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Getting Clients to Follow Your Advice: The Self-Sabotaging Client

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As all advisors know, it’s one thing to provide clients with appropriate advice and another thing to actually get them to follow that advice. 

In this series of reports, Investment Advisor columnist and psychotherapist Olivia Mellan and financial behavior specialist Kol Birke of Commonwealth Financial Network address some common scenarios that advisors face in getting their clients to follow through on their advice. This advice for advisors flowed out of a web seminar hosted by Investment Advisor and ThinkAdvisor editor Jamie Green late last year. 

Scenario 3: Persistent Self-Sabotage

Jamie Green: A number of questions submitted by webinar attendees have focused on clients who persist in self-sabotaging behavior.

How do you deal with a client who chronically sees the glass as half empty, no matter how secure their financial life really is? Or who sits on cash while they wait for the perfect investment? Or who constantly wants to change their portfolio because of some current event like Twitter’s IPO? Or who can’t seem to make a decision, even when it’s in their best interest to do so? 

Kol Birke: When it comes to motivating clients, you generally want to bring down the barriers to action. You want to make the decision easy, and bring up the consequences of not doing what’s in their best interest.

I’d add that one of your secret weapons as an advisor is your own emotions. What I mean by that is that when a client is overspending they know that they are potentially impacting their family, but they don’t necessarily know that they’re impacting you. If the advisor says to the client, “Listen, I really care about you; I want your life to be financially healthy and stable. But the night before we meet, I had trouble falling asleep because I’m worried about you,” it shows the client that A) you care and B) they’re impacting you. I’ve used this approach with only about five advisors, but I’ve had 100% success with it. More than anything else I’ve seen, it has prompted the client to act—to view things more positively, to not jump on that Twitter IPO or whatever it is.

I’ve also had advisors who’ve said to the client, “Listen, I really care about you, but I don’t enjoy meeting with you because you are constantly trying to jump to the next big thing or because you’re always worried about the economy or the world collapsing. The clients I really enjoy working with exhibit X, Y and Z type behaviors. Is that something you’d enjoy doing? Is that something we could work on together?”

Sharing your emotions in this way is a super-gutsy move, and I’m not trying to convince you to do it. But so far I haven’t seen anyone fail at it. 

Olivia Mellan: I’ve had Kol’s wonderful idea about “I was up last night worrying about you” in my own toolkit ever since I interviewed him several years ago. When used in the right framework, it’s really brilliant.

Another thing that might work is storytelling. Tell your clients about other people who chose scenarios that have ended very badly. If you have the patience and the empathy, I would also take time to explore how they are about decision-making in general. What was it like for them growing up? What bad decisions and good decisions have they made? Have they ever regretted not making a decision?

Try to get behind some of their emotions and help them understand themselves better, so they’re not led around by their irrationalities and their fears.

Doing something stupid can be dangerous. But doing nothing can be very dangerous, too. So I think it’s a question of learning where the client comes from, empathizing with their feelings to lighten the emotional charge and using storytelling to lead them in the sane and rational direction where you think they need to go. 

Kol Birke: That’s a great point. In psychology they talk about hot states, when you’re emotionally triggered—scared or angry, for instance—and cold states, when you’re more rational and can think clearly. You don’t want to ask clients to look into past mistakes when they’re in that hot state. But after they’ve calmed down and are in a more rational place, you can check in with them about what they wish they hadn’t done in the past. Then you might ask, “To avoid that in the future, what would like me to help you with?” 

Olivia Mellan: I like that way to frame it. Also Barbara Shapiro, president of HMS Financial Group and a Certified Divorce Finance Analyst, told me that when a client’s eyes glaze over and they can’t hear you, that’s the time to return to conversations that are safe and pleasurable—maybe talking about personal things like their grandkids—to get them out of this dysfunctional mode so they can think and feel without stress. It’s really important to track your client’s emotional level carefully. 

KB: I have a trick that I suggest to advisors called “Come with me.” When you’re meeting with the client, have something up on the wall somewhere else in your office, a picture of a sailboat or a mountain or whatever. If you see your client reacting to stress, it means that adrenaline and cortisol running through their bloodstream are making them unable to think clearly or act in their best interest.

Say, “Come with me, I want to show you something” and walk them over to the picture. It doesn’t really matter what you tell them; the important thing is to get them moving so the stress chemicals start to drain out of their bloodstream.

Along those same lines, one of the things I talk about with my clients is having a non-financial emergency fund. What I mean by that is “What can you do that always make you feel better?” It could be tennis, cooking, singing or going for a walk with your pet. Make a list of two or three things that reliably make you feel better in a stressful situation. Then if you call me up in a state of stress when you’re about to make a big decision, I’m going to tell you to go to that list before making the decision. Go play a tennis match and then call me back. 

OM: I call this list “Back to One.” When you’re in the stress mode, what’s the first thing you do that gets you out of the stress mode? Everybody has a different “Back to One” list. 


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