A Case Study in Client Relationship Management: The Greek Island Situation

By: Philip Palaveev

The Ensemble Practice will be contributing our expertise to Bob Veres’ Insider’s Forum, Sept. 10-13, 2019. In addition to a keynote on developing the next generation of leaders, we will also lead a workshop that will focus on one of the most complex issues financial advisors need to master to be successful: managing client relationships. To illustrate the complexity and unpredictability of client relationships, we will put each participant into a team working through realistic situations that not only demand in-depth understanding of the client’s personality and background, but also often do not have a single clear-cut right answer. Here is one example of a case study that is fictional in detail, but realistic in the nuances that often shade a client relationship. Take a look and if you are intrigued, take the brief survey to tell us how you would approach the situation.


Anne has been a member of your study group since the very beginning. She is ambitious, organized and goal oriented, and you have all grown to respect and admire her. She always seems to be following a plan of her own design and is prepared for any contingency that life might throw her way. That is why it was such a surprise to hear Anne asking for advice and help. In the past, she has always been the one to advise and offer help.

It took Anne quite some time to describe what has been happening at her firm. Her thoughts jumped from one situation to another and from one person to another, which left her feeling unsettled. Perhaps it was the confluence of several stressful decisions that sent such a “rock-of-a-person” rolling down the hill.

Anne has been working at Associated Holistic Advisors LLC (AHA) for the last five years (more or less her entire career in the advisory industry). She joined AHA after a largely forgettable two-year tenure with a big accounting firm where she got her CPA designation but felt lost in the vast machine of a very large tax department. At AHA, Anne found engaging work she enjoys, clients with whom she can work closely and who respect her and, most importantly, a mentor who has helped guide her career.

Everyone at AHA considers Anne to be a future star. She earned her CFP® designation in short time and was promoted twice in five years: first to Associate Advisor, and then to Wealth Advisor (her current title). It is nearly a forgone conclusion that she will be promoted again at the end of this year to Senior Wealth Advisor, which is AHA’s version of Lead Advisor and relationship manager.

Since the beginning of her tenure at AHA, Anne has been working closely with Claire Clifford, a Partner at the firm. Claire has tremendous influence over Anne and has been a staunch advocate for her as she has continued her climb up the career ladder. Claire has been preparing Anne for her role as a Senior Wealth Advisor while hinting that she will be a Partner one day if she stays on her current trajectory.

In preparation for the Senior Wealth Manager position, the CEO of AHA has assigned Anne a group of clients that she is to “take over.” This group comprises 40 relationships currently led by Martin Gelman, a Senior Advisor who has given his departure notice and will be leaving the firm in just two short weeks. Anne is supposed to retain these client relationships on behalf of the firm.

Anne first learned about these transition plans last Friday, September 6, literally minutes before departing the office for the weekend. Martin apparently gave his notice that morning, and after a short consultation with Claire and some of the other Partners, the CEO called Anne into his office Friday afternoon.

A Client Relationship Opportunity

Anne’s first reaction was nothing but excitement, despite all the uncertainty. She knew very little about Martin other than that he always talks about golf and barely waits for the clock to hit five before leading a group out for happy hour festivities. As Anne is neither a golfer nor much of a drinker, she has rarely socialized with him. She did serve on the CRM committee with Martin, where he seemed more interested in chit-chat than covering the agenda (annoying behavior for goal-oriented Anne). Still, she was excited for the chance to lead 40 client relationships and felt very confident. That is, until yesterday.

On Saturday, September 7, Claire and her husband left on vacation to a Greek island that sounded absolutely heavenly: the azure blue Mediterranean, amazing food, spectacular sunsets and friendly locals. They had been dreaming about a trip like this forever, and now that their youngest daughter had left for college, they finally had the opportunity to plan a vacation for just the two of them.

Before departing, Claire left Anne with these words: “Unless someone is in the emergency room, don’t call me, don’t email me, don’t text me, don’t even think of me.” This made Anne laugh since Claire was the kind of professional who was constantly texting, emailing and thinking about work, even on the weekends. Indeed, if anyone deserved a break it was Claire, and Anne promised that she would take good care of their shared clients and keep everyone out of the emergency room.

