task of contacting each and every client in the affected areas. In some cases we weren’t able to reach them for several days – needless to say, the relief we felt when we spoke with them was immense.
I remember calling a client who was on his farm in Alexandra; I was so relieved to speak with him. When I asked him what he was doing, he told me that he was bulldozing a 150-metre firebreak around his house, through his crops – the first ones he’d had in years. Sure I was relieved, but what do I tell this bloke? “You’ll be alright mate”? Or, “Oh, OK – nice to speak with you”? This is rude, and simply stupid.
Another one of our clients (who experienced the Kinglake horrors firsthand) ended up in hospital. He and his partner had been separated. He was in hospital thinking he’d lost her, and she was at a refuge centre thinking she’d lost him.
How would you feel if you and your partner were in the same predicament? What would you need? How could you be helped?
In Marysville, everyone lost everything. One couple was part of the small pocket of humanity ushered out of the town by those brave policemen; yet others were part of the locals that assisted the policemen both in evacuation and, later, body identification.
What do you even say to people who’ve lost everything? How do you even communicate with people who had to identify bodies of friends and loved ones?
What help can we, as service professionals, offer people whose lives are on a knife’s edge?
I remember visiting clients in Healesville, whilst the fires were less than 5 km from the town. They had removed their usual curtains and covered all windows and other openings (under doors et cetera) with thick woollen blankets. A radio scanner prattled away on the breakfast bar. And suddenly I realised: I had placed myself in harm’s way, for my clients.
This same client later said to me, when we’d called him at work after yet another round of evacuations: “You know, just process the paperwork mate. No-one else has called me to see if I’m OK. I trust you.”
As a proud financial planner, I realise that whilst our main focus is to assist clients achieve their goals and objectives, their goals change when their situation changes.
So what mechanisms do we have in place in times of great disaster? Do we simply assume that these clients will contact us if they need something? I don’t think any of us are naïve enough to think that these guys are thinking about their portfolios when a “once in 100 years” fire is quite literally breathing down their necks.
Being a sure friend can mean having a beer with someone or a chat over the phone; sometimes it’s finding them a job to keep them busy; sometimes it is simply sitting with them to let them know they’re not alone in this “thing”.
I remember after the 9/11 attacks, the very first thing our practice did (I was at a different practice back then) was to issue a “special issue” newsletter. Later, many of our clients commented that just getting this letter made them feel better – because we, as their advisers, had thought to reassure them that, yes, things were uncertain, but things would be OK.
As part of what we do, we are counselled to build rapport; to get to know our clients; build relationships with them; become a “trusted adviser”. Sure, this is all very well and good when we’re trying to “convert” that sale, but how many of us will take the extra extra step from financial planner to trusted adviser to first point of contact?
After a disaster like Black Saturday, this involves not only ensuring that they and theirs have survived and are OK, but also becoming part of the solution and presenting options to the communities. Do we go to the hospital and speak to doctors, nurses and offer our professional services – pro bono – to others? Do we contact our local professional chapters (FPA, ASFA, CPA, ICAA, Law Institute, SPAA et cetera) and see what they are doing, and offer our services through greater co-ordinated efforts? Do we contact our various alma mater (universities, schools et cetera) and arrange for a collection of professionals from all fields to visit and offer services? For example, chiropractors, osteopaths and masseurs visited the Whittlesea refuge centre and offered massages and rub-downs to weary emergency workers; colleagues took time off work to help sort out the tidal wave of donations that came pouring in; others put aside their lives to serve food and drink to hopeless souls; and yet others were simply there to hold people and let them cry in their arms.
Over the next months, there was much to be done. As a board member of Four Wheel Drive Victoria (www.fwdvictoria.org.au), I helped enact our Rural Response Group (RRG) and co-ordinate the efforts of our 15,000-strong army of ready, willing and able volunteers.
This included everything from re-fencing properties and rounding up stock to transporting caravans to people in need, and assisting in the physical logistics of the entire operation.
Weeknights and weekends aside, our clients also needed to be attended to during business hours. Whilst some of their needs were easy to facilitate (change of contact details), others required much more. One of our clients suffered third degree burns to more than 20 per cent of his body – this is the same guy who experienced the Kinglake horrors.
We were fortunate to “annoy” this particular client just before Christmas 2008, to present and sign recommendations. Investment and lending advice aside, we also arranged temporary salary continuance and trauma covers.
