Home > Client Management > When Client Relationships Get Toxic—And What to Do About It

It’s rare—but sometimes client relationships turn ugly. I spoke to advisor awhile back who was forced to fire a client who had berated a staff member. On another occasion that made news in New York state, a deranged client drove to his advisor’s house and confronted him at gun point. (The bizarre incident ended without tragedy—fortunately!)

These days—with market values rising to record levels—you may not be facing much client pushback or abuse, thankfully. But four factors usually drive client dissatisfaction. (And keeping clients satisfied is a constant battle!)

  1. Neglect. If you’re not reaching out to your clients at least annually, they will hold you in a negative light. When you bring on a client—of any size—they expect to get something for what they’re paying you. Stay in touch with regular e-newsletters, and scheduled quarterly, semi-annual or annual reviews depending on the complexity of the client’s account. (I just got a wonderful email from my CPA about the recent tax law changes—making me feel he was on top of the situation.) Likewise, if you fail to return phone calls or emails in a timely way—clients are bound to badmouth you to their friends. Make sure you have a system in place for both inbound and outbound communication with your clients. Never leave them wondering if you’ve taken early retirement.
  2. Conflicting expectations. How well do you understand your clients’ expectations for your relationship? How well do you understand their life goals and biggest concerns? As part of your intake process you should thoroughly understand how clients’ past experiences with money and advisors influence their expectations for your relationship. For instance, if a client is greatly worried about spending too much money on fees, they’re focused on that—and may not value or appreciate the subtle and sophisticated tax-saving investment approaches you’re providing for them. Make sure you’re aware of how your clients perceive you—and their expectations. Then you can continually reinforce the value you’re providing to them—in terms that make sense to them. If cost is their issue, show them the savings you’re achieving for them! If safety is their issue, reinforce how you are protecting them against loss.
  3. Negativity. Some people just see the glass half empty when it comes to financial advice. I recently spoke to a very successful entrepreneur in California who owns an art restoration business. When I told him I was a copywriter for financial advisors, he glibly said, “Stockbrokers are vampires. They suck you dry. Everyone should just buy index funds.” But then strangely, he proceeded to tell me about his father who accumulated a small fortune by investing over the years with a “stock broker”—who helped him make good choices, and avoid stupid mistakes. It was the weirdest juxtaposition of viewpoints about financial advice. Maybe you have clients who are a little like my friend—hard to figure out. Some people are just prone to be negative about the advice profession for no good reason—possibly because of bad experiences—or the negative perceptions in the media. Acknowledge that there are some bad apples in the advice profession—then help clients and prospects understand why you’re different.
  4. Pride. Sometimes relationships sour because neither side is willing to admit error. Conflicts can arise out of the smallest issues or misunderstandings. Swallow your pride, admit your mistakes, and ask your dissatisfied client: “What can I do to make this better?” The worst that can happen is you will learn the truth about how your client feels—rather than just suspecting they are unhappy.

Finally, if you’ve fallen into a toxic situation with a client—a writer friend reminded me about the ancient Hawaiian spiritual tradition of Ho’oponopono, which consists in mindfully repeating four simple phrases: I’m sorry. Please forgive me. Thank you.I love (appreciate) you. It doesn’t matter if you say the phrases aloud directly to the person you’ve offended—or as a mantra repeated to yourself. But those are healing words—for any toxic situation!