Before I answered her call, I recognized the number and knew with pinpoint precision the nature of our conversation. “What are we going to do?” she asked. With remarkable calm, I responded, “What are we going to do about what?” As predicted, the markets were down several hundred points and, laden with emotion, she was convinced I—or we—had to do something. Expected? Of course! Unusual? Not really.
No matter the nature of your advisory practice—accounting, law, human resources, banking, finance—clients with rare exception cannot distance themselves from external events and their own internal emotions. When clients call and you sense emotions are frothy, you must respond in ways that keep them from making unwise decisions while maintaining your role as the advisor. In those moments, your manner approaches being parental while refusing to be judgmental. How so?
Begin with a story from your shared past. Go back several months when the two of you worked positively through another concern. “Do you recall the conversation we had when you were convinced your business was on the verge of collapse?” Then listen and follow up by asking, “What did you decide to do?” Let the client tell you the remembered past and what he or she did—NOT what you did! In the case of my caller, I gave her room to tell me how she navigated that imagined crisis. When clients hear their own voices sharing a memory that ended well, the present conversation often proceeds not only better but infinitely more constructive.
Offering clients the gift of perspective is one of the most important advisory roles we fill. If you were able to guide your clients to a better decision “then,” chances are high you can name and tame their emotions “now.” The key is getting them to own their emotional past, seeing the present as similar.
Ask your client to tell you a decision he or she made in the past that is reaping strong benefits now. For instance, people marry for many reasons, hopefully, for love. When a couple says “I do,” they have no idea what life will hand them, what obstacles they will have to overcome, and what fears they will face. But couples wed anyway because they have a vision of what marriage could be for both. The future pulls them into the “for better or for worse” covenant, believing the best is still to come.
What is one compelling vision pulling your client into the future?
Invite the client to share his or her vision. Celebrate their dream and watch how the conversation changes. We know something clients fail to see: emotion-based decisions tend to fabricate pipe dreams imagined by the naïve. People buy houses for shelter and as an investment. What people do not do is have their home appraised every week.
Whether the topic is tax planning, business succession, estate concerns, or investments, advisors who build their practice on reasoned planning coupled with warm, caring relationships understand that occasional emotional moments are expected and can be weathered. Our role is to give space for emotions while keeping in focus the larger vision.
Finally, give people permission to vent. When I have an emotion-tinged conversation, I want the client to get all the fear, uncertainty, even anger out. Never interrupt a venting voice with any response but “I hear you and understand your concerns.” Validate another’s emotions while hanging in there recalling the places from whence they have come and the dreams that call them into a better future. When clients are emotionally on edge, we must keep our bearing and help them stay focused on all the bigger pictures. As my mother, of blessed memory, said often, “This too shall pass”.