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Clients from Hell

Clients from Hell

I am very fortunate as a financial advisor to have an amazing group of clients I work with each day. I consider it an honor to have been given this responsibility by the households I am responsible for; helping people invest for the future is my life's work and the relationships I have now with clients mean a lot to me both professionally and personally. But it was not always thus.

There was a time when I would take the business anywhere I could get it. As a young man in the industry, that was the job, and in my ambition I foolishly believed that I could work with anyone so long as they had investable assets. Boy, was I in for an education!

I learned the hard way that there are some client types that no advisor should take on if they can help it. I've made a list below for young men and women in the wealth management industry to learn from, and veteran advisors to chuckle at knowingly.

Here are the Ten Clients from Hell and how to cope with them:

  1. The Sophisticate: There are some investors who believe simple is stupid and that any investment portfolio run on their behalf must be both complex and intricate in order to be worthy of their time and money. They are more concerned with process than they are with outcome; hitting financial goals over time takes a backseat to executing put spreads and iron condor option trades.

    How to Cope: Ask the client which is more important to them: comfortable retirement or satisfying intellectual curiosity through experimental trade expression.

  2. The Armchair Quarterback: This client will second-guess almost everything you do on their behalf and will often suggest alternatives to your own suggestions, no matter how much research you have done. Armchair quarterbacks believe they are simply making conversation; they typically don't mean to drive the advisor crazy even if that ends up being the net effect over months and months.

    How to Cope: It is important to remind the client why he or she hired you in the first place; you must be clear that you will not make All the Right Moves all the time, but that your job is to get the big things right on a consistent basis.

  3. The Mercurial: In certain market environments, volatility rules and markets alternate between triple-digit up days and triple-digit down days. There's a certain type of investor that just can't help getting whipsawed, greedily buying a rally on a Tuesday and despondently blowing out of positions the next day when the world feels like it's ending. Controlling this client's emotions is the name of the game here, easier said than done.

    How to Cope: Cut off the client's web access to the account until he or she calms down; recommend the client avoid financial television for a few weeks.

  4. The Scrooge: If the client's first question upon meeting you is what are your fees, chances are they will never be comfortable paying you for your work. And that's okay: there are millions of do-it-yourselfers out there who would rather save the 100 basis points and slave over their own portfolios. A cost-conscious client is a good client because you know that they are as serious about the task at hand as you are, but if cost is the only thing they care about when it comes to you and your work, there is almost nothing you can do to change that.

    How to Cope: Explain the ways in which you plan to add value (above and beyond “performance” which is obviously not predictable). If this doesn't help, you probably should recommend the client Talk to Chuck, or whatever, for a lower-cost advisory solution. You can't sell Godiva to someone in the market for Hershey.

  5. The Gambler: I lost a client in April of this year for not putting him “in the game.” The momentum darlings were rocketing higher and he didn't understand why his entire portfolio wasn't in Lululemon and Netflix. I tried my best to manage expectations at the outset but he found me through an appearance I made on CNBC's Fast Money and he had the mistaken impression that wealthy people actually invest money that way. I tried my best to tailor our core competencies to his burning desire to “crush the market,” but in the end, I could never buy him enough of the screamers. And then a week after he transferred the assets to one of the monkeys who was scratching his itch, the market topped for the year. Oh well.

    How to Cope: Fire yourself. Trust me on this one. If you're a serious advisor, you can't win here. This guy needs a stockbroker or a 12-step program.

  6. The Ghost: If you manage money for a household, you're going to need to make contact every once in awhile. Forms will need to be signed, rebalancing will need to be discussed, etc. The client who wants to fund the account and then disappear into the jungle for a research project is nice and low maintenance — until you need to chat. Then it's a nightmare! I've also turned down accounts where the son was looking for me to manage his mom's money but would never allow me to speak with her. I'm not comfortable working in those circumstances, and you shouldn't be either.

    How to Cope: No cell phone number, no relationship, period.

  7. The Fund of Funds: Ever dreamed of being in a beauty contest? With a fund of funds guy you can! I once had a client say something to the effect of, “So I've given you and three other advisors $500,000 each, GO!” It's not that I'm afraid to compete; it's that when I take on a household, I want to truly be responsible for the household's investing, not just a slice. And of course, the strategy I run isn't designed to shoot the lights out in one type of environment, it's designed to grind through no matter what the environment brings. It will look great some days and boring on other days. I can't pretend I'm a hedge fund playing to win every quarter.

    How to Cope: This is a case where if you explain what your practice is about, you'll either bring the client on or you won't. Don't have the conversation after the starting gun is fired; that way there won't be any surprises or misunderstandings.

  8. The Tire Kicker: I completely understand why a client wouldn't want to turn over the entire portfolio to one advisor at the outset; this makes perfect sense. A comfort level needs to be established over time. But the whole “let me try you out with 50 grand for 90 days” test drive thing is not exactly ideal in terms of elevating you to the role you're meant to inhabit on the client's behalf. A lot of advisors say “let's wait 'til you're ready,” and I'm starting to think that's the right approach.

    How to Cope: Explain to the client that you're happy to start at a lower level but that 90-day trials reveal very little of value. Most advisors won't do this but maybe they should: Suggest to the prospective client that you continue the conversation for a few more months rather than start doing business right away. That way, you get to know if you're taking on someone you can work with and the client gets the warm 'n fuzzy feelings that they require before the relationship is actually consummated.

  9. The Obsessive: Some people are obsessed with baseball; others are obsessed with Glee or classic cars or stamps or wines. And then there are the people who are obsessed with the market. Not obsessed about performance or trading, per se — just generally obsessed about being completely immersed in all the details of each and every trading day or economic report. Good luck calling someone like this to give them an update on their portfolio — you're in for an earful. You will never be in great enough command of the latest data to satiate this client's appetite. You will even be challenged passive-aggressively with questions that sound like statements. These conversations will get you nowhere as it is the client's intent to show off all the macroeconomic stuff he's read somewhere, not to engage in a productive discussion about the state of his investments.

    How to Cope: Have your 30-second macro-spiel ready for delivery at the top of the conversation; let the client respond with his. Agree with him no matter what and put it to bed so you can move on to the true purpose of the meeting or call.

  10. The Schemer: A million years ago I had a client back when I was a stockbroker who was always asking me to help him do shady stuff that was only quasi-related to our investment relationship. “My daughter and her husband can't pay their mortgage and I'm the co-signer…how do I get myself out of having to pay it?” he would ask. He'd ask me how he could get out of taxes and how he could siphon off money from a joint account with his wife into an account in just his name. Everything was a cut corner or a hustle. I always humored him and pretended I'd get back to him on his machinations; eventually he'd forget he asked me any of that stuff and we could just talk investing. The Schemer client is nothing but trouble and in the end the last contact you'll have with him is when he figures out a way to scam something off of you.

    How to Cope: Tell your manager to reassign this client or tell the client you're taking your business “in a different direction.” You don't want this lowlife on your bad side, you just want him out of your book and out of your life before he does something stupid.

When you're new to the wealth management business, there are lessons that you have to learn for yourself, and avoiding the wrong type of client is one of them. My hope is that this article will help you identify those clients early enough so that you know how to deal with a bad situation before it gets worse.

Good luck out there and make sure to build a business around people you enjoy working with; life's too short, my friends.

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