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Can the Little Blue Box Help Your Practice?

Here's a new aid to client communication and action.

David J. Drucker, 01/17/2008

Let me warn you from the start...we're going to get into the some touchy-feely stuff below, and it may be just what you need to add a new and valuable dimension to your client services.

When most advisors think of "touchy-feely" within the context of their job, they think of life planning. Whatever you call it, there simply are times when advisors need to go beyond their clients' numbers (even though some "traditional" planners question the need for this).

Here's what I think...having frank and personal discussions with your clients, to the extent they are willing to open up and welcome a more intimate approach to planning, improves the goal-setting process. With your help, clients can dig deeper than their superficial goals (retirement, second home, etc.) to discover goals that bring real self-fulfillment. By helping them do that, you strengthen your relationship tremendously with that client, making it more likely they'll remain a client. So they get a better plan, and you get a longer-lasting client, so to speak.

Excelling at life planning, an advisor might decide to take things a few steps further. If the advisor-client relationship can be improved for the benefit of both, what would happen if the advisor could go on to help the client improve his relationship and communication with his immediate and/or extended family? How would the client view the value of your services if you could deliver to him a stronger sense of community among his family members?

That is precisely what Hillel Katzeff's invention--the Little Blue Box--is designed to do. Envision an attractive, translucent blue box about six to eight inches square containing a "talking ball," three-minute egg timer and an 18-page User's Manual. Pretty simple, really, but potentially powerful.

Before we see what it does, however, let's step back a minute and understand how Katzeff's life influenced his invention. Katzeff's parents grew up in Lithuania, leaving before World War II for Capetown, South Africa, where he was born and raised. Yearning to study in the U.S., Katzeff entered a student exchange program at 18 and was watched over by the U.S. contingent of his family while he worked on his undergraduate degree in economics at Muhlenburg College in Allentown, Pa.

Katzeff went on to earn his MBA in 1984 from New York's Pace University, using his education to land a short-lived job with Integrated Resources doing due diligence on limited partnership investments. "With 1986's tax reform, I was out of a job," he said. Katzeff went on to travel as an internal wholesaler for Equitable and discovered San Diego. After becoming a U.S. citizen in 1995, he established HK Financial, his San Diego investment advisory firm, in 1999.

Because Katzeff spends a lot of time on discovery with clients--that is, getting to know his clients for the first time--it made sense to him that they should already have done some work to get to know themselves--as individuals and as a family. "All families want better relationships but they don't always talk about it as a family, particularly when the individuals within the family have their own baggage they need to get out in the open."

It works like this: "I give a client family the kit, which comes with a label on top customized with the family's name. The family starts by taking the ball from the box and giving each family member a chance to talk uninterrupted." The family members first check in with the family circle by talking about their state of mind ("I feel good," "I feel confused," and so on), talking until the timer signals that their turn is over, and then they pass the ball.

Katzeff recommends turning off cell phones and TVs and keeping meetings to a total of 15-20 minutes. "People get antsy beyond that. The meetings can be longer, if desired, once the family has become familiar with the process." The general discussion that takes place can be free-form or guided by a series of questions, depending upon what the family sees as the objective of the meeting. "Maybe family members start by discussing what they see as the highs and lows of the past month, or what important things the family members want to communicate with each other or help each other with."

Eventually, though, the process is designed to come around to ways they can give back as a family. And to go with the Little Blue Box, Katzeff has created a unique system for setting up what he calls a "microfoundation." The family goes on to discuss issues such as what they believe their grandparents' values were and whether the family shares those values. Or what are today's troubling problems that we, as a family, would like to help change?

The next step, he says, is to fill out a microfoundation charter. Katzeff includes in the microfoundation kit a three-ring binder for keeping notes, which all family members sign off on. "If they want to give money, it might be agreed to in the charter that young children will give $1 of their allowance to a chosen cause, which the parents then match with $4, for example. The money could be kept in the Blue Box until the family decides how it will be disbursed."

