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The Practice Doctor is IN

Handling Difficult Clients

by Al Depman, CLU, ChFC, CMFC, BH
Practice Management Consultant

Al Depman photoOne of the issues facing Jeff in his financial advisory practice was how to calm his staff members after they had dealt with an angry client. It didn't happen often, but when it did, he told me, "It ruined their day, and consequently, had a negative effect on the whole office for the rest of the day."

Jeff was concerned enough that we set up a webinar with his team to address the topic. For a solution, I turned to Susan Clements, a friend and business coach in Des Moines, Iowa. Susan has a neat process for diffusing the "HEAT" from these unpleasant encounters. This is adapted from her Optimal Outcome financial services coaching material, with permission.

According to Susan, "The reason a client becomes upset may have something or nothing to do with what you or a member of your team has or has not done. Clients will have their own stories, they may become upset over things that come from their own experiences, and their actions or reactions may not make sense to you." She adds that if a client is irrational or rude, your own emotional reaction to their behavior may cause you to display defensive behaviors, which may include panic, fear, shock, or anger. These are normal reactions and can be your biggest barrier to dealing effectively with a difficult client.

Susan suggests using the following techniques to remain calm in the face of taking the "HEAT" from a client:

Hear them out actively. Pay attention to a client's emotions. Be present without judgment. Do not think negatively or jump to a conclusion about what a client is saying. Listen; don't talk. Right from the beginning, show your client you care and set the stage for a productive solution. Whatever your body language suggests, in person or over the phone, is how you will be perceived.

Empathize with them. Do not sympathize. People need to know you understand their issue, not that you feel sorry for them. When your client feels you appreciate where they are coming from, it reduces their frustration and contributes to a feeling of being understood. When they do not think you understand, or if they feel you do not care, they will put more HEAT into the conversation.

Apologize and Assure. Be careful not to patronize a client who is upset. This continues the journey of taking personal accountability and helps your client feel understood. Apologize for that client's experience. Apologizing does not mean you need to (or even should) admit to being wrong or that you or the business has made a mistake. When a client feels heard, understood, and justified in their experience, they will be more open to exploring a solution. Use language that will let your client know you are there to help resolve their issue and that you understand their pain. Here are some examples:

  • I'm sorry you have experienced this.
  • I'm sorry this has upset you.
  • Thank you for letting me know what has happened.
  • I assure you that we're going to get this resolved.
  • I'm determined to get this taken care of this for you.

Take care of it. Find a solution. Ask the client what they want. Taking care of it is not defined by you; it is defined by the client. You need to know what your client's idea of a solution is. This does not mean you will be able to give them what they want; it simply means you care enough to discover what they want to have happen. If you are not able to provide the client with the solution they want, acknowledge that you understand the result they are looking for, and then let them know it is not within your ability to provide that solution. Explain to the client what you are able to provide in the way of a solution and the time frame in which it will happen. Be sure to follow up: put it on your calendar, highlight it, and set it as a high priority. Taking care of it means following the issue all the way through to the end, not just part way. Make the promise to follow up, and then be sure to keep it!

Using the "Take the H.E.A.T." process will enable any member of your team to:

  • hear through a client's anger to understand what made them upset;
  • identify the real issue, and help them focus on the right solution;
  • make a client feel they are being listened to and understood;
  • make a client feel they are important, even if you or your team can't give that client what they want;
  • work with a client to achieve results that support both the client and your business.

Finally, Susan says it's up to Jeff to make sure his team members are empowered to take the HEAT. So I'll be working with him and his team to ensure they have the tools, resources, knowledge, and confidence they need to resolve client issues and not let the difficult clients tarnish the atmosphere of the office.

The Doctor is OUT

© 2016 Al Depman

Al Depman, CLU, ChFC, CMFC, BH, a.k.a. "The Practice Doctor", is's Business Practice Consultant, and contributor to "The Wall Street Journal." He is the creator of "The Practice Management Assessment" tool, the key component of The Business Practice Check-Up™, has authored numerous articles in professional publications on practice management, and is the author of the book, How to Build Your Financial Advisory Business and Sell It at a Profit, available from McGraw Hill. Al combined his Liberal Arts studies with 10 years of management experience with McDonald's Corporation to enter the financial services world 25 years ago. Since then, Al has evolved from an MDRT-level sales rep into a full-time consultant specializing in helping others engineer their business practices to the next level. Contact him at

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