It was a sound plan, at least until Bill Patterson called first thing yesterday morning (Tuesday, September 10) looking for Claire. Bill is a client of Claire that Anne knows very well. In fact, Claire has been trying to transition the relationship over to Anne, perhaps as soon as her promotion is announced next year. Anne has already been leading in-person meetings with him. In the past twelve months, Bill has visited the office three times, and two of those meetings Anne handled on her own. Bill seemed to have no problem with that arrangement.

The Client

Bill is in his 60s and has been widowed for some time. He has two grown daughters to whom he is very close. The younger daughter is a successful executive and the elder a struggling entrepreneur who is trying to launch a bakery (despite not being a baker herself). The struggling one frequently hits Bill up for “loans,” which he usually grants, though he keeps them concealed from the younger daughter because he fears that she would not approve.

Bill and Anne have great rapport. They share an interest in modern art and are both members of SAM (the Seattle Art Museum). They have had great conversations about galleries, and their interactions are always very fluid and friendly. Bill has also been happy with the wealth management reviews that Anne has conducted for him. In fact, he wrote a complimentary note to Claire singing praises: “I absolutely enjoy working with Anne and appreciate the great team you have assembled to take care of me!”

When Bill called on Tuesday looking for Claire, the receptionist told him that she was out of the office and offered to connect him with Anne. (This is AHA protocol. If a client calls and the Lead is not available, the call is routed to “second chair.”) Anne thought she had an established working relationship with Bill, but during the call he came across rushed and impatient. He kept insisting to be put in contact with Claire despite Anne repeatedly explaining that she was on vacation.

Finally, Bill reluctantly shared that he will be getting married on Sunday and needs to have a “long and deep conversation” before the wedding. Anne realized with horror that she knew nothing about this pending marriage. Bill never mentioned a girlfriend, and she had never asked (this kind of question seemed inappropriate to Anne and made her feel uncomfortable). Still, she offered to meet with Bill that same day to discuss. “No,” Bill replied. “I really need Claire for this.”

“I have not asked for much over the years,” he continued, “and I believe I have been a very easy client to work with. Claire has always told me that if I really need her, I can have the office track her down, no matter weekend or night. I want to use the Bat-Signal on this one. I really need some advice since all of this will be irreversible after the wedding.”

Anne guessed that the conversation had to do with a prenup or a potentially negative reaction to the marriage from the daughters, but she did not ask. “I will see what I can do,” she told Bill. She needed to buy some time to think and create a plan.

The more she mulled it over, the more she panicked. She thought she knew Bill, but suddenly it turns out she knows nothing about him. He is getting married in less than a week and she had no idea he even had a significant other in his life. What is more, he rejected her and continued to seek the help of her mentor. But calling Claire would be a capitulation and an embarrassment. Anne is supposed to be transitioning into the Lead in this relationship, and running to Claire would be an admission that she cannot handle the responsibility.

As her panic continued to build, her confidence eroded. What about all the other relationships she is supposed to take over? Are they all like that? Is this why the clients she works with always refer their friends to Claire and not herself? Is this why Claire gets all the holiday cards and Anne’s mailbox is empty? What else does she not know? Who else is getting married behind her back?

And what about Martin’s clients? Are they a bunch of cigar-smoking, whiskey-drinking golfers who will not even consider working with her? Will they choose to depart the firm, leaving behind a gaping 40-client hole in the roster and a massive black mark on her career record? Anne was beside herself. What should she do?!

Questions to Consider

  1. Should Anne call Claire?
  2. Does Anne have any chance of being the Lead Wealth Manager for Bill after this?
  3. Is Anne ready to be the Lead on any client relationships? Should she tell the CEO that she is not ready for such a challenge?
  4. If Anne tries to take over Martin’s clients, how should she go about it?
  5. Can Anne do something to make sure referrals come to her and not to other advisors?