I want you to close your eyes for a moment and imagine the worst client that you ever had. Come on, we all have had those relationships where if we see their name pop up when we look at our calendar on Sunday, our week is ruined. But no matter who that client was (I hope it is a was!), the client was probably not the issue—we were.
My worst client was someone I’ll call Bob. It was the early to mid-’90s and Bob was charming, charismatic, alcoholic, an inveterate gambler and wealthy. This was relatively early in my partnership with Wil Heupel, and we were at best doing only OK. I was professionally smitten with Bob, what we could do for him, and what he could do for us. Things went pretty well until they didn’t. Bob once called early in the morning from a casino in Las Vegas where his run at the blackjack table left him up around $100,000. He was drunk, but I agreed that when the banks opened, we would call to get his winnings wired into his bank account back home. Somehow, we got the call lined up and as we were going through the last digits of the wire, Bob hung up. He was no longer reachable. Needless to say, he came home with only some of those winnings.
Eventually, although we were doing comprehensive planning, Bob grew tired of the way we managed money. He didn’t like asset allocation. In fact, he bought one of those late ’90s go-go newsletters and began trading aggressively on margin using the model portfolios. He was doing unbelievably well; we were not. We warned him of the risk he was taking, but he metaphorically hung up on us. When we eventually parted ways (I am not quite sure who fired whom), he was highly leveraged investing in the model portfolios. He paid little attention to the other things we were working on like his estate plan, college funding and some of the business planning.
Bob’s departure was very expensive for us, because he was our biggest client at the time. It turned out to be far more expensive for him, though. The go-go newsletter’s investments completely blew up in early 2000. I can’t imagine how much Bob lost, but when the margin calls hit, I suspect it was close to everything.
But in looking back, Bob was not the problem. I was. Here’s why.
First, I tried to fix him. The problem with trying to fix someone is that you are assuming they are broken. When we treat others as broken, then we are not treating them as equals. We make ourselves superior to them and the relationship changes. Bob didn’t want to be fixed, yet I was inserting myself in ways that did not prove useful to him. I could offer a certain kind of help, but that help was not appreciated. If he hadn’t been such a major client, I probably would have suggested we part ways sooner, but I am sure that I was attracted to not only the chance to fix him, but to be paid for it.
Second, I tried to save him. In this situation, I made him a victim. Bob was a proud guy and he would be the last person who would want to be viewed as a victim. My need to be a hero overrode this. If I could have saved Bob, then I could have put his house in order, tied up things in a neat little bow for him and his family, and felt great about the role I played in making a difference. Generally, most of us wish to make a difference. We feel the best about our work when we can do so. But again, when we are saving someone, we are elevating ourselves above them. Working with someone is different from saving them. The first makes it about them, the second makes it about us.
Third, I tried to change him. I clearly saw the things that were not working for him—the alcoholism, the gambling—and tried to change him. That’s pretty arrogant, isn’t it? I’m right, you’re wrong. In what part of your life have you been successful in changing anyone? People may choose to change, but it is their decision. The only people we can legitimately change are ourselves.
Fourth, I wanted to be liked by him. Isn’t that sort of weird? I had placed myself in a position superior to him and yet still sought his approval. Because I sought his approval, I don’t think I fully acted with integrity. I should have walked away from the relationship far sooner than we parted.
I suspect we all fall into the drama triangle of victim, hero, perpetrator with most of our “bad” clients. We may even shift among the roles depending on the situation. In our desires to be good, we make others bad. But what do we do about it? These are some things that I think about.
We need to treat people as people rather than clients, prospects, staff or whatever caricatures or archetypes we turn them into. This means we need to develop our listening skills over our proclivities to judge. We typically don’t see people as they really are, we see them as we really are.
When we turn people into these images of people, we fail to understand their complexities. When we are quicker to provide advice than we are to fully understand the person, we are serving our needs rather than theirs. One of the things that Bob taught me was that I was not a good fit for every person and that I would be far happier working with those people with whom I shared more in common.
We must also believe that people have the answers inside of them. Most of us have an internal compass that directs us, but sometimes a magnetic pull misguides us. Our work involves helping people discover their own true north, not replacing theirs with our own. We often don’t do this intentionally, but by instilling our own biases into our conduct.
Here is an example from my own life. I don’t spend very much money day to day, but I will spend money on an occasional big thing. My wife of 36 years is less likely to spend on big things, but has no issue regularly spending. When we get into money arguments, I create a story about values—she is wasting money (which she actually doesn’t do), she is materialistic (which she definitely is not), or whatever other narrative in which I cast a judgment on her behavior which contradicts mine. Unless either one of us is putting us both into financial jeopardy, then why should I force her into my money approach? We are good savers and give to charity, and neither of us is unhappy with our choices—until I force mine on hers.
We have the best opportunities to grow our practices by working with people whom we appreciate and who appreciate what we do. Why do we create ideal clients in the context of specialties rather than personalities? My ideal client is not a business owner, executive, doctor, divorcée or widow. I like working with curious people who are open about their situations and comfortable with expressing themselves, and who view their money as one of their resources but not their primary one. Since we have different personalities within our company, different people may feel different about whom they like working with. Getting the fit right is beneficial for everyone.
When you are thinking about that bad client, think about what they trigger in you. I grew up in an alcoholic home, so trying to rescue Bob was both second nature and unhealthy for me. Usually, the buttons the bad clients push in us are our greatest opportunities for personal growth. Exploring this may not save the relationship with the client, but it may save you.
Ross Levin, CFP, is the founder and chief executive officer of Accredited Investors in Edina, Minn. He can be reached at Ross@accredited.com.