As an advisor, what do you do when you have one of those clients you alternatively love and fear; who can be charming and charismatic one minute, but controlling, argumentative and even abusive the next — especially when the markets are roiling or their personal life is in turmoil?
We’ve all been there with such clients, whom I refer to as “fixers”.
Fixers are control-oriented clients that have an indomitable need to win at any cost. Typically uber-competitive, they take a highly results-oriented approach to investing and can be very demanding of advisors in wealth management discussions.
Under normal, everyday circumstances, fixers can be wonderful to be around. They often have large personalities and a high risk-tolerance as investors. When the markets are calm or steady, the fixer client often likes to up the ante, taking out-of-the-box risks in hopes of making a financial killing with shrewd, speculative investments.
But be on guard. If the markets suddenly tank, the fixer client can undergo a profound personality change. The charming and optimistic client you enjoy dealing with most of the time can suddenly morph into something else; an obsessive control freak who may decide to double-down on their investments in a down market to prove to themselves that they can be victorious even under the most adverse of circumstances.
At such moments, you may need to talk the fixer off a cliff, or dissuade them from ultimately disastrous courses of action, but in doing so, you may incur their wrath. In fact, they may lash out at you and your firm, complaining that your professional incompetence is to blame for the adverse circumstances they suddenly find themselves in.
The personality changes that occur in fixer clients under high-stakes circumstances can be abrupt and reveal a stark Jekyll-Hyde dichotomy in the fixer client’s personality. So, if you must deal with fixer clients in high-stakes situation be ready! You can suddenly find yourself listening to long voicemail rants or getting late-night phone calls demanding you do something to save their portfolio.
Here are six suggestions on how to deal with fixers when the market stakes are high.
- Building trust and credibility with clients is always important, but especially with fixers, who look for evidence of your knowledge, self-confidence, and worthiness to advise them about their investments. For that reason, build strong relationships of trust, credibility and respect with fixer clients under normal, everyday circumstances (when the markets are steady) so the client-advisor relationship can weather the storms of turbulent markets when they occur. Even then your relationships will be tested, but at least you will have built a level of trust, respect and credibility with the fixer to keep both of you grounded when the market acts like a roller coaster.
- Learn to read the fixer’s moods. Understand their emotional hot-buttons, do your homework on their accounts, study their portfolios and be able to anticipate when personality changes could occur, impacting how you advise them about their investments.
- Determine when you need to set boundaries with fixers. Because fixers can become hard to deal with when the markets are rocky, you must decide when to accede to their wishes and when to push back on what they say to you. This can be tough ground to navigate. On one hand, you’ll always be tempted to do as a client asks — even if he/she acts unreasonably (e.g. “Sell my entire portfolio now!”) On the other hand, becoming rigid or reactionary yourself doesn’t help, as it will simply fuel tensions. My advice: stay as calm as possible and reason with the fixer using undeniable facts. Fixers often love conflict, so staying calm disarms them. Work closely and calmly with the fixer to address the situation at hand, to make recommendations, or simply to conclude a conversation.
- Sometimes fixers need a display of strength by you, to put their own sense of self in perspective at that moment. Fixers tend to operate using a “power” style. Thus, you may need to mirror their style back to them to make your point. For example, if your fixer client has an expressive personality, be expressive in the comments you make back to them. If your client speaks analytically, use data and logic in what you say back to him or her. Sometimes just speaking with firm intention is best. Say things like this: “You might want to consider using a total return approach averaged over the last 12 quarters rather than just looking at the account value at the end of last year.”
- If you must deliver tough messages to fixers, start with a question. Say, “Are you open to hearing something from me you don’t want to hear?” Or, “May I give you some feedback right now on what I see going on here? I think it’ll be helpful in moving this conversation forward.” Questions like these create a challenge for the fixer and usually he/she will accept the challenge.
- If things get really heated, try using humor to shed light on the fixer’s unhelpful or counterproductive traits. You’ll have to find just the right moment to do this, but I’ve had fixers compliment me when I call them on their “bad” behavior. In fact, the sincerest compliment any fixer can offer an advisor is to tell you, when you challenge them, “Hey, you’re freaking right!” But take care! Conversational timing is everything. You want to use humor to de-escalate the tension and keep the fixer engaged, not add fire to the flames and cause them to storm out the door.
Chris White (www.chriswhiteauthor.com) is a long-time wealth advisor and author of Working with the Emotional Investor: Financial Psychology for Wealth Managers. (Praeger, 2016)