6 Tips for Handling Difficult Clients

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By Kristina Schneider, Executive Assistant

Crazy mad young woman screaming and talking on mobile phone standing over chalkboard backgound

Difficult clients are inevitable no matter what business you are in and no matter how great your customer service is.  With the estate and financial planning business, clients can be very emotional.  Clients may be stressed about the kinds of decisions they are required to make while getting their affairs in order, especially if they may be grieving the loss of a loved one. They are investing time, money and their personal feelings into the entire process, so it is no wonder that you will experience a wide range of emotions.  Anything from impatience, frustration and anger to peace, relief and gratitude.

As an assistant, one of your main responsibilities includes speaking to clients on behalf of your boss when he or she may otherwise not be available to take a call (or, frankly, may not want to even take the call).  You represent your boss and your firm to these clients, so it is important that you understand how to handle difficult clients.

Here are some helpful tips that we have learned over the years.

Tip #1: Listen to them.

One of the biggest mistakes that people make when handling difficult clients is that they fail to take the first few minutes to really listen to them.  Most of the time, when people are frustrated or expressing anger on the phone, it’s not personal.  Their anger is usually not directed at you, therefore you should not take what they say personally and refrain from responding defensively.  Most people just want to vent their feelings and it is important that you give them that opportunity to do that.  Let the client talk without any abrupt interruptions to avoid escalating the situation by further angering and frustrating them.

Tip #2: Repeat back what you heard.

A key component of being a good listener is to let the other party know that you are listening.  You can do this by acknowledging the client while he or she is speaking, showing him or her that you are listening and that you care about what is being said.  Once you have the opportunity to speak, repeating back key facts of what the client had to say will not only show the client that you were listening, but it will also clarify any confusion about what they may have said (or may even help them fill in important details they may have missed).

Tip #3: Use the “Feel, Felt, Found” Method.

Once all has been aired and you have the opportunity to respond, try using the “Feel, Felt, Found” Method.  An example of this method in use would be, “I am really sorry about your experience, Mrs. Jones.  I understand how you feel and why you are upset.  I would have felt the same way in that situation.  What we have found to prevent this from happening is…”  This method acknowledges the client’s feelings, while also validating them.  Validation of their feelings is a key step to calming them down and helping them find some relief.  Last, but not least, the “found” portion provides them some type of solution, which is ultimately what the client is looking for.  Perhaps the client needs to set up a meeting or a phone call or perhaps they’re unhappy with the attorney and you have other associates that they can meet with.  Whatever their issue may be, seek out a solution that you can propose that has been helpful for other clients.

Tip #4: Find out what it is that the client needs.

There are clients that will talk your ears off and, at some point, it’s clear that they will continue to rant, rave and work themselves up to the point where it’s nearly impossible to get a word in and come to a resolution.  At this point, it would be appropriate to politely interject and calmly say something along the lines of, “Mrs. Jones, I am hearing you and I understand that you are upset.  What is it that I can do right now to make this better for you?”  Finding out what exactly it is that the client wants or needs will move them from being angry to working with you to helping you come to a resolution. 

Tip #5: Follow through, follow through, follow through!

One of the main mistakes that people make when handling a difficult client is that they don’t follow through.  For example, if one of the things that upsets the client was that they hadn’t received something your company was supposed to send to them, then the action step on your part is making sure that you follow through with the person that is supposed to send it out, rather than just telling them what to do and assuming they’ll take care of it.  Perhaps even contacting the client to confirm that it went out and that you personally followed up to ensure that it went out and asking the client to call you back and confirm that they received it.  That extra effort will not only make that client feel like they are important to you and your company, but it ensures that the problem actually gets resolved quickly.  Another example would be if the client has a question, then giving them a reasonable time frame when you can get an answer to their question and contacting them when you said you would will make them feel better, even if you immediately don’t have the answer.  Fulfilling on your promises is the only way to provide superb customer service, even if you cannot single-handedly resolve a matter.  Most people find peace and resolution when they feel that you cared enough to treat them as important and to pay a bit more attention to their needs than they received before they called.  Nothing is worse for the client than calling to complain about not getting something to then have things fall through the cracks and then having to go through the same experience again with someone else.

Tip #6: Don’t let them abuse you.

Last, but not least, we have to throw out this final tip.  Some clients can become abusive in the way they speak to you.  This can be anything from name-calling to cursing – – neither should be tolerated – – not by your company as a firm-wide policy, but also not by you.  Intolerance of this kind of behavior doesn’t mean that you have to be unprofessional in your response to the client.  You can still be professional while letting the client know that you will not tolerate abusive behavior.  If a client curses at you, you can respond with something like, “Mrs. Jones, I understand that you are upset, but there is no need to use that kind of language. I am trying to help you as best as I can.”  You should then seek to set up a phone call with your boss as soon as possible (preferably the same day).  Our boss has always expressed to us that he will not tolerate a client abusing a member of his staff.  On that phone call, he will promptly let the client know that such abusive type of treatment of employees will not be tolerated and that if the client does this again, he will terminate his law firm’s representation of them and ask that they seek other counsel. Hopefully, this kind of call from the boss will be a very rare occasion.

In conclusion, difficult or upset clients will always be a part of any business.  How you handle yourself, represent your boss and your company will make the difference between resolution or further escalation.  There are certain occasions when you may need to get your boss involved in these matters, but these kinds of clients can become really distracting and mentally exhausting for your boss, so help him or her out as best you can!  The more you take care of such clients and address their particular needs, the better you will get at it.  This not only means that you will deflect these distractions from your boss but, most of all, the clients will be happier with their overall experience with your firm.

Pssssst… are you an advisor reading this article?  If so, that’s fine.  While this article is written for staff members, many professionals would benefit from it as well.  But be sure to pass along this article to your assistant.  Click here to forward this article over to your assistant so that he or she can read it and benefit from it, too.  Also, you may wish to encourage your assistant to sign up to receive our monthly newsletter directly so that they can get these helpful tips and articles each month, too.  To sign up your assistant to receive our e-mails, click here.


kristina-aboutKristina Schneider is the current Executive Director of The Ultimate Estate Planner, Inc.  She graduated with a Bachelor’s Degree in Business Administration from Pepperdine University in 2004 and was hired right out of college to work for the Law Firm of Kavesh, Minor & Otis, coordinating and facilitating Philip Kavesh’s “Missing Link” Boot Camps while also providing administrative support to Mr. Kavesh as his Executive Assistant for over seven years.  Through her direct hands-on experience in Mr. Kavesh’s law firm, Kristina has been able to assist numerous estate planning professionals through The Ultimate Estate Planner and, equally as important, many of their staff members, in the successful implementation of Ultimate Estate Planner’s products and systems. You can reach Kristina at (424) 247-9495 or by e-mail at kristina@ultimateestateplanner.com.


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