How To Better Understand and Deal With Difficult Clients

Jan 3, 2019

Dealing with Difficult ClientsJust like their financial situations, each client’s personality is unique. Some you have a terrific rapport with; others are more challenging. While there are times when stepping away from a client relationship is warranted — when a client is a liability risk or verbally/physically abusive, for example1 — “firing” clients based solely on personality clashes isn’t necessarily a good business practice. However, simply gritting your teeth and tolerating a difficult client probably isn’t enough either.

Is there middle ground you can reach between firing and tolerating difficult clients? Yes, and it starts with being aware of the different traits presented by difficult clients, acknowledging triggers that could cause you to react negatively, and the steps you can take to maintain — even improve — these challenging relationships.

6 Traits of Difficult Clients

Difficult people abound in every walk of life, so encountering difficult clients should be no surprise.2 What makes a client difficult? Pinpointing one definitive answer is a near impossibility, as they likely exhibit a combination of the following traits:

  • Negativity — Refusing to get beyond complaining to resolve issues3
  • Obstinance — Placing irrational or impossible demands on your time or services3
  • Unresponsiveness — Ignoring your requests, not participating in conversations, or otherwise focusing on distractions (e.g., phone calls, social media, etc.)3
  • Confusion — Not being able to express what they want, or not being clear on products, processes or expectations3
  • Vagueness — Identifying a general problem but omitting details because they feel it’s revealing too much about their situation3
  • Impatience — Insisting on keeping meetings short and your advice shorter to accommodate their schedule3

It may be tempting to define a client by these traits, but try to give them the benefit of the doubt. It’s important to remember that the situation could be evoking a client’s less-than-desirable reactions. The topic of finances can be particularly sensitive and may even encompass other emotions, like grief or fear, depending on the reason(s) behind financial discussions.4

It’s Not a One-Way Street

Just because you may be able to label a client as having certain “difficult” traits doesn’t mean you’re exempt from possibly contributing to the situation. It’s rather easy — and human — to take another person’s hostility or negativity personally and react with defensiveness.2 You may get what you give, as people tend to mirror emotional signals others give them. If you approach a client with aggression, frustration or outright anger, there’s a good chance the client will return those loaded emotions.3

Instead of internalizing their response, apply some objectivity to find the “why” behind a client’s response or the situation. Maybe discussing finances makes them fearful or leaves them feeling out of control; maybe the uncertainty of their financial future has put them in self-protection mode, or a past bad experience with an advisor has them wary of trusting you. Attempting to see their side of the equation will likely help you separate the person from their behavior.5 Also, sincerely embracing their viewpoint may disarm a difficult client enough to answer questions that will help you learn about them or their situation, and perhaps put the best construction on the client-advisor relationship.2

Positive Steps Forward

Dwelling on the challenges presented by a difficult client won’t benefit anyone. Try these steps to move the relationship in a more positive direction:

Be willing to actively listen. An upset or angry client may need to vent, but don’t dismiss their feelings and jump right into possible solutions. Let them air their concerns — uninterrupted — and engage active listening skills. A head nod, appropriate facial expressions and recapping some main points once they’re done talking conveys that you are on the same page.4

Verify next steps. Untangling action items from emotions can be tricky. If a client is upset and jumping from topic to topic without allowing time for discussion, acknowledge that you’re listening and that you understand how an issue they may be confronting could make them feel anxious. Then explain that to best help, you need to also understand their expectations of you. Your client will likely feel heard, validated and perhaps less adversarial.4

Go above and beyond. Based on what your client expressed as needed next steps, make a plan. Keep them in the communication loop and be proactive in working toward resolution.4

Emotions can sometimes make or break a client-advisor relationship, and they can also get in the way of making sound financial decisions. Defusing Emotions: An Advisor’s Role in Disciplined Long-Term Investing explores client attitudes and behaviors surrounding investing, and offers practical advice on how you can provide objective focus and expert guidance. Click the button below to access your copy of this valuable reference tool now.

Defusing Emotions: An Advisor’s Role In Disciplined Long-Term Investing


1Advisor Perspectives, How to Fire Difficult Clients, February 7, 2018

2Advisor Perspectives, Dealing with Difficult Clients, May 29, 2018

3Talentcap, How Can Financial Advisors Deal With Difficult People Without Being Combative Even When Dealing With Highly Defensive & Confrontational Customers, September 4, 2018

4Summit Brokerage Services, Inc., Financial Advisor Tips: How to Deal with Challenging Clients, January 17, 2018

5True Measure Advisors, How to Handle Defensive Clients as a Financial Advisor, January 22, 2018


Topics: Client Relationships