How to Fire a Client

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The decision to "fire" a client is painfully difficult. An advisor-client relationship is like a marriage, with periods of good days and bad. Many planners are reluctant to disengage with difficult clients due to a sense of responsibility. As Michael Kitces wrote in his blog, "Clients who are difficult to work with are also those in greatest need – and in virtually all other helping professions, it's a requirement of the profession to help everyone in need, not just those who are the most pleasant to work with."

Nevertheless, I learned during my years as a Certified Financial Planner and registered investment advisor that there are at least six reasons to fire clients:

1. Making unreasonable demands. Some clients expect an unbroken series of successes and blame their advisors when the market turns down. Some respond with abusive calls and constant complaining because they believe that harassment of the advisor will improve their situation. When clients start making frequent (and nasty) calls, let them go; the fees aren't worth the trouble.

2. Wanting everything for nothing. Clients can make unreasonable demands, treating their advisors as employees rather than counselors. One West Texas oil man expected me to leave the office and chauffeur him to his appointments whenever he came to town. Another would become angry when I declined to spend the evenings clubbing with his friends. Good relationships are based on professionalism and mutual courtesy, not constant favors.

3. Being slow to pay. All businesses are dependent on adequate cash flow. Clients who are consistently tardy with their payments stress the business and increase costs with extra administrative and collection efforts. In the worst cases, they may require the business to borrow money to cover short-term cash needs.

4. Not listening to you. Despite your efforts to provide useful advice, some clients either procrastinate or ignore your recommendations. Despite my warnings of high risk, a young tech executive insisted on trading in the commodities market after hearing about fantastic returns from his golfing buddies. I suggested he find a new advisor. Six months later and $150,000 poorer, he moved to a third advisor.

5. Being unresponsive. Over time, relationships ebb and flow. Despite great beginnings, circumstances can lead to less and less contact between advisor and client until the latter becomes a name in your book of accounts. After unsuccessfully trying to rekindle a relationship – evidenced by the client's failure to respond to emails or phone messages and consistently fails to provide needed paperwork on time – it is time to formally end the relationship and recommend the client find a new advisor.

6. Showing a basic lack of respect. Some people are just jerks, focused on themselves without any compassion for the people around them. If you feel a knot in your stomach whenever you hear from a certain client, escape by resigning the account and suggesting that he or she find a new advisor. Life is too short to have to deal with people like that.

Most consultants do not like working with difficult, unpleasant clients. In fact, not being forced to work with unpleasant customers is a big reason why people open businesses.

Unfortunately, planners must work in an environment of uncertainty, especially in the short run. As a consequence, any client can be disappointed and become unpleasant. For most, the situation passes and the relationship returns to an even keel. In the final analysis, only the financial planner can determine when to end the relationship – and even then, a planner usually wrestles with his or her conscience to determine whether there is a moral duty to serve difficult clients.