How to say anything to a client

After last month’s column on how to let profitable clients go (link), an advisor told me that if he used my words with his clients, they would walk out enraged.  He didn’t take issue with the principle of my column, but rather with my choice of words.


This got me thinking about the number of times I’ve heard the words, “I can’t say that to my clients” in response to an idea I proposed.  This is usually just another way of saying that their fears about what will happen are bigger than their resolve for better results. It is the place where breakdowns begin. Whether it’s communicating uncomfortable changes to clients, addressing lingering partnership issues or asking your staff to step up their performance, I assure you there’s a way to say what needs to be said in a style that works for you.  So this month’s column offers up a simple model you can use to say what needs to be said when you don’t quite know how to say it.


Step 1: Shine a light on your stories


It’s not that we can’t figure out what to say; it’s that we don’t want to say it for fear of the discomfort, challenges or consequences we may face as a result. If the story in your head is that saying “this” will cause them to leave, silence is assured. But being challenged to find the right words is entirely different from compromising on the issue you need to address.


Challenge the stories in your head with better questions.  Does raising fees really mean you’re greedy? Does transitioning non-ideal clients mean you’re abandoning them?  Do you really want a client who doesn’t follow your advice?  Do you want to keep clients who treat your staff poorly?   Are your stories about what could go wrong stopping you from having the conversations that can help make things go right?


Step 2: Clarify what you actually want to communicate without worrying about how it’s going to be received


Using the fee increase example, what a lot of advisors want to say is “I need to raise fees to replace my antiquated tech and hire more/better staff so I’m not overwhelmed all the time and can give you the attention you deserve and make a decent living without being stressed all the time.”  Keep it real.  There are no style points for this step.


Step 3: Clarify why your message matters to them


Last year I wrote about how to respond to clients when they challenge your advice (link), with model language that speaks directly to the advisor’s ‘why’ (serving as a trusted advisor) and to the client’s ‘why’ (preserving his portfolio and legacy).  In the case of a fee increase, the ‘why’ relates to the sustainability of the firm.  It’s been six years since you raised fees, while the cost of doing business has risen. You need to invest in building a healthy, sustainable business – so you can better serve them for the rest of their lives.


The goal in this step is to personalize the meaning to them so that they understand the intent and impact of the message you want to convey.


Step 4: Craft your communication


Once you’ve defined the message you want to serve up, put it into clear, firm words, without apology or hesitation.  Your command of the message is an important conveyor of your confidence in it, so it’s important you be direct and not dally or dilute what you want to say.  Bring your style to the conversation.  Substance and authenticity will convey what matters.


Step 5: Practice makes perfect


It may seem silly, but my advice to prepare for big conversations is always the same – rehearse the talking points out loud until they roll off your tongue like your middle name.  More than one advisor has choked on a conversation due to stress.  Practice makes for a more effective conversation by laying neural tracks that your brain can turn to in times of stress, kicking in your default training instead of derailing the conversation.


Step 6: Say it from your side of the street


This is where you remind yourself that your job is to give deliver the message, not to judge how others will receive and respond to it.  Sharing the message happens on your side of the street, which is the only part of the process you can control.  How others receive the message, how it’s truly heard and how that impacts their decisions happens on their side of the street.  Knowing the why behind your message from step 1 helps reinforce that this is the right conversation to have, regardless of the outcome.


Following these steps can help you clear the stories in your head and find a more confident way to hold the challenging and uncomfortable conversations that sometimes come with being a truly trusted advisor.

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