How to hold difficult client conversations?

by Amyr Rocha Lima, CFP®

We are about to have some difficult conversations. These conversations will be driven largely by fear, panic or knee-jerk decision making. What I would like to do is help reframe the conversations coming your way and share insight for truly empathetic, effective communications when dealing with anxious clients.
Where do we begin?

Start by acknowledging concerns

When rational thinking is in short supply, our primary concern is to help ensure clients do not derail their long-term goals and strategy.
Our clients are vulnerable when they reach out. What they are feeling right now is born out of a fight or flight reaction, rather than the logic that brought them to this point in their investment journey. And you cannot simply talk them out of how they are feeling; that is akin to telling someone with a cigarette in their mouth to stop smoking.
First, acknowledge you are thankful for them opening up, and tell them that it is normal to be concerned. And repeat back what you hear. Right now your client is looking for empathy and some emotional skin in the game, not a silver-tongued voice of reason. We get it, this sucks, but you can encourage them to take a deeper look at this situation with you.

Create space

For these conversations to gain momentum, ensure you create some space for your client to vent.
Remind them of their financial goals, share their financial plan with them again, ask them to verbalise what they have been looking to achieve with their investments.
This gives them a chance to pause (and centre themselves) and creates a platform for you to drive the conversation. After all, that is really what they came to you for. Your client feels an absence of control over their external environment. They need you to remind them of what they can control: in other words, how they should react.
As Robert Cialdini’s Six Pillars of Influence suggests, now is also the moment to establish ‘authority’. Do this quickly.
Data and facts may not help irrational thinking, but clients still want to know you are on top of things. Have your evidence-based information ready at the start of the conversation to show them this.

Refocus on their ‘Why’

When you and your client first started this relationship, you spoke at length about their financial goals, values, and reasons for investing. That was a good conversation. This one can be too if you pull them back from the immediate reality they are focusing on and go ‘big picture’.
Ask them again about what the purpose of investing was and scale it back to what was always a longer-term timeline. Our worst decisions are made when we cannot construct a positive future. Remind them of their financial plan and use visuals to show that things will get better in the future. Even better, pull up their plan and show them that their goals are still within reach. Proactively discuss the ones that might need some modifying.

Your choice of words counts

Gently remind them that your financial planning strategy accounted for market fluctuations, even of the level caused by concerns around Covid-19. Use phrases like ‘remember, we discussed’ to reassure them that this is well-trodden ground and not unplanned for.
Now is a good time to use empowering language to bring your client into feeling an active partner in what happens now, rather than a passive victim to the markets. It is our strategy, it is our plan and it is our goal. Remind them to trust the decision-making skills that led them to invest with you in the first place.

Anchoring their experience

Anchoring clients in recent history, with timelines, is also helpful.
Give the wider context, as you did at the start,which is that markets are cyclical. We fear bear markets because of fear of the unknown. But we have had bear markets before. Do whatever you can to give things form by linking their experiences to the past.
For example, ‘the average bear market losses are x’ and ‘the average bear market lasts this long’. Again, be aware and intentional with the words you use. Focus on using positive words that will infer you and your client will get through this.

End with Hope

The client chose to call you, or to take your call, even though they knew what you were going to say. This was never about hard facts. It was about leaving them with reassurance and a regained sense of control. That, you can give, but it is crucial to strike a balance between normalisation and hope.
Finally, remember this. Living through a market downturn is not about portfolios and percentages for them. It is about the thought of having to stay in a job longer, not being able to afford a child’s education, or not getting to make a dream come true.
You will find yourself having these conversations over and over again. You need to contextualise each one with a fresh basket of hopes and fears. Do that and you will provide the reassurance clients need. Much better, you’ll strengthen the bond you have with them through authentic, considered financial leadership.
Amyr Rocha Lima, CFP® is a partner at Holland Hahn & Wills LLP, a financial planning practice based in Kingston upon Thames. He specialises in working with successful professionals age 50+ helping them reduce taxes, invest smarter and retire on their terms.

This article was originally published by the Journal of Financial Planning, as part of their NexGen magazine. You can keep up with all future updates by clicking here.

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