How to have hard conversations with clients

When new clients come to see Tatiana Coulter for the first time, there are generally some awkward moments.

As a financial planner specialising in insurance, Coulter is going to ask them to consider death, disaster and the financial implications of loss.

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For many couples, this is the first time they will have talked about what happens if someone dies or is disabled.

"It will reduce the magnification of disputed areas if you can find some common ground," - Melanie Gowlland

Coulter, director of the Monarch Advisory Group, says couples with children are usually the ones who have the hardest time – more so than investors whose returns have been disappointing.

“The issue of lifestyle is the most confronting one,” she says. “What we are saying is ‘who is going to look after the kids, how are we going to fund this lifestyle, what is going to happen to the debt, where are you guys going to live?’” she says.

“A lot of people haven’t even thought about it.”


That is just one of several scenarios in which you could face a difficult conversation at work. It’s a familiar scenario for anyone who works regularly with customers or clients.

Executive coach Melanie Gowlland says she prefers to exchange the word "difficult" with "courageous" when she is describing a tough exchange.

"They are like death and taxes, you will have these conversations," says Gowlland, who consults through the Stephenson Mansell Group, outlining points for handling such conversations

Eight steps to handling a difficult conversation

1. Prepare

Do all your homework so you have the best information and recommendation for your client.

2. Active listening

Give the other person all of your attention, rather than planning what you are going to say while they are talking.

"Don't think about what you will say until the other person has stopped thinking. Don't interrupt or talk over them," Gowlland says.

3. Open questions

To make sure you fully understand the issues, use the ‘when’, ‘what’, ‘where’ and ‘how’ questions. Try to avoid the ‘why’ questions – such as ‘why did you…’ – because they tend to make people defensive, Gowlland says.

4. Learn

If you shift to a learning frame of mind, trying to discover what is really going on with the other person, what may be behind the conflict and what you have done to contribute to it – you can avoid being drawn into unproductive emotion.

5. Reframe

Take what you are hearing from the other person and repeat it back to them in your own words, focusing on the problem, not the person.

6. Find areas of agreement

"It will reduce the magnification of disputed areas if you can find some common ground," Gowlland says.

7. Move forward

Try to get an agreement from the other person about how you can move forward from there, even if you have not been able to come up with a solution.

‘Enroll’ them in the outcome by asking if you can go away to do more research and come back to them the next day.

8. Support yourself

Sometimes, challenging conversations are unexpected, but you can keep a piece of paper nearby to remind you to ask open questions and adopt a learning frame of mind.


For clients or customers it is vital you build a great relationship with people so when you have to have a challenging conversation, they will accept it, Gowlland says.

"If you have trust, that is a foundation of the relationship,” she adds.

In line with some of Gowlland’s points about taking time to help people adjust and think, Coulter says she gives people time to consider their needs by scheduling three appointments for new clients, rather than the industry standard of two.

In many cases the sheer challenge of a conversation remains.

Coulter says telling a client they have been refused a policy because of health concerns is a dreadful conversation. The solution is to acknowledge the situation and do whatever can be done.

In that situation the best she can do is try to find them an alternative policy with better terms, but there is no guarantee of success.

 “It is about getting back to basics,” Coulter says.

Fiona Smith is a freelance journalist who writes on leadership, specialising in careers, management and company culture.

This story original appear on ANZ APEX Insights

The views and opinions expressed in this communication are those of the author and may not necessarily state or reflect those of ANZ.

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