When your job involves giving financial counsel, there will be days when you wish it didn’t. There will be times when you long for the job satisfaction that could have been yours if only you’d stuck with astrophysics, or baking cupcakes, or castrating pigs — anything that would have spared you from having the umpteenth conversation with the same clients about (fill in the blank):
A. Why you won’t buy the latest “hot stock” for their retirement account
B. Their need to get a grip on overspending
C. The folly of pulling out of the market in an effort at market timing
D. The wisdom of getting back into the market after ignoring (C)
E. The fact that you don’t, in fact, control rates of return
When having such interactions with challenging clients, most advisers just take a deep breath and carry on in the fervent hope for a more fruitful conversation next time around. But there comes a time when you recognize that this strategy is, at best, wishful thinking and, at worst, fiddling while Rome is burning.
Instead of simply hoping for better days to come, you may need to take a more active or assertive approach to the problem. Client behaviours that signal the need for direct action include:
- unreasonable demands for your time and attention
- repeated rejection of financially prudent fundamentals
- constant changes and stalls on their desired course of action
Then there are the indicators that come from your own physical or emotional reactions to the client:
- persistent dread of an upcoming meeting
- feelings of contempt or disdain
- fantasies about targeted meteor strikes
These internal indicators are not just inconveniences; rather, they are clarion calls to address the fact that some aspect of this client relationship is taking a toll on your well-being. At such times, you have a number of options.
Firing the client. In some cases, saying goodbye to a trying client is the only sensible and ethical thing for an advisor to do. Persistent adherence challenges are among the tip-offs that the time has come to do just that. On those occasions when you do need to remove someone from your book of business, do your best to keep the terminations respectful and cordial. Avoid adding a
layer of shame or sense of failure to either the client or yourself. In addition to making you a ‘class act’, respectful conduct helps keeps you on the right side of professional standards.
Ensure that you are adhering to all regulatory and ethical guidelines with respect to this course
of action, as well as with your firm’s own internal policies. (Wait – your firm doesn’t HAVE an
internal policy about how to fire a client? BadBadNotGood! Fix that problem first.)
Between the two poles of tolerating and firing lie the following:
Stating the obvious. This is particularly effective when you’re at an implementation standstill. By highlighting the fact that you seem to have reached an impasse, that nothing seems to be changing or moving forward in the direction that you thought you’d agreed on, you increase the odds that you can co-create a better path forward. (If you’d like some sample scripts for starting up such conversations, you can find them in Chapter 9 of my book, Advice that Sticks.)
Accepting 100% responsibility for your part of the problem. It is entirely possible that you have contributed to the problem in some way. Maybe you launched prematurely into advice-giving before truly understanding the client? Ignored your own inner voice that this person was not a good fit for your practice? Tolerated snide or deprecating remarks for many meetings in a row? Be prepared to apologize for your missteps, and to ask what they need from you if you decide to move forward together. Humility and curiosity will serve you well in any difficult conversation.
Informing them of the non-negotiables. This may become necessary not only with rude or aggressive clients, but also with those who make demands that are patently at odds with your firm’s own investment philosophy or way of doing things. A firm set of guidelines helps ambivalent clients make up their own mind about your suitability for them, and keeps them in line if they do decide to remain with you.
Figuring out what you CAN agree on. What is the client currently motivated to do that will move them towards a better life? How can you participate in that? The Plan B or Plan C that clients ARE ready to act on is far superior to the Plan A that they’re NOT up for.
Making an internal transfer. There will be times when you really do not want to lose the business of a difficult client, or when you simply do not have the authority to fire him or her (e.g. you are an employee of a bank rather than the owner of a private firm). In these cases, you should try to divvy up the contact with other team members, or transfer that client to a willing
Above all, remember this: You don’t need to keep going at it alone. Advanced training, coaching and case consultation can all be tremendously helpful here. The personal side of advising is every bit as complex as the technical aspects of advising, AND every bit as learnable. Admittedly, it takes time and effort to do that learning, but the benefits accruing to your team’s
well-being and your own job satisfaction will be well worth it in the end.
Need some ideas for further skill development? Here are some steps for you to consider
- Sign up for my newsletter.
- Explore the various offerings at the Financial Transitionist® Institute. You cannot beat the training or the learning community to be found there.
- Join one of my case consultation Mastermind groups. These monthly meetings include real-life advising challenges shared by group members, and related teachings from me. Contact me for more information regarding openings for new members.