Dealing with Unhappy Clients: What Would Arlene Say?

11 min read
January 03, 2019

I’m going to tell you something that you probably don’t want to hear: you won’t always be able to make your clients happy.

In fact, there will probably be multiple times in your career when you have a really unpleasant interaction with a client because they’re critical of what you do, or how you do it.

Receiving criticism is never fun. Nobody wants to feel like their hard work is being taken for granted—or worse, that their hard work isn’t up to snuff.

There are a lot of different ways people react to criticism. They might get angry, hurt, or sad.

They may find themselves getting defensive or feeling like they want to overcompensate for the criticism by over-performing or tailoring their services to meet the needs of an over-demanding client.

The truth is, criticism doesn’t ever happen in a vacuum. It’s usually not 100% anyone’s fault. Rather, it’s a combination of things that have left people feeling upset, contentious, or surprised.  

These things might be:

  • A lack of communication
  • A lack of clear expectations
  • A disconnect of values
  • An unpleasant surprise - either because work didn’t get done, expectations weren’t met, or communication wasn’t clear

So, what do you do when you have an unhappy client?

How do you receive criticism with grace?

And, most importantly, how do you learn from the experience and adjust your work to be better next time around?

When You Receive Unexpected Criticism

What do you do when you receive unexpected criticism? For many people, their first instinct is to defend themselves. They let their emotions take over and, as a result, they react in a way that doesn’t help them to learn, grow, or rectify the situation.  

When confronted with unexpected criticism, I recommend you take a few steps:

  1. Pause.
  2. Listen.
  3. Acknowledge.
  4. Apologize.
  5. Take Action.


This is the most important step when responding to unexpected criticism. Pausing gives you time to think through what your client is saying. Don’t make any moves out of anger, hurt, or defensiveness. 


Fully hear their complaint. Why are they really upset? What’s going on? What have you done to cause this, and how can you rectify the situation? The answer might be relatively straightforward. Maybe you made a mistake and the fix is easy. However, more often than not, there’s more going on. Make sure you listen carefully and ask questions to clarify if needed. 


Don’t deny what they’re saying. Remember, this is their truth, even if it doesn’t reflect how you feel about your work, or what you’re bringing to the table. 


Don’t say, “I’m sorry you feel…”

Instead, try, “I’m sorry I…”

Apologize for yourself, not them. Take ownership of your actions that have elicited this reaction from them and say you’re sorry.

Take Action

Now you’ll be able to determine your next course of action. There are a few ways this could go:

  • You make a change
  • You both change behavior or possibly just expectations
  • You part ways - sometimes the client just wants something you can’t or won’t provide

Your first question should be: What can I change to remedy this situation and what can I do moving forward to make sure it doesn’t happen again?  

If the situation isn’t a direct result of something you’ve done, that doesn’t give you a free pass. Your client is still upset, and that’s probably a result of miscommunication or mismanaged expectations. In those situations, you still have a “to-do”—to make sure the communication is clear and the expectations are understood.

Re-evaluating After Receiving Criticism

It’s not enough to just fix the problem and keep carrying on the same way you always have. You need to hit “pause” to re-evaluate your practice accordingly. In fact, it can be helpful to view the whole situation as an opportunity to grow and improve.  

Give what happened some thought and be honest with yourself. It can even be helpful to sit down and talk through the event with a close friend or colleague. They might be able to provide some honest feedback or insight that you didn’t gather before.

Here are a few questions you can ask yourself when trying to decide how to adjust based on criticism:

Do you need process changes? 

What can you do to avoid this in the future? This might mean you manage client expectations on the front end of your engagement, improve your client onboarding process to gain more information before creating a financial plan or investing strategy, or regularly reassessing their risk tolerance levels as you move through market ups and downs. You might even need to add a process to the mix in order to adjust communication.

Was this behavioral?

Do you or does someone on your team need to look at how they behaved in a situation?

If appropriate, you may need to sit down and discuss the event as a team to work through how behavioral responses can be altered in the future. During this discussion, make sure everyone is aware that you’re working toward growth—there’s no judgement involved. Everyone has the same goal: to improve and make the team better. 

If only you were involved, move forward to make a plan to change and hold yourself accountable. If you’re a solo advisor, find someone who can help to hold you accountable—a coach, partner, colleague, or mastermind group.

This is helpful even if the change you’re making is small. If it’s possible, you might even look to make an adjustment in your practice by outsourcing the problem.