Every family is different, he says, but if a family has more money to give, it can open a bank account and title it in the name of the family microfoundation. It can be set up as a joint-tenant-with-right-of-survivorship account that reflects the names of all family members. "The main difference between a microfoundation and a full-blown family foundation is that the family won't get a tax deduction for its contributions to the account; however, they can take a deduction when the money is donated."

Katzeff tried the Little Blue Box on his own family first to see how they would react. "My daughter is nine years old and enjoys the process, but it's more difficult for my 12-year-old son. My wife, too, was skeptical when we first tried it, but we now use the Little Blue Box every month or two, usually after dinner on a Friday evening. We recently decided as a family to participate in a social action event: we volunteered to clean graffiti and stuff comfort pillows for cancer victims."

And that's the other aspect of the Little Blue Box we haven't mentioned thus far--it not only gets families together, but it focuses them on a philanthropic activity that Katzeff finds is often the cement bringing and keeping families together.

After experimenting with his immediate family, Katzeff went on to try out the Little Blue Box with his extended family--with good results. But what's happened when he's tried it with his clients? "I use it with those clients who are open to it. Some fear where conversation will lead; there may be issues they're not comfortable with. I'm learning when to back off and when to proceed," he said. PAGEBREAK

That said, he's been using the Little Blue Box with 75 client families for about 2 1/2 years now. "The feedback I get is that it's empowering these families. They like the holistic, all-inclusive approach that combines elements of the Indian 'talking stick' to help people find out what they stand for and what they want to take action on," he said.

What Katzeff has done with his microfoundation concept is to create a very simple way for families to come together over shared principles of giving and, without legal costs or the necessity of tax return filings, give their time, talent or money to a person or organization in need.

"My goal for this is to raise some money to do a robust website that will allow families to create their microfoundation statements online," he said. "I will then seek to connect families with like statements. The technology is there to make it happen."

I asked Katzeff, "If the family does all of this on its own without your involvement, then how do you relate it back to their planning?" He answered, "The process builds a bond within their family and also back to me." To the extent the Little Blue Box exercise creates a family consensus around philanthropic activities, that becomes the segue to Katzeff's involvement.

Katzeff, just elected by the San Diego chapter of the FPA as its new president, says he'll use the Little Blue Box in quarterly board meetings. "I will take the ball from the box and use it to give everyone a turn speaking," he said. "Everyone will learn about each other, one person at a time."

Interested in using the Little Blue Box in your own practice?

"Advisors can request a kit and I'll send it to them for a donation of $18 to cover the cost of the kit and its mailing. My ultimate goal is to get a million of these out to families who request them," Katzeff said.

You can reach him at:
Hillel Katzeff, MBA, CFP
HK Financial, 4330 La Jolla Village Drive, Suite 330
San Diego, CA 92122, 858-550-0425.

Also, check out the Little Blue Box and microfoundations at
www.OurLittleBlueBox.com and/or www.FamilyGiving.org.

10 "Our Little Blue Box" Benefits

  1. It shifts the focus from the individual and towards the group or family as a whole.
  2. It empowers the individual (no matter the age) to have a voice while holding the Talking Ball, to speaks his or her truth or understanding within the group or family.
  3. It enables active and attentive listening.
  4. It facilitates a safe and respectful way of communicating.
  5. It provides an effective way for a group or family to transmit values from generation to generation.
  6. It is a tool to bring together groups or families to heal rifts, misunderstandings or disputes.
  7. It builds cohesiveness and loyalty within organizations, teams, groups and immediate or extended families, leading to stronger relationships.
  8. It is a low-tech tool which helps us briefly unplug from distractions (TV, Internet, cell phones).
  9. Using the microfoundation as a tool, it guides the groups or families to give back and make a difference in their community and/or around the world, in their way (similar to the Gates Foundation but without the cost.)
  10. Our intention and participation in the Our Little Blue Box circles helps us find greater meaning and purpose in life.

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