My Client Fired Me Because of Dr. Seuss
Beverly Flaxington is a practice management consultant. She answers questions from advisors facing human resource issues. To submit yours, email us here.
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Just this past week I lost one of my long-term clients, who was with me for 15 years, over a political disagreement. We did not have a discussion or outright conflict. But he was angry that I live in a “socialist state” that is one of many destroying the country. He went on to criticize the delayed openings in our state, yell about the inflation that will be coming and then told me I didn’t even like Dr. Seuss! It was an hour-long conversation and I mostly listened. There was not much for me to say. He was so angry and agitated that I thought listening to him would be the best approach.
This is a man I’ve known for years and have enjoyed working with. There have been many times he has been concerned about the market or uptight about economic conditions. But this was like listening to someone I’ve never known before.
At the end of the call, he said he was moving everything to a large brokerage firm where they have conservative values. I sat at my desk after the call wondering if there was anything I could have done differently. I can’t change the location of my home or office and getting into a debate with him and using logic was not going to diffuse the situation. I thought it would add fuel to his fire.
Is there something I missed? Is there anything I should have done differently? In one sense I’m relieved I won’t have to be yelled at and criticized for things that are out of my control. But I hate to lose a decade-and-a-half-long client.
The age-old adage about staying away from politics and religion in all discussions is relevant more than ever. I’m not sure you can “win” in a discussion like this when someone is so fired up and accusing you of things you cannot do anything about.
I have a process I use with advisors when they are dealing with difficult clients. I’ll outline here. It’s possible there could have been a step or two you could have taken that might have helped to shift his thinking. As long as I have done my work in human behavior, I have said that we can’t change everyone’s thinking, and there are times a relationship is best served by separation. I don’t know this is the case here, but it is always worth questioning whether something is worth working on, and whether the other person is willing to cooperate.
That said, the process for dealing with the difficult ones (TDOs) is what I call ARTICA:
A – Acknowledge the person’s position. You don’t have to agree but he, like everyone, is entitled to his opinion and perception. You can say things like, “I understand the frustration you are expressing. I think we are all feeling frustrated as the COVID conditions drag on.” Or simply, “You are entitled to your opinion and I respect your position.”
R – Reflect back what you are hearing. “You are raising a few issues and I want to make sure I am understanding and capturing them all….” This helps show the upset person that you are listening and you are not diminishing or rejecting what they are sharing.
T – Think “why”? An upset or angry state is often a mask for something else they are afraid of. While you can’t call out the fear in most cases, you can try and connect the dots about the source of it. “It sounds like you are concerned about the impact on your portfolio based upon the decisions in Washington and the economic trends. Is this accurate?” If you can try and confirm what the impact of his concerns are, it helps to frame the conversation more objectively and logically.
I – Inquire and ask open-ended questions. “What about the current situation is most concerning to you regarding our relationship?” “What sorts of things would you like to see me, or our firm, doing differently?” While it can be hard, because you don’t feel as if you are guilty, it can help diffuse it if you stay with an approach that involves open-ended curiosity.
C – Confirm if there is anything you can do. “In listening to your concerns and understanding more, I’m thinking we should spend 40 minutes reviewing your portfolio and running some worst-case scenarios to see if we should make changes. You could be right about inflation and higher taxes and we need to be prepared if this happens. Can we get this on the calendar?”
A – Then ACT! If there is something you can do, get it scheduled and follow through. Often times if you go through the first five steps in ARTICA you will find the person has calmed down and you might not need to do anything next.
It’s very hard when someone is coming at you with verbal insults and an outright angry approach. Most people immediately default to the fight-or-flight syndrome because our instinct is to protect ourselves in one way or another. However, if you can stay in it and walk through a process like this, many times the person will calm down and might even see how unnecessary yelling and acting out at their advisor really is.
Never engage in the political debate or try and show your client the error of their thinking. You can certainly show them the trends, facts, market data and the impact on their portfolio. But don’t get into an argument about “If I Ran the Zoo” – these types of disagreements never yield good results.
I enjoy bantering with one of my advisors who has very different political views than mine. We jest with one another and have discussions about everything imaginable from our respective seats. Lately though he has been getting nasty. He has hurled expletives and nasty name calling in the middle of our discussions. It’s like all of a sudden his face turns angry and he looks at me as if I am not even there while he yells about what he doesn’t like.
It scares me and I’m not sure of the appropriate response in the moment.
You, like our earlier reader, do not live by the adage about staying away from politics and religion, especially in the workplace. I understand there are people we can have these discussions with and even enjoy differences of opinion. But your situation shows how we are always sitting on the precipice of one person or the other turning angry and accusatory.
If you don’t want to abandon the discussions altogether, go into his office (or scheduling a Zoom call if you are still virtual) when you are not discussing this hot topic. When you are both calm and focused on business, share your observations that lately he is getting a bit too hot under the collar during these engagements. Put him on notice that it makes you extremely uncomfortable and the next time it happens you are going to end the dialogue. You won’t be angry and you won’t leave in an emotional state; you will merely give him a signal that “We’re done here for now,” and walk away from the discussion.
If you put him on notice and stay calm and objective when you do so, it will help him to think twice about how he approaches you next time. But if it doesn’t, at least you have identified an option to remove yourself from the situation.
Beverly Flaxington co-founded The Collaborative, a consulting firm devoted to business building for the financial services industry in 1995. The firm also founded and manages the Advisors Sales Academy. She is currently an adjunct professor at Suffolk University teaching undergraduate and graduate students Entrepreneurship and Leading Teams. Beverly is a Certified Professional Behavioral Analyst (CPBA) and Certified Professional Values Analyst (CPVA).
She has spent over 25 years in the investment industry and has been featured in Selling Power Magazine and quoted in hundreds of media outlets, including The Wall Street Journal, MSNBC.com, Investment News and Solutions Magazine for the FPA. She speaks frequently at investment industry conferences and is a speaker for the CFA Institute.