If unclear communication during the onboarding process caused an unhappy client, hire an operations consultant or VA to help you develop an onboarding system that’s effective and efficient.

If mismanaged client relations are derailing your client relationships, work to free up some additional time by hiring a social media manager, assistant, or paraplanner. Then spend your newfound hours each day touching base with clients and working to grow the relationship.

If they’re unhappy because they want to chase market returns, or they’re not thrilled with your financial planning philosophy, you may need to bring on a marketer or coach who can help you express your unique views on financial planning and investing to clients before they sign on with you to make sure you’re an exceptional fit to work together.

Respond with Clear Communication

You might be wondering: what’s the best way to respond to an unhappy client?

The temptation is there to walk on eggshells around these clients, or (if you’re a people pleaser) go above and beyond all the time to make up for the frustration they experienced. On the other side of the spectrum, you may feel the need to defend your actions that led to your client’s discontent.

Or you might want to avoid the topic entirely by completely ignoring the fact that they’re unhappy in hopes that it all blows over soon.

None of these options are great (shocker!) and both you and your clients deserve better.

Your first step should be to communicate with one another clearly.

In the words of Brene Brown: “Clear is kind. Unclear is unkind.”

The more specific and clear you can be with your client, the better. This means:

  • Being clear in your apology rather than beating around the bush or making excuses
  • Asking them for clarification so that you can fully understand why they’re upset
  • Articulate why they’re upset to make sure you have it right. Then clearly outline a strategy for remedying the situation
  • Explain what you’ll do in the future to ensure this doesn’t happen again
  • Set new expectations, or affirm current expectations (if necessary) clearly so that there’s no misunderstanding moving forward
  • Set a follow-up meeting to review whether things have settled and to gather additional feedback
  • Return to your normal communication style, or process for working together with any adjustments or improvements included 

Remember: the clearer you can be, the better.

Coping with Emotional Fallout

It’s okay to be human! Right now, you’re experiencing a multitude of unpleasant emotions. Nobody likes being criticized, and it’s tough to feel like your work isn’t being respected, or that the effort you put into doing an exceptional job for your clients doesn’t measure up to expectations. Don’t be afraid to give yourself time to feel hurt, or mad at yourself if appropriate. You can even take some time to feel mad at your client—just don’t communicate your anger to them.

You can even talk through your frustration with people close to you if it helps, but make sure you don’t fall down the rabbit hole of over-venting or obsessing. Don’t let this incident define you, and don’t get caught up overthinking it.

Once you’re ready to move forward, do it. Move forward. 

Not sure how to go about that? There are a few different strategies you can try. 

Reframe Their Frustration 

If you’re feeling lost and frustrated about why your client is unhappy, or you just can’t shake feeling offended and upset with them, it may be time to reframe their response.  

Are they advocating for themselves in a new way that you’ve never seen before? Are they taking a more proactive approach to their finances—and are frustrated that things aren’t going the way they had planned? Are they responding to something you’ve done because their goals and motives have changed?

All of these things are actually incredibly positive! If you view their negative reaction to you, or your work, as a positive step in the direction of being involved in their finances, and striving for their best financial life, you may feel much better.

Speak in Person

Email is the worst. It’s so easy to read into what people are saying, or to slide into passive aggressive responses if you’re feeling defensive.  

So, skip it.

Instead, request an in-person, or virtual meeting where you can sit down and hash things out. If the “event” or confrontation has already happened, it can still help to put your mind at ease to actually talk them through how you plan to fix it and to apologize sincerely.

By the end of the conversation, things may still be tense, but you’ll both feel better about communication and expectations moving forward.

Find Your Empathy 

Have you tried putting yourself in your client’s shoes? What, exactly, are they upset about? What motivating factors elicited a negative reaction from them? Think through what it feels like to be them in this situation and look beyond yourself and your work to see what else could be influencing their behavior right now.

Does it make a little bit more sense?

We can have more grace in a situation where we have to deal with an angry client when we flex our empathy muscles and focus on what they’re feeling right now—not how cruddy we feel after receiving criticism.

Calm Down

Taking time to intentionally calm yourself can be a game changer when you’re struggling to power through an unpleasant situation with an unhappy client.

Brainstorm a few “go to” hobbies or tasks that help you calm down.

Journal out how you feel, write down a list of all the things you’re grateful for today, go for a hike, get outside, take your dogs for a walk, read a chapter of the book on your nightstand, cook a meal with friends or your partner…just do something to break out of the cycle of negative emotions.

