When clients ignore your out-of-office message

By Allan Janssen | March 15, 2024 | Last updated on March 15, 2024
4 min read
African American entrepreneur traveling by private jet, and using smart phone before boarding
iStock / Drazen

Ayana Forward was at a funeral when her phone lit up with a text from a client.

The founder of Ottawa-based Retirement in View had set an automatic reply on her email account saying she’d be unavailable for the day. But that didn’t stop this particular client.

“I agree it’s important that clients be able to reach you when the matter is urgent,” said Forward, a fee-only financial planner. “But there’s not much I can do outside of office hours, and certainly not when I’m at a funeral.”

As it turned out, the matter wasn’t so urgent after all. The client needed funds out of an account. When Forward returned to the office, she made that happen — and also talked to the client about her boundaries.

She stressed that email is the preferred method of communication, and that she always has processes in place to make sure client needs are met. Bottom line, though, they need to respect that sometimes she’ll be unavailable.

Set the ground rules

Forward believes it’s important to set ground rules early with clients. Establishing a protocol that works for everyone is key.

Andrew Feindel, portfolio manager and wealth advisor with Richardson Wealth in Toronto, said respect for boundaries needs to be established even before taking on the client.

“[That’s] something we discuss and agree upon before entering a client servicing relationship,” he said. “It has been rare for me to service clients who disregard these boundaries.”

Don’t be curt

When a text comes in while you’re off the clock, the worst response is a knee-jerk reaction fuelled by resentment, Forward said.

“Respond politely, as opposed to just shutting them down or ghosting them,” she said. “It’s important to have a little empathy.”

An early mentor in her career encouraged her to look at the reason clients were contacting her after hours.

“They’re concerned about something, and they feel you’re the only person who can help them,” she said. “And the way he worded it really changed the way I looked at that. It was no longer that this person is annoying me and bothering me. They actually need me.”

Feindel agreed.

“I empathize with clients’ needs and expectations, envisioning myself in their position,” he said. “It’s clear to me that a timely response is crucial to maintaining the trust and confidence they have in me to manage their financial well-being.”

Know who you’re dealing with

Forward said retirees are typically the least demanding. “Their schedules are pretty open. They like to brag about it,” she said.

Wealthier clients also tend to respect personal boundaries, Feindel said.

“Contrary to what many people may assume, high-net-worth clients are not inherently more demanding or insistent,” he said. “Financially successful individuals are typically very efficient and mindful of their time.”

Forward said lower-income clients tend to need more handholding. “They have more questions, more fears, more worries, more concerns and less funds,” she said.

Secondary line of contact

Forward said clients often prefer direct interaction with their primary advisor, and may bristle at the idea of dealing with a proxy. That’s why it’s important to foster client relationships with support staff and assistants — the professionals who will handle calls in your absence.

“That’s where the trust piece comes into play,” she said. “Hopefully they’ve met the assistant, and there’s a comfort level there.”

Establish your timeline

Forward doesn’t send out pre-notifications about her vacation time, but she’ll mention it in meetings as the date draws closer.

“I’ll just let clients know that I plan on being away and if an urgent matter comes up, they should mark it as urgent in the subject line,” she said. “They’ll get my automatic reply, but it will also let them know I’ll see what I can do at the time.”

Feindel said clients are usually comfortable as long as they know there’s a timeline for issue resolution.

“Reassurance that their concerns will be addressed promptly upon my return is often all that is required,” he said.

Be firm

Forward has heard from clients who left previous advisors who were unreachable.

“Clearly that’s something that can put clients off,” she said. “But the opposite is also true, right? We can fire clients too if they’re too demanding. If it’s not a good fit, you have to ask yourself, ‘Do I want to keep working with this person?’”

Established contact rules is part of a healthy work-life balance, she said.

“There’s a lot of burnout in the financial planning industry. We’re seeing that more and more,” she said. “So I think being able to disconnect is really important.”

While Feindel is not opposed to responding to a client during his personal time, he also understands the value of unplugging.

“It’s important to prioritize both client service and [the advisor’s] personal well-being,” he said. “And I think it is possible for both to occur at the same time.”

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Allan Janssen

Allan has been a journalist for nearly 40 years, writing for daily newspapers, consumer magazines and trade publications both in Canada and abroad. He has been with Newcom’s financial team since 2020. Email him at allan@newcom.ca.