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Dear Client ... Happy Holidays With a Little Edge

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The annual holiday letter to family and friends has become a modern American tradition, notable for its senders’ preening hints to the superior life they enjoy.

Service-oriented businesses have adopted a sterilized version of the holiday letter, paeans of client appreciation together with photos of charitable and volunteer efforts.

But why be bland? Across the pond, retired British Royal Navy officer Nick Crews has electrified his country with a tough-love-style email to his children that has gone internationally viral. Dubbed the “Crews missile,” the letter expressed bitter disappointment with his adult children for not making something of their lives and careers.

While hectoring clients that they’re slackers when it comes to preparing for retirement is unlikely to trigger a rush of new assets to manage, the starkness of the Crews approach may offer a sort of benchmark that can stimulate a more frank and useful holiday client communication. Herewith excerpts of the Crews email, together with suggested modifications.

Crews’ missive begins with an attention-getting opening:

“With last evening’s crop of whinges and tidings of more rotten news for which you seem to treat your mother like a cess-pit, I feel it is time to come off my perch.”

Your letter would need to set a more upbeat tone, and be written in a manner intelligible to Americans, but evocative language was a good idea. Something like:

“The holidays bring joy, warmth and glittering lights to our year end. A ritualized setting of goals has become traditional as well. But, before we set 2013 resolutions, shouldn’t we assess how we did the previous year?”

The above gets to the point right away, contains no untranslatable words like “whinges,” and most importantly omits use of “cess-pit.” Crews’ letter continues:

“It is obvious that none of you has the faintest notion of the bitter disappointment each of you has in your own way dished out to us. We are seeing the miserable death throes of the fourth of your collective marriages at the same time we see the advent of a fifth.”

Here Crews expresses frustration, and that is of critical value. Frustration, when sufficiently intense, is what allows breakthroughs to occur. An advisor should introduce some tension here:

“In speaking with clients, I have found the level of frustration to be high. Some clients are financially hemorrhaging while others whose finances are more stable are nevertheless not fully engaged in a financial plan that can realistically meet their goals.”

The above sets up two common problems, either of which an advisor is equipped to help with. Crews continues:

“We are constantly regaled with chapter and verse of the happy, successful lives of the families of our friends and relatives and being asked of news of our own children and grandchildren… We have nothing to say which reflects any credit on you or us … Mum and I have been used to taking our own misfortunes on the chin, and making our own effort to bash our little paths through life without being a burden to others. Having done our best … to provide for our children, we naturally hoped to see them in turn take up their own banners and provide happy and stable homes for their own children.”

An advisor might put it this way:

“Nothing less than the financial security of you, your children and your grandchildren is at stake here.”

Crews adds: “… Which of you, with or without a spouse, can support your families, finance your home and provide a pension for your old age?”

This point needs little translation from an advisor: “Are you fully confident you will have all the income you require in your later years?”

Crews next discusses his children’s mishandling of his grandchildren:

“So we witness the introduction to this life of six beautiful children–soon to be seven–none of whose parents have had the maturity and sound judgment to make a reasonable fist at making essential threshold decisions. None of these decisions were made with any pretence [sic] to ask for our advice.”

An advisor could  put it this way: “Maturity and sound judgment inevitably teach the critical life lesson that threshold life decisions require the input of a professional advisor. I do not have the ability (nor desire) to coerce correct financial decisions, but I very much want to collaborate with my clients to help them make the decisions that put them on a path to financial security and peace of mind.”

Crews continues with his analysis of his children’s decision-making process:

“… None of you has done yourself, or given to us, the basic courtesy to ask us what we think while there was still time finally to think things through. The predictable result has been a decade of deep unhappiness over the fates of our grandchildren.”

An advisor should lift this idea, minus the accusatory tone. Something like:

“With my input, I know you can have a better outcome.”

Crews concludes his letter:

“I can now tell you that I for one, and I sense Mum feels the same, have had enough of being forced to live through the never-ending bad dream of our children’s underachievement and domestic ineptitudes. I want to hear no more from any of you until, if you feel inclined, you have a success or an achievement or a REALISTIC plan for the support and happiness of your children to tell me about. I don’t want to see your mother burdened any more with your miserable woes–it’s not as if any of the advice she strives to give you has ever been listened to with good grace–far less acted upon … I am bitterly, bitterly disappointed. “

The retired navy officer’s call to action and encouragement of planning are all commendable, though again the tone would be alienating in a client letter.

An advisor might get more buy-in with something like this:

“The new year approaches, and a new paradigm awaits. You need not feel chained by the way you’ve always done things. If you’ve lost control of your finances, we can work together to stanch the hemorrhaging. If you’re not fully engaged in a plan that affords you a measure of tranquility about your future, then I am available to partner with you on establishing every element of your plan that your future comfort will depend upon. I want to hear from you, as soon as practicable in 2013. I am extremely optimistic that our collaboration will bear fruit in the year, and years, ahead.”