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Unlocking Client Gatekeepers

By Bradley A. Barros, James H. Jordan and Steven A. Horowitz, Esq.

Overcoming objections from a client’s CPA or attorney is part and parcel of a wealth advisor’s experience.

While questions are both appreciated and necessary in an attempt at understanding, some protestations are devoid of intellect and beyond baseless. They often emanate from a complete lack of subject knowledge, an unwillingness to learn something new or an excess of hubris. Whatever the reason, one thing is certain: When faced with vacuous rejection from a gatekeeper, your client will suffer from another’s lack of care and breach of integrity, perhaps resulting in substantial loss, unless you can overcome the challenge.

When your client’s trusted advisor spouts “no – I don’t like it” on a meritless basis, you begin a pilgrimage standing in wet cement. This is because such an utterance is completely subjective, and while intellectually indefensible, it can be an effective weapon yielded with little effort. Stating “I don’t like it,” or “I’m uncomfortable” without rational and defensible principles is a tactic designed to juxtapose the gatekeeper’s emotional bound against yours, the relative newcomer.

The preexisting advisor may believe that they’re looking out for their client’s best interest. But experientially, the genesis of the approach is that the attorney, accountant or wealth counselor views you as a reprobate and is attempting to maintain control over their client relationship and source of revenue, no matter what harm or long-term risk is placed on their client.

When facing such a maneuver, it’s important for you to first recognize that, to the offending advisor, this IS personal. Should you prevail, you may gain an opponent for life. We are taught from our childhood that we should not burn bridges, but some bridges were never meant for us to cross. If we’re being honest with ourselves, when the “it just doesn’t feel right” comment, backstopped against zero tangential footing is deployed, your counterparty is already dismissive of your value, and cares even less for their client who they may feign over but is nothing more than a source of income. If you choose to stand your ground and fight for the client’s benefit, the outcome is uncertain and the stakes for your client may be enormous.

Given that your client is being manipulated by the advisor’s “just say no” tactic, this is the perfect opportunity to stand for what’s right. If you have the courage, the following is the path we suggest. Our success is mixed. We achieve positive results with it roughly half of the time. But saving one of every two clients from abuse and another’s malpractice is better than losing them all to hypocrites who pretend to care about them.

Step One: Make one final attempt to reach out to the other advisor, and do it in writing. We recommend a thoughtful and brief memorandum that explains your concerns for the client and why you took your position. Your narrative must illuminate the risk to the client and their successor generations should your advice be blindly ignored. It helps to anchor whatever you’re positing in the body of law or regulation from which your advice springs. Write with conviction. Think of a cancer patient whose family doctor doesn’t believe in modern advancements in medicine. If you were an oncologist, would you allow the patient’s physician to manipulate them? Of course not. Use this imagery to remind yourself what’s at stake.

Send the communication to the advisor by registered or overnight mail and copy your client. This will guarantee two results: First, it will either generate a response by the advisor, or not; and second, it will let the client know you care and you know your stuff.

If the advisor begins to engage you, this is your opportunity to educate them. Don’t do it with an excess of ego. You didn’t know what you know until someone helped educate you. So treat the advisor humbly and see if you can develop a relationship.

However, in the more likely path that the advisor ignores you, proceed to Step Two.

Step Two: Introduce your prospective client to an expert steeped in the area of law or planning that you are suggesting. If you haven’t done so already, now is the time to marshal your assets and insert a world-class professional with a deep acumen in whatever it is you’re suggesting. Do it in person if possible, or by phone/video conference as a last resort. Reshape the narrative and reframe the calculus for your prospect. Move from a subjective “he said versus she said” cacophony to a thoughtful and objective groundswell of momentum and evidence. Demonstrate exactly how you better position the client, how the client is being weakened by maintaining the status quo, and why the client is in danger from a lack of intelligible advice from their advisor.

When you make this move, do so with your best foot forward. Keep your message brief and to the point. Make it irreducible. Compressing your message, supported by proof and your best intention for your client, is the goal here. And of course, well before arriving at this juncture you should have qualified the client, so that both she and you have a detailed and unified understanding of her goals and objectives. Without this, all of our advice goes by the wayside.

Taking this stand will help you to either solidify your relationship or it may send it into the depths of outer space. If the latter occurs, you’ll know that you did everything possible to advance your prospective client’s cause. You can continue reaching out to your client on occasion, and given enough time, things will change, one way or another.

If, however, you won your client’s trust in spite of the gatekeeper, now is the time to begin replacing that human variety of quicksand. You wouldn’t leave young children unattended in the hands of a wayward alcoholic babysitter; don’t willingly allow an advisor lacking even a modicum of selfless behavior to maintain their death-grip on your client.

Every story has an ending and this one is no different. But before the story is written you need to do the difficult advance work with your prospective client. Ask the questions that are jumping up and down to be asked. Don’t be afraid to delve into the issues that cry out for an authentic advisor’s trust and understanding. Don’t recommend anything until you and the client are at one with their “true north.” And lastly, provide sound and well-reasoned advice, delivering to the client the solutions that they have already agreed they want and need. Then, should a previously unannounced gatekeeper pull the old “I don’t like it” line with no understanding of what “it” even is, take action.