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Managing Problem Clients

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Advisors are a unique breed! In addition to their core competencies, they also often need to be economists, communicators, educators, therapists and magicians in order to meet their clients’ diverse needs and demands. At times they might even need to be all of these at once. Fortunately, advisors are typically high-achieving courageous personalities who embrace challenge, seize opportunity and overcome obstacles even if it means being the professional equivalent of a toy transformer robot. Nevertheless, who would turn down an opportunity to learn new skills and techniques that would make us even better at what we do?

In this month’s column, I will outline some techniques to help navigate troubled waters in some common difficult client situations. You will learn how to neutralize the antagonist, defeat the defeatist and intercept the rambler. This is important because your competency as a professional is not only measured by how well you manage your straight-forward easy-going clients, but also by how well you are able to work with the more difficult clients too.

Neutralizing the Antagonist

The antagonist is the client who will often blame, attack or criticize another for any failure or shortcoming and will seldom take responsibility. This might manifest itself, for example, where one spouse may blame or attack the other for a bad investment decision or for allowing the advisor to talk them into a particular investment strategy that performed poorly. Amy, the wife, might say: “Well if John were not so indecisive we would be further ahead!” or John, the husband, might assert: “If Amy had not insisted that we listen to your [the advisor’s] recommendation and gone with my strategy of buying all dividend-paying stocks, we would have done far better!” When not managed appropriately, the offended party will become defensive and respond with counterattack and blame. In less time than it takes to say the word “antagonist,” the interaction will have deteriorated into an ugly battle of words, spoiling all good intentions for a productive and efficient discussion and leaving you as the advisor at a loss for how to regain control of the meeting.

To effectively neutralize the antagonist, you should redirect her attention away from the offended party back to herself by reframing their attack from complaint to concern. To accomplish this, you could say to the wife in the example above: “Amy, I am hearing your frustration and concern about an effective and efficient decision-making process with regards to your investment portfolio.” You should then immediately follow up by deflecting past-focused blame to future-focused discussion. You do this by asking: “What do you think you can do to improve on that?” Or you may respond to the husband by saying: “John, it sounds to me that you would like more of a say in the investment strategy. How would you like to deal with situations where you and I differ about strategy in the future?”

They may continue to point a finger, but you must persist in bringing the attention back to themselves again (and again if necessary) by insisting: “What is there that you might do that could improve the current condition?”

By applying this technique, you will successfully avoid a potential confrontation and guide the antagonist towards constructive problem solving. You will also have sent a subtle message to the antagonist that his behavior will not be tolerated.

Defeating the Defeatist

The defeatist is the pessimistic and cynical client. Whenever you present a strategy, idea or stock recommendation, he throws up his hands in utter despair and cries: “Your strategy is not aggressive enough,” or “your idea will never work” or “that is a terrible recommendation!”

Rather than try to defend your position and engage in a battle of wills, step over to the client’s side by asking: “What specifically about the strategy do you find lacks in aggressiveness?” or “What is it exactly that makes you feel that the idea will never work?” and “What is it about the recommendation that gives you cause for concern?” After allowing for some exchange around these questions, inquire further about ways to build on the strategy, idea or recommendation. For example: “How might we build on this strategy to make it more aggressive within reasonable limits of risk management?” or “How might we refine the idea that would make it more workable?”

This technique defeats the defeatist’s behavior by compelling him to justify his criticism, and by placing responsibility and ownership on the client to help brainstorm and resolve the very issues that he raised. You will have averted a potential battle of wills and artfully engaged the client in discussions around your strategies, ideas and recommendations without him even knowing.

Intercepting the Rambler

The rambler is the client who holds the floor with an endless, often pointless monologue quite oblivious to anyone else in the room. No one can get a word in edgewise and productivity is brought to a standstill. Left alone, the rambler could dominate the entire session.
To regain control, you should use the combination of a summary and a closed-ended question (one to which there is either a yes or no answer).

Let’s say, for example, your rambling client is holding forth about why his “well thought out” very short-term investment strategy is a no brainer and can’t possibly fail. He goes on endlessly about the merits of his innovative approach as you reach the breaking point of impatience and irritation. Begin by summarizing the key and relevant points by saying: “Chuck, so what I am hearing you say is that given the very volatile market conditions today, you feel that chasing today’s high performing stocks and then trading them for next week’s high performing stocks is perhaps a way to harness these unstable times. Have I understood you accurately?” After obtaining confirmation that you have indeed understood him correctly, follow up immediately with a closed-ended question: “Have you discussed this with anyone else who is knowledgeable in the investment area?” You have elegantly intercepted his counterproductive behavior and regained control. You can now lead the discussion in a useful direction such as the risks versus opportunities of such a short-sighted strategy.

As with any skill, competency is a result of disciplined practice; before long it will become natural and intuitive. The effort is well worth the rewards, however. There is a particular sense of satisfaction, accomplishment and confidence when one successfully redirects and manages difficult client situations. These techniques will go a long way towards this end. Furthermore, your competency in working with these challenging situations will be a true measure of your professional acumen and will set you well ahead of your competitors.  

Raphael Lapin is a Harvard-trained negotiation and communication specialist. He is the principal of Lapin Negotiation Strategies, a training and consulting company, and author of Working With Difficult People, part of DK Publishers’ (Penguin Books) Essential Managers Series. He can be contacted at [email protected].


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