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Financial Planning > Tax Planning

Showing Problem Clients The Door

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“Mr. Jones, I regret to have to tell you this, but…we have to go our separate ways. That’s right. After reevaluating our relationship, I’ve decided that we’re not cut out for each other. I’ll be happy to provide you with the name of a colleague who may be able to meet your financial needs.”

Those words, if uttered more often, would go a long way to making the financial advisor’s job more rewarding. When the chemistry between advisor and client isn’t right, or when the relationship becomes a financial and emotional drain, then the advisor would do well to give the client the boot, say producers contacted by National Underwriter.

“Classic problem clients are perpetually angry,” says Jim Parks, the principal of F. Jim Parks Agency, Palmyra, Va. “No matter how much service I provide or how careful I am, they’re never satisfied with the outcome. Over the years, I’ve discovered that once in while it’s necessary to let a client go because of a personality conflict that’s just never going to get better.”

Among those Parks has kicked off his practice was a business owner who, contrary to his advice, opted not to upgrade a group medical and dental plan for her employees because the insurance premium was higher than that of her existing plan. Result: She ended up paying out of pocket for certain medical claims, as Parks had warned, then blamed him for having to bear the costs.

Common among problem clients, observers say, are individuals who are obsessive about portfolio performance and like to micromanage their investment accounts. That can be annoying enough for the advisor when the stock valuations are rising. But when the stocks move into bear market territory, it can be a particular source of friction.

Often, sources say, clients will call the advisor to complain–loudly–about their account’s investment performance. Or they’ll question the advisor’s judgment and insist on gutting portfolio recommendations in favor of their own stock or mutual fund picks. Many of these individuals, observers say, are unreasonably focused on short-term performance, forgetting that they’re investing for the long-term, and that exposing assets to the stock market also entails downside risk.

Not surprisingly, advisors note, they’ve been spending an inordinate amount of time mollifying skittish investors after the market took a turn for the worse in 2007. “Since the onset of the recession, people are more inclined to look for problems,” says Maynard Keller, a certified financial planer and president of American Financial Planning, Roanoke, Va. “Recessions seem to bring these people out of the woodwork.”

And the suicidal as well. Roger Relfe, a chartered financial consultant and principal of 90 Degrees West, Swansea, Illinois, recounts the time a client called him after being laid off from a $250,000 per year job. In a moment of despair, the client conveyed to Relfe how to distribute the death proceeds from his cash value life insurance policy for the benefit of a non-working wife and 4 children. The client ultimately did not take his life. And over the next 8 months, Relfe helped to unburden him of his financial difficulties.

Less dramatic, though potentially as troubling, are cases that involve personality conflicts. Keller, who describes himself as a religious conservative, says he counts among his clients many who have opposing political points of view, but one relationship proved unsustainable because of the individual’s strident way of airing liberal positions.

“This person was to the left in the extreme and it became a point of contention,” says Keller. “I told her I didn’t think we were a good fit and suggested that she was better off with an advisor who shares her political views. I provided the name of a left-leaning colleague and she’s now content.”

Howard Kite, a certified financial planner and principal of Forum Financial Management, Lombard, Illinois, says he did the same for a client whose politics tilted to the far right; and for unprincipled individuals who sought his assistance to engage in illegal tax-sheltering activities.

Still other factors can cause tensions in the advisor-client relationship and force the two parties to part ways. Joel Bruckenstein, a Miramar, Fla.-based certified financial planner, says many clients are insufficiently attentive to the advisor’s need for information or business practices. They constantly reschedule meetings, procrastinate in providing important documents, fail to return phone calls or disappear during the planning process.

There is also, says Bruckenstein, the “two-minded client” who has trouble making a decision and second-guesses those already arrived at; the “sometimes-competent client” who is absent-minded or has an attention deficit and is happy to delegate all decisions to the advisor; “the numbers geek” who has an insatiable appetite for statistics; and the “handholding clients” who require extra work to involve them in planning decisions.

Whatever the issues troubling the relationship, observers say, they generally translate into extra time spent with the client; and reduced earnings for the advisor, who has fewer hours to devote to new client acquisition efforts. Experts say the mismatch between producer earnings and time rendered advising the client is the “silent killer” of many a professional relationship. The impact is all the greater for producers who derive only commissions on sales.

Even the most profitable engagements may not be worth maintaining, sources caution, if clients are more trouble than they’re worth.

“Life is too short to deal with clients who are going to soak up your time and energy,” says Kite. “Yes, we can be a bit more accommodating with individuals who have significant assets under management. Still, it comes down to whether clients line up with how we run our business. When they don’t, it’s better to not work with them.”

Even better is to end the relationship while the client is still a prospect. To that end, sources say, the advisor needs to be attentive to signs that might be a cause for trouble later on, such as an excessive focus on market performance, a proclivity to micromanage or a resistance to purchasing recommended products or services because of the cost involved.

Sources say advisors should also inquire into other professional relationships–and problems therein–the prospect may have (or had) before closing a sale. Prospects who say they dropped a previous advisor due to personality, performance or communications issues may be trouble. For Keller, a sure warning sign are individuals who say they sued a previous advisor for malpractice.

“If they’ve been in litigation with their advisor, that’s a definite red flag,” says Keller. “At that point, I’d say don’t walk–run. I’ve never been in litigation before. And I don’t plan to start now.”

Too many advisors, adds Kite, ignore such warning signs because they’re keen to engage the prospect at any cost. This is particularly true of producers who are getting started in their careers and lack a revenue stream they can depend on to cover living expenses. But if they’re to build successful practices, insists Kite, they must avoid the “knee-jerk reaction” of accepting every prospect into their firm.

If problems only arise after the client engagement, then sources say the advisor must take steps to put the relationship back on proper footing. These might include doing a new fact-find to determine whether changes in the client’s circumstances–a death in the family, a break-up of a business partnership or a change in marital status–may require a revamped financial plan.

But if an individual’s personality, habits or character is at issue, the advisor must gently but firmly remind the client about the firm’s expectations in respect to the engagement. Should he or she still prove unresponsive, then ending the relationship, however painful, may be the best option.

“I reached a point a year ago where I felt it necessary to terminate six problem clients,” says Parks. “I advised all six that my business was going through changes and that I didn’t believe I would be able to adequately meet their needs in the future. I haven’t looked back since.”


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