When we eventually made contact with the couple – and found out where they were, what had happened and what was going on – our first instinct was to check their file. We always recommend the “Rolls Royce” solution, so the covers that we had applied for also had interim accident cover. But how many of us have actually read the PDS of the respective covers we are recommending? Are we really doing the right thing by recommending a “cheaper cover”? Are we really “comparing the pair”?
We visited the couple at hospital to organise forms and paperwork in order to process said claims and chased, chased and chased some more. Our focus in this case was to jealously protect our clients’ wellbeing and ensure the claims process went as smoothly as possible – with little or minimal impact to already shattered lives. We ran interference between insurance company and client – they are our clients. We know them. We have a responsibility to them.
Without the client knowing, we also claimed for the trauma cover, but advised the attending physicians to keep this from our clients. No use getting them excited about a lump sum that they may not even be entitled to.
After many tests – and many visits to the doctors and hospitals – we received the news that, indeed, they were eligible for the trauma cover under the interim accident cover provisions. A lump sum of more than $600,000. You should have seen their faces when we told them. I don’t know how many of us have been there when a cheque has been presented. It is a life-changing experience, and one that binds you – as client and adviser – together for life.
It certainly changed the way I build strategies and present recommendations.
Then there are the other cases, where we assisted clients in “back-claim” applications for total and permanent disability (TPD) and salary continuance through superannuation. One particular client requested that we consolidate her super (she had several accounts). Upon deeper investigation, we found that when she left her employer (who was paying into that fund), she left due to mental health reasons – and there was salary continuance attached to this fund at the time of her departure.
It took us nine months of chasing, but we eventually were successful in getting her about $4000 back-payment of salary continuance. For this client, at this particular point in her life, this was like winning Tatts.
Are you “jealously protecting” your clients’ interests – even when there is no money to be made? Or are you moving on to the next person who can pay, simply because it’s easier?
Now before I get the usual looks and responses saying, “Mate, if you run a business like that you’ll go broke”, I am all too aware of the fine line we walk. This is more a gentle reminder to all, restating your professional obligation – and pleading with you to be thorough. In an environment that is becoming increasingly litigious, the usual perfunctory questions simply won’t cut the mustard.
Anyway, a year on, the greatest work is yet to be done. The media has gone. The attention has turned to other parts of the community (good news simply doesn’t sell papers). But people are still hurting, perhaps more so now, in the calm after the storm.
There are many cases where people are looking to “self-medicate” – through alcohol, drugs, violence (or a combination thereof). It is now that financial planning professionals come into their own. I attended a Lions Club meeting with my dad and saw a bloke from the MARC (Melbourne Alcohol Recovery Centre – www. marc.net.au) give a presentation. Brian Cox is unbelievably passionate about this area and has devoted his life to helping people in need.
Now I know the FPA offers grants to people suffering from alcohol-related issues, through its Future2 Foundation (www.future2foundation.org.au). So we’re now working together with the MARC to see if we can assist them with a grant application.
As financial planning professionals you can speak to your local community organisation, whether it be Lions, Rotary, OxFam, Smith Family, Red Cross (there are many out there). Get involved. There are many people who need our help.
Speak to your alma mater (university or high school – or even your children’s schools) and offer them your assistance. Write an article in their magazine about budgeting, how to pay off your mortgage faster, getting “assurance” with insurance – there are many topics you can write on.
If you belong to a car club, fishing club, boat club or a dog club – write an article. How to package your vehicle, what is the financial planning process, ten questions to ask of your adviser. These people are your friends and family – don’t simply expect they will come to you if they have questions (they may be afraid, embarrassed – or simply too proud).
Perhaps you could get involved with your local chapter on a more intimate level and see what you can do from there.
Or perhaps even speak with your local member and arrange to meet with them. See what initiatives they are working on to improve the financial literacy of their electorate – and get involved. Leverage off your skills.
Our practice has this year decided to allow each staff member a week’s paid leave to assist a local community and/or charity (our staff see management do this during working hours – so we’ve now extended them the same “right”). We’re not a big organisation – we’re just seven people.
We do know from experience that our time, experience and know-how are valuable commodities. We do know from experience that we can help communities help themselves.
We do know from experience that people need our help – and we don’t let our egos get in the way of offering our professional expertise. Ego is overrated anyway.
We do know that we can make a difference. This is our commitment to the community.