In A Trying Year, Advisors Learned How To Handle Upset Clients

Advisors know their numbers. They can draft financial plans, run projections and calculate rates of return. But there’s another part of the business that’s easy to overlook: how to handle upset clients.


In 2020, advisors provided emotional support along with planning expertise. The pandemic created hardships for clients and their families, from the loss of loved ones to job insecurity to business crises.

“Advisors need to acknowledge what’s going on in the client’s life,” said Ron Brown, a certified financial planner in Lexington, Kentucky “If things get too emotional, some advisors tend to get uncomfortable. So the first thing is acknowledging the source of the client’s unhappiness.”

How To Handle Upset Clients By Providing Emotional Support

There’s a right and wrong way to express caring and condolences. Conveying your authentic concern allows others to open up to you if they wish. But in your eagerness to come to their aid, you might press too hard. The key is knowing what to say when.

In January, Brown received a call from three daughters of a client in his 70s. Brown had never spoken with them before.

“They called to tell me my client had died suddenly from Covid,” Brown said. “I almost felt a sense of guilt for not knowing. He had died just two days before. They told me they were going through his records and needed to track things down.”

Initially, the daughters struck a businesslike tone. Then Brown paused and asked, “How are you doing?” Instantly, the conversation shifted.

“That slowed it down,” he recalled. “It changed their perceived obligation to talk about money.”

They started to open up about their father. The conversation lasted about 45 minutes, and the three daughters have become Brown’s clients.

Stay Steady To Avoid Emotional Extremes

From his 18 years as an advisor, Brown has learned that there’s no one-size-fits-all response to how to handle upset clients. Some welcome long, tearful talks. Others prefer to avoid sensitive topics, at least when their hurt remains raw and painful.

“Everyone defines a crisis in their own way,” he said. “We’ve got to be really careful about our preconceived biases.”

If a client remained healthy through 2020 but lost their job, Brown cautions against saying, “Oh, don’t worry about it. You’ll bounce back.”

“They might rate job loss as their biggest loss,” he said. “It’s a kind of death to lose a job.”

Adjusting how you respond to accommodate a client’s emotional state is a good start. It’s also important to position yourself as a steadying force — a sounding board who will always be there to listen.

“From an emotional aspect, we try not to be too low or too high,” said Brian Mercado, a Los Angeles-based certified financial planner. “You have to be a calming, soothing voice,” although that’s tough if the individual faces financial pressures.

Early in the pandemic, Mercado spoke to five or six clients a day addressing their fears. He maintained his composure, but it wasn’t easy when they were coping with job loss and no income.

“You have to set aside time to decompress,” he said. “Try to get outside. It can be tiring having these difficult conversations all day.”

Ask Smart Questions To Create A Positive Mindset

After offering emotional support to struggling clients, some advisors need to pause and mentally regroup. They may feel drained from hearing so much sad news.

Advisors can benefit from taking meditation classes or setting aside a few minutes for breathing exercises, says Erin Wood, senior vice president of financial planning at the Carson Group in Omaha, Neb. She coaches advisors “to take a mental timeout” after heart-to-heart talks with troubled clients.

“Everyone’s anxiety was through the roof in 2020,” Wood said.

She suggests that advisors pose a series of questions on how to handle upset clients. Once clients share why they’re distressed — perhaps from their kid’s school closure — ask them to rate their confidence level that they’ll pull through, along with their fear and anxiety level, on a 1-to-10 scale.

If they answer “4,” follow up by asking, “Why is it not a 3?” or “What will it take to get to a 5?”

“They’ll list all the things they’re doing well or grateful for,” Wood said. “That leads to positive reinforcement. You can help clients build on the positive things they already have in their head.”

Yet advisors with the best intentions can overreach in their efforts to help clients. Upsetting events of the past year can leave shaken individuals in a fragile state.

“Don’t take on too much or take on someone else’s battles in life,” Wood said. “There are lines you don’t cross. There’s a point where if they are having a really hard time, perhaps with depression, you should recommend they see a professional therapist.”


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