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Your role as an insurance advisor is to help clients during the worst of times — and to prepare for the worst of times.

To enable clients to make the best decisions for themselves and their families, you often need to speak about the unspeakable, whether that be death, illness, job loss or living through a pandemic. There is no single way to begin a difficult conversation with a client. Determining the best way to broach a tough subject with a client depends on several factors, including the advisor, the client, the topic and prevailing circumstances. There are common elements to all those conversations, however, and these five tips can help you navigate these challenging discussions:

Communicate more frequently

Clients may need to hear from you once or twice in a typical year. When the going gets tough, however, clients need to know you are thinking about them and that you’re available if needed. Reaching out to clients more often sends two important messages.

First, it reaffirms that you care about the client as a person, not just as a business connection.

Second, every contact presents an opportunity to highlight your value. Your communication shouldn’t be frivolous or casual, says Cathy Jacob, partner with Fire Inside Leadership, a leadership coaching firm in Dartmouth, N.S. Offer useful insights and information, she suggests. And that doesn’t have to come exclusively from you — sharing perspectives from experts will be appreciated and further demonstrate your willingness to help.


Difficult conversations with clients should focus on the client’s needs and state of mind first; and then on what you need and want to accomplish. Therefore, you must pay careful attention to what your client has to say. Use active listening techniques, such as taking notes, observing your client’s body language (if the meeting is in person or via video call) and demonstrating concern by nodding and maintaining eye contact.

“You have to be empathetic,” says Chris Hornberger, a partner with Halifax Global Inc., a management consulting firm based in Nova Scotia.

George Butters, CEO of, a virtual meeting firm based in Atlantic Canada, recommends you begin a difficult conversation by simply asking how the client is doing. Ask if there is anything they need. Make clear that your client is important to you. The focus should be on your client’s concerns and unique circumstances.

Take detailed notes of every phone call, video call and face-to-face meeting. If your client mentions that their dog isn’t feeling well, jot that down. The next time you connect, ask how the dog is doing.

“That’s not sales,” Butters says. “That’s a relationship.”

Apply the 60/30/10 rule

Jacob uses this formula to ensure productive, supportive conversations with clients during difficult times. The 60% applies to effort applied in preparing yourself for the conversation that lies ahead.

“This is about working on you,” Jacob says. “Are you holding assumptions that may not be true?” She recommends asking yourself: “Am I making unfair judgments? Do I have a hidden agenda? Am I seeing things objectively? Am I irritated or stressed?”

The 30% refers to the effort you put into maintaining the relationship and the conditions you must create in order to have a candid conversation. Have you listened to past conversations? Do you generally have a good connection with this person? Are you transparent in your communications with this client? Adds Jacob: “If the elements of a strong relationship are not present, having a challenging conversation is more difficult. You need to work on setting the ground conditions of trust and openness to enable a candid and challenging conversation.”

Once you get the first 90% right, Jacob says, the remaining 10% — the conversation itself — is much easier. “You need to be honest, direct and open to hearing your client’s perspective,” she says. “And you need to have the best interests of your client front and centre.”

For difficult conversations to benefit both parties, Hornberger says, you can’t be judgmental: “You have to be open-minded.”

Be honest

“Don’t sugar-coat bad news for your clients,” Jacob says. “They don’t need to hear [empty promises stating that] everything will work out fine or they have nothing to worry about.”

Presenting an unrealistic, rosy picture can be misleading and can put a strong relationship at risk. Clients need facts, and they need to understand the implications of their decisions and the risks they are facing. Clients also need reliable support when making important decisions.

Use various channels

The Covid-19 pandemic has taught many advisors that contacting clients during tough times early and often is good practice. So is varying your communication channels.

Email, telephone and face-to-face meetings (when possible) are standard avenues for connecting with clients. Some channels are more effective for certain situations. The more time-sensitive, personal or difficult the discussion, the more important it is that both parties can see and hear each other. That may mean using newer forms of technology. Video-conferencing options, such as Microsoft Teams and GoToMeeting, offer opportunities to have live conversations and are becoming more commonplace.

“Choose your tools wisely,” advises Butters. “Learn how they work before you get your [clients] involved.”