5 Steps to Dealing with Demanding, Abrasive, and Panic-Prone Clients

By Dr. Jack Singer

In one of my past articles I discussed four common, negative self-talk patterns in which advisors frequently (and often unconsciously) engage.  Recall that it is NOT the event (such as extreme market volatility or abrasive clients complaining to you) that builds stress in you; rather, it is your BELIEFS and INTERNAL SELF-TALK habits about these situations that causes (or, for that matter, melts away) stress.

To review the A-B-C model, it goes like this:

  • (A) A Potentially Stress Producing Activating Event Takes Place (e.g., unpredictable market volatility, like we have already seen in 2015)
  • (B) Your Beliefs and Self-Talk About That Event Occur Immediately (For example, you might say to yourself, “Just when I told Mr. Smith to buy that position, the market tanked again. I’ll be hearing from him any minute and he will be irrational and abrasive! I don’t know if I really want to continue getting beaten up by these clients…maybe I should retire from this career.”).  This is an example of engaging in two commonly used, self-defeating self-talk patterns: “Mind Reading” and “Catastrophising.”
  • (C) The Consequent Emotions and Behaviors Occur (You experience a tightness in your chest and stomach, have a short fuse with your staff and colleagues, and you may even decide to leave the office early, before the calls come in.)

Step #1:  This is My Story…and I’m Sticking to It

Use your education, experience, mentors, etc. to establish your core values regarding wealth management and stick to your convictions, especially when the market or clients challenge you. Don’t be tempted to doubt yourself or your philosophy because of current market conditions or pressure from difficult clients, who try to manipulate you to buy into their unsophisticated, naïve, emotional investment strategies.

Step #2:  Use “Active Listening” Skills to Communicate With Difficult Clients

There are many guidelines for employing “Active Listening” techniques when dealing with abrasive, impatient, worried clients.  These techniques can be found in my book, “The Financial Advisor’s Ultimate Stress Mastery Guide.”

Step #3:  Understand the Role of Distorted Thinking Habits that Undermine your Stress and Change Those Habits

I will address specifics about how to accomplish this very important skill in subsequent articles, and, again, the “how to” specifics can be found in my book.

Step #4:  Practice Assertive Communication with Your Clients

One of the most frequent problems that advisors bring to me when they seek personal coaching is how to assert themselves with demanding, aggressive (often high AUM) clients.  There are many excellent books written to teach you assertiveness skills, and one favorite of mine is “Don’t Say ‘Yes,’ When You Want to Say ‘No,’” by Fensterheim.  Actually, you can order a used copy of this wonderful book for one cent (plus S&H) from Amazon!

Step #5:  Eliminate Toxic Clients from Your Practice, Regardless of the AUM They Represent

There are many types of toxic personalities who are resistant to “Active Listening” or “Assertive” communications from their advisor.  Perhaps they have been “rewarded” by getting what they want from former advisors or from you, and they are extremely resistant to changing.

Many advisors will stick with such abrasive, demanding, clients because they fear losing the assets that those clients provide to the practice.  Ask yourself if you can afford the aggravation and stress that comes with retaining these clients.

In his wonderful book, “Behavioral Investment Counseling,” Nick Murray recommends the following: “Every year on your birthday, give yourself the priceless gift of self-esteem: fire your biggest PITA (an acronym, of course, for Pain In The A**).”  He suggests you dismiss the client using grace, class and style.

A Great Advisor Example

I would like to share some information about a wonderfully successful advisor, who practices the five steps for managing the stress inherent in the advising career.  His name is David Bahnsen, Managing Director and Senior Portfolio Manager of The Bahnsen Group, in Newport Beach, CA. 

David continually and consistently educates his clients about his core investment values and strategies, especially during the most challenging times. For example, during a recent market free fall, in his Weekly Commentary to his clients, David wrote: “I am steadfast in managing through this, being opportunistic where appropriate, and making intelligent and poised decisions throughout. I am not fighting a temptation to abandon any part of the strategy…My commitment to my clients supersedes a two-day, or two-week, or two-month, or two-quarter timeline. I am in this for the long haul with you, and over the long haul, I strongly recommend you maintain your faith in a strategy that right now feels like it is being tested.”

When David has a client who remains toxic, abrasive, impatient, unrelenting, etc., regardless of David’s attempts to explain his investment strategies and the plan for his family’s wealth management/enhancement, David cuts him/her loose!

David believes that advisors “need to value themselves enough to not keep such people on their client rosters.”  Every time he gives himself the “gift” of such freedom, he feels a form of “liberating self-esteem” and calm.  Most importantly, he believes that culling these clients from the practice provides him with renewed energy to engage in activities that actually bring much more to his practice than the AUM that the dismissed client represented.

Your Action Plan:

  • Write down you wealth management philosophy/strategies and continually review them. If you have doubts or insecurities about them, consult with a mentor or coach.
  • Review the negative, self-defeating thinking habits I listed in a previous article and learn which ones you regularly use.
  • Every time you find yourself feeling stressed, angry, worried, etc., examine your thoughts and quickly modify them so they are positive and optimistic, rather than negative and pessimistic.
  • Learn “active listening” skills and begin to practice them with your clients.
  • Learn “assertiveness” skills and practice using them regularly.
  • Eliminate toxic clients from your practice on a regular basis.