Practice Management

Handling angry clients well breeds loyalty

Allow them to vent their emotions without letting yourself become the one they blame

May 3, 2009 @ 12:01 am

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It happens all too often these days. You pick up the phone and there is an angry client on the other end. The market has dropped yet again. More money disappeared. Emotions are at the boiling point. How do you handle it?

Most advisers try to calm clients by “talking them down,” logically explaining the reasons why they should not be angry, or at least not angry at them.

In some cases, this seems to work. Yet once clients hang up the phone, they are just as likely to mutter, “Yeah, that's what they all say.”

You can more effectively address these strong emotions when you realize that your clients are angry because they are grieving. In fact, it is worth the time to look more closely at the grief process so you can help clients feel heard, understood and supported.

It is readily apparent that most people are attached to their money. But their attachment is deeper and more complex than we think be-cause it's not just about money, but what the money represents.

For example, money can represent security, success, self-worth and identity.

When clients' money gets taken from them, they are thrown into grief over their many and varied losses. Anger is one emotion in the range of normal responses to grief.

Every time you talk to a grieving client, remember it is normal to get angry. Remember, too, that people use their anger to express a host of other feelings, and they naturally search for someone to yell at or to blame.

The trick is to allow clients to yell and vent their emotions to you without becoming the person they blame for the loss. In simplified terms, you need to recognize, name and allow them their emotions, taking everything they have to dish out. Then, when their anger is spent, you can more calmly talk with them about how you will handle things together.

First, take a deep breath. Keep your voice measured and even. One useful tool is to make yourself smile. When you smile, your voice is automatically more calming, and it is easier to keep your own emotions in check.

Then, to validate your clients and encourage them to talk it out, you can say things like:

“I can see that you feel very angry about this, and I can see why. Tell me more.”

“Yes, it is scary not knowing when the slide will stop. What are you most worried about?”

“You're absolutely right. We're all vulnerable and at the mercy of the markets right now. Everyone I talk with is upset and anxious. Have you found anyone who isn't?”

Notice how each of these phrases authenticates emotions your client is feeling, and then invites them further into a conversation of partnership rather than conflict. It lets them know you are on their side and you understand.

If clients start to blame you anyway, always try to climb back into their boat. Use the word “we” frequently. Keep them focused on the future, rather than the past. Request their input.

For example:

“Yes, it is a helpless feeling to see the markets take away the fruits of so much of our work together.”

“If we had it to do over again, knowing what we know now, perhaps we would have done things differently. But if we had it to do over again, knowing only what we knew at the time, I think we would have done the same things. What do you think?”

Continue this pattern, always asking questions based on what the client is saying. You will notice the pitch of the voice lowering, longer pauses and slowed breathing as the anger gets spent and the client calms.

Only then can you begin talking about what you can do together as you go forward. Ask what steps the client would like to take. Make appropriate suggestions for portfolio review, redistribution of assets, or simply keeping in contact every week or two.

At the end of the conversation, make sure you thank the client for being honest with you. Tell your client your door is always open, and you will listen even when it is hard. Reassure them that although times are really tough right now, you can weather the storm together and come out on the other side.

If you can master these skills, your clients will come out of even angry conversations feeling heard, supported, and most of all, loyal to you.

Amy Florian is founder and chief executive of Corgenius Inc., a Hoffman Estates, Ill., firm that teaches financial service professionals how to support clients in times of grief.

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