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Where To Start With A Challenging Family Business Client

By Kyle Danner

This blog includes excerpts from my book "The Advisor's Guide to Successful Family Business Engagements." Purchase a full copy of the book for more tips on how to manage family business drama, keep clients happy, and earn positive referrals.

Congratulations! You just landed a new client that’s a family-owned business. The mother who started the business wants to transfer ownership to her four sons and she’s looking to you for help.

You realize they’ll be a handful when three sons start arguing five minutes into the first meeting while the youngest son sits there silently. They quiet down when Mom slams her fist on the table and orders them to stop, but 10 minutes later they’re shouting at each other again.

As you sit there watching the scene unfold, you say to yourself “Great! ANOTHER dysfunctional family business.” It’s tempting to slap the label “dysfunctional” on them. More than likely, they’ve already slapped the label on themselves.

Every family business I’ve worked with has. However, labeling doesn’t help them or you. It limits your thinking and keeps you from delivering your best work. So where do you start?



The Key to Dealing with Difficult Family Business Clients

When you're dealing with a problematic family business client, start with yourself. What about the family arguing triggers your rush to label them dysfunctional?

For some families, arguing and shouting is the preferred mode of communication. For you, it may be a reminder of how your parents fought. Or, you may recall how your brothers and sisters ganged up on you.

If there’s emotional pain attached to watching your clients argue, you might jump into the fray or avoid it altogether. Neither approach will work. Asking yourself why you feel triggered is the first step in gaining perspective on your new client.

Next, do you identify with a certain family member? Does the oldest brother arguing, trying to one-up the others, remind you of yourself fighting to be on top of the sibling pile?

Perhaps, you feel a connection to the youngest, quiet son who looks crushed by all the conflict.

Or, maybe you sympathize with the mother who holds all the power and responsibility for keeping her family together.

Whoever it is, if you feel a close connection with them, you’ll be tempted to see things through their eyes only. This gets complicated for advisors. The business owner pays your bill, but you may feel torn between them and another family member.

Whatever the case may be, strongly identifying with a particular family member limits your ability to see other perspectives and provide more comprehensive solutions.

Tips For Staying Unbiased

Why does any of this matter? After all, you’re not a family therapist and you didn’t sign up to do all this navel-gazing. You just want to offer your legal, financial, or consulting expertise.

It matters because you first learn how to get along with others from your family. That stays with you for the rest of your life (thanks, Mom and Dad!). It’s also the hardest thing to appreciate.

How you react to a family’s dynamics, yours or anyone else’s is ingrained. It’s out of habit and it’s part of your DNA.

Fortunately, this doesn't mean you're incapable of looking at your clients' businesses objectively. With a little reflection on your reactions to your family business clients, you can check your biases and deliver better service.

Here are a few additional ways to keep your cool:

  • Just look at the facts. If you can, focus on the facts your client provides you rather than their opinions. Their judgment can cloud your judgment, which will make your advice less impactful.
  • Choose your words wisely. Use respectful, clear, reasonable, calm and honest language to get your point across. 
  • Ask clarifying questions. To make sure you're seeing the whole picture, ask plenty of questions. Focus on "Who," "What," "When," "Where," and "How". Avoid "Why," as why opens the door for subjective thinking .
  • Don't be selective in who you talk to. Be sure to talk to everyone involved in the problem. If one of the family members seems to be at odds with the other employees, don't forget to get their side of the story. 
  • Give yourself some room to breathe. If you start to feel overwhelmed, step away. Go for a walk and try to calm yourself down. When we're upset, we are much more likely to say things we later regret.

Learn More In My New Book

Dealing with the family’s drama is much easier said than done. My book, The Advisor's Guide to Successful Family Business Engagements, will teach you how to guide your family business clients through the difficult discussions.

This book is designed to help advisors navigate even the most complicated of family businesses. You can find the book on Amazon.

Get Your Copy of the Advisor's Guide


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