We have all experienced the situation in which a client, for whatever reason, becomes unresponsive to our calls and emails.
Often times, these unresponsive behaviors come from a previously engaged client. They may start arriving late or frequently rescheduling meetings. They may respond to calls and emails slowly or fail to send back paperwork your office requested. Without getting into the psychology of why this happens, let's talk about how to work with these clients.
Here’s the process I use for scheduling client meetings. Implementing a similar approach may help you work with unresponsive clients.
The meeting-scheduling process
Assuming you do not pre-schedule your appointments (which I highly recommend), your client-service associate would run a report to view a list of clients who should be coming in for a meeting the following month. He or she would check who may already have scheduled or held their meetings. This associate would also see if there is anything important to be aware of, such as an upcoming birthday for the client or outstanding action items.
You should meet one-on-one with your client-service associate to provide any helpful information for scheduling. It would be important for the client-service associate and the client to know if:
- You need extra time in this meeting, for example, to cover a complex issue.
- You offered to go to their home or office to conduct the meeting.
- You would like to take the client to lunch before or after your meeting.
- This meeting can be conducted by telephone if the client would prefer.
- You need the client to bring certain documents which may take time for them to gather.
Once the client-service associate has this information, he or she can begin contacting clients on the list for scheduling.
Most of your clients will be eager, or at least willing, to set an appointment to meet with you. However, not all clients will respond to the initial requests from your client-service associate. I encourage them to make at least three attempts before asking you, the advisor, to reach out directly. Often, the clients will respond to your outreach. This may be all that is needed to get an unresponsive client to respond. In the client's mind, they are in trouble, because now the advisor is calling. I call this “being sent to the principal's office.” In the client's mind, they are thinking, "I'm in trouble now. My advisor is calling me personally."
Unfortunately, not all of your unresponsive clients will respond to the sound of your voice. They will continue to be unresponsive. So, what next?
The meeting-preparation process
As the calendar fills up with appointments, some weeks will be busier than others. If, after several attempts, there are one or two clients who have not responded, schedule them during a lighter week. Code the meeting, as one of my advisors calls it, a “phantom meeting.” This is a meeting that is blocked off for you to respond to your client's unresponsiveness.
Do a thorough meeting-prep for these clients, just as you would if they were actually coming in for the meeting.
The meeting-prep process looks something like this:
On Monday, the week before the client is on the schedule, your client-service associate preps this client as normal. Once their prep is complete, they review their work and findings with your associate who does “level 2” (more detailed) prep. Level 2 prep is completed by Wednesday morning when they meet with you to go over their work and findings.
You review the case and determine what else you might want for the appointment. This could be another illustration using different assumptions, more research into an investment vehicle or any number of things.
By Thursday, you should have a list compiled to review with your level 2 prep person so they, along with your client-service associate, can pull together what is needed prior to the end of the week.
This process allows all of the team to go home on Friday afternoon with the following week's meeting prep completed.
When next week arrives and you find yourself facing the phantom meeting, instead of meeting with these clients – who have not responded and are not actually coming in -- draft a letter to them. An example letter is provided below.
Dear Phantom Client:
Unfortunately I have been unsuccessful in my attempts to schedule an appointment with you to review your accounts. To fulfill my obligation to you as your financial advisor, I have set aside time to review your accounts, analyze your holdings and make recommendations based on my findings. These recommendations are based on my last known information regarding your situation.
[RECOMMENDATIONS] Include possible concerns, suggestions.
[RATIONALE] Why you are making these recommendations.
(See enclosed reports.) If applicable.
[QUESTIONS] Be careful about including client account numbers and other private information as the client may have moved without your knowledge.
Just a reminder, industry (company) regulations do not allow me to have discretion over your accounts, so any recommendations I suggest cannot be acted upon without your prior verbal or written approval (e-mail approval is not allowed). This means I cannot make the above changes in your account unless and until I hear from you with your consent.
My preference would be to meet with you to review your accounts on a regular basis either face-to-face or by telephone. In the absence of regularly scheduled meetings, this letter acts as a substitute.
Even though we had a prior financial planning relationship, the scope of that engagement has been fully satisfied and is no longer an active current engagement. The nature of our relationship, as it stands currently, is solely based on your investments and insurance policies held at Example Financial. (This paragraph is important to include if you hold the CFP designation and ever completed a financial plan for this client).
Please contact me if you have any questions or if you are comfortable with the recommendations and would like me to proceed with the above changes. I can be reached at [phone number]. I look forward to hearing from you.
I have had some advisors send their letters by Certified Mail. This takes care of two things: it illustrates the importance of the work you are doing on their behalf and notifies you if the client is no longer living at the address on file.
After all of this, your client may remain unresponsive. Remember, you are not obligated to retain clients, but you are obligated to ensure they are properly treated while retained. If you have taken the time to care for your clients at this level and they do not re-engage, it may be time to remove them from your client database. As I often say, "It is the clients we don't meet with on a regular basis who are the ones likely to become a compliance liability."
Here are some comments from advisors who have followed this process:
"One of my unresponsive clients reached out to me to apologize for their bad behavior. They approved my recommendations and set up an appointment to meet in the near future."
"I went through this process with a client two times. They have not responded. I feel absolutely no guilt in removing them from my client list."
"A client received my letter and called to let me know that his mother had passed away. He and his wife had been the primary care givers and did not have the time or energy to deal with their own finances. He appreciated my, and my assistant's, persistence. There is an inheritance that he wants me to manage."
"I can't believe how well this process works. One of my unresponsive clients called to tell me she wants me to manage all of her money. She has a fairly large account at a competing firm. When she received my letter, she realized that there was comfort in her knowing her accounts with me were being reviewed on a regular basis, even when we were not meeting. She had never received such attention (even the attention we gave her in trying to get her on the calendar) from her other advisor. Her lifestyle is such that she is often going to be unresponsive. Knowing I am watching over her accounts gives her peace of mind."
Consider this: According to my compliance officer, it would be tough for any client or heir to win a complaint against you for lack of attention with this level of documentation.