Then, when you’re feeling calm, you may be able to look at the situation at hand as a positive learning or growth experience rather than an event that’s going to derail your emotional state and your client relationship.

Practice Visualization

I find this trick to be particularly helpful if you’re really stuck on a mistake you made, or a negative client interaction, and can’t move on.  

When you get marred down in one event, you run the risk of underserving the rest of your clients, not doing your best work, or not prioritizing your goals or your own wellness.

So, try visualizing the problem or the client that’s frustrating you. 

Then get rid of it.

You can do this in so many different ways, but a few of my favorites are:

  • Seeing the client, conversation, conflict, or mistake you made as a bubble in your head - and allowing it to pop.
  • Viewing each thing that’s overwhelming you or causing you to obsess as an open book on the floor. Then, in your mind’s eye, visualize yourself closing and shelving each of the books.
  • Picturing yourself writing down what’s stressing you out on a piece of paper, then folding it up and putting it in a glass jar. Picture yourself putting the lid on the jar and putting it away. (You can do this one in real life, too, if it helps!) 

Visualization may sound silly, but it can be a hugely valuable tool to use as a business owner. Knowing when to obsess over a mistake you made, or an unhappy client, and when you need to move forward is key to continuing to do your best work and still taking care of yourself physically and emotionally.

Set Expectations

One of the biggest reasons that people are upset is because they’re surprised. Surprise is never good. In fact, I hate the old saying: surprise and delight. It’s incredibly problematic. When people are surprised, they’re rarely thrilled. Knowing exactly what they can expect from you is key to build trust and create lifelong, successful client relationships.

The best way to avoid unpleasant surprises is to set clear expectations early on. There are a few different areas where you need to set expectations:

  • Communication
  • Investment philosophy
  • Financial planning process 

Communication is easily the biggest “question mark” you’ll need to address. You’ll need to outline email response time, phone call response time, whether or not texting is crossing a boundary (or if you even have a compliant process in place to make that possible), and number of meetings they can expect from you each year.  

Set your own boundaries for client communication, then clearly communicate them. Clients should never feel uncertain about whether or not they can reach out to you, or when you’ll reach out to them next. 

If you are feeling like the client miscommunication or frustration is rooted in mismatched investment policies, that’s another area that you can communicate more clearly. Make sure your investment philosophies are aligned, and that your clients have clear understandings about when portfolio reports will be issued and what they will contain.

It’s also important that you walk clients through adjusted expectations as you (and they) experience life changes. Whether your family is growing, your medical situation has changed, you’ve recently adjusted your entire approach to financial planning after a CE course, or your practice has expanded - you might have to adjust your communication, meeting frequency, or financial planning process expectations.

Likewise, as their situation adjusts, grows, and changes, they may have different financial planning, communication, or investment strategy wants or needs. All of these changes need to be communicated clearly.

On your end, you can make sure that you’re always communicating your changing philosophy, opinions, and boundaries. To manage the client relationship best, you can make sure you’re checking in regularly with them about changing goals, expectations, or financial needs.

Know When to Walk Away

There are times when an unhappy client might be an indication that you aren’t meant to work together. After you have thought about the situation, you can make the call to realize it’s not you—it’s them.

When is this true?

  • When your client consistently pushes back on advice and recommendations
  • When they question your expertise again and again
  • When they want to chase returns, and that doesn’t mesh with your philosophy
  • When they want more time than is reasonable
  • When they consistently ask for things outside of scope
  • When they’re abusive or inappropriate toward you or your team
  • If they do anything (and I mean anything) that sets off ethical alarms 

If you decide that this is the case, make sure that you explore all of your options. Do everything you need to do to remedy the relationship on your end before cutting a client. If things still aren’t going well, it’s fair to review your client engagement at a natural breaking point, maybe during your next scheduled meeting. Be professional during this conversation (and have referrals at the ready!).

No matter which way you slice it, dealing with unhappy clients is never a fun experience.

However, if you take the time to truly embrace the situation for what it is, it can be a phenomenal growth experience for you, and for your client.

And if you’re still struggling? Talking to a coach (shameless plug!) can be an excellent way to talk through client conflict, and work to come out stronger, and a better planner, on the other side.


About Arlene Moss, Executive Coach

Arlene gets a kick out of helping financial advisors get over being overwhelmed and take on their frustrations so their businesses soar. Arlene works to ensure XYPN members are able to help their clients prosper while creating a sustainable business model. Through XYPN Academy and one-on-one coaching, members get the support they need to grow their businesses and overcome the challenges that come their way.

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