Matt Featured In Advisor Perspectives: How To Respond To Frustrated And Angry Clients

You’re driving down a road. Suddenly, you come upon an obstacle blocking your way. Plowing through it isn’t an option unless you’re in a Hummer. Neither is tunneling beneath it. That leaves two options: Go around the blockage and resume your trip, or head back home.

We encounter plenty of obstacles as financial planners. And the biggest of all are the barriers thrown up by our clients.

Ironic, isn’t it? Yet, if you work in our profession long enough, you’ll encounter resistance from someone you’re trying so hard to serve effectively.

What should you do when a client digs in their heels and creates a roadblock?

It’s essential to understand that something is causing them to react that way. Many factors can lie behind a negative response. For instance, a specific investment underperformed. Or maybe the financial plan you created didn’t quite hit the mark. Whatever the reason, some disappointment has made them unhappy. And now they’re suddenly pushing back on your advice, or maybe ready to scrap their plan and start from scratch.

When this happens, stop and take a deep breath. It’s ok to pause and reflect before pushing ahead. It’s always best to gather your thoughts and prepare a plan of action rather than simply reacting.

Then – and this is something that many experienced wealth managers have learned over the years –use your secret weapon.

Ask the client questions.

Seriously. This is the time to dig deep and discover what is happening inside their heads. And the best way to do that is with questions.

The type of questions you pose is critical to this process. Your inquiries shouldn’t be defensive or degrading. Things like, “Well, what did you think was going to happen in a bear market like this,” or, “What’s wrong with you? Why can’t you be satisfied with a 5% return instead of 10% in this market?” Such questions from an advisor will make them defensive and raise even more obstacles.

Instead, frame your questions in ways that will make the client think. you’re creating an avenue for them to open up to you. You want to get their perspective on the situation while gauging their feelings and attitudes at this moment.

Instead of telling the client what they should expect, ask them what their expectations are. “What do you think is a reasonable return on this particular investment?” or “What would you like this investment to produce?”

Avoid fighting with the client. It’s easy to get your back up and push back by throwing data points, historical references, or citing your extensive experience and knowledge. Sometimes that works; the client gets the messages and realizes their objections were wrong. The advisor is pleased. But it is only a fleeting win and doesn’t change the bigger situation.

But it provides the first snapshot into their thinking. Do they have unrealistic presumptions? Is their understanding of how the markets work in general or about a particular investment flawed? Or are they sharing the same frustrations many investors are experiencing in a down market?

Thoughtful questions are powerful for giving the client clarity and reassurance. Because once you have identified what is at the root of their irritation, you can proceed to address the problem.

But before you can fix anything, you must identify the source of trouble.

A significant benefit comes from having the client identify the problem in their own words. It creates a sense of engagement in the outcome. Instead of listening to you lecture them about how things should work and why they should stick to their financial plan, they are working alongside you to improve things. They have ownership of the situation and the results, and we all know ownership creates a much more positive feeling about the process and its eventual outcome.

Your questions are enabling the client to walk through the situation themselves. Your discussion guides them to a better, fuller understanding of where they are and where they are likely headed. And that is further proof of the value the financial manager brings to the relationship, a value beyond simply crunching numbers and laying out fund options.

The client’s objection doesn’t originate from a lack of understanding about the fantastic advice they are getting from you; instead, it is a flashing red warning sign that something isn’t working and that you as the advisor might be missing something important or miscommunicating somewhere along the way.

As with a warning light on your car’s dashboard, you’ll avoid serious trouble if you respond immediately and properly the minute it comes on. Ignore it, and things get very bad, very fast.

Don’t be alarmed when the client starts raising objections. Take it for exactly what it is: an important indicator that some additional time and attention are required to restore the relationship to good health.

There’s a terrible temptation in these situations to turn tail and run. To throw in the towel, call it quits, and focus on finding new clients to replace the ones who are being difficult. That is the worst possible thing you can do! It’s your fight or flight response kicking in. Again, take a few deep breaths and give yourself time to think before saying or doing anything.

Finally, never lose sight of an important truth: The point of advice is to help someone achieve their personal goals. When a client objects to that advice, they are essentially saying, “That’s not going to get me to the goals that I really want to achieve, so I’m objecting to the advice!” But that reaction is motivated by something beneath the surface. They’re trying to avoid telling you, “I’m confused, scared, or frustrated. I need your assistance to help me understand it.”

Read the Advisor Perspectives article here.