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My client finally spoke the words I thought I would never hear: “I would really like to get those trades in gear,” she said.

It had been 13 months since she opened her account with my investment advisory firm. In all that time, she would not agree to any major changes in her portfolio. Faced with big decisions, she wanted to discuss them. She couldn't focus on them. She had to research them. She put us off. No trades.

Essentially, she was paying us fees for a job she wouldn't let us do.

Was it an issue of control? I didn’t think so. A successful architect, she came to us because, she said, her portfolio was getting too big to handle. She wanted to hand it off.

She’d done pretty well investing on her own. Her portfolio was reasonably diversified. But when we asked her why she chose this or why she held that, it became clear she saw patterns that weren’t there.

If a fund performed well for five years, then fell off the charts for the next three years, she believed it would do well again, and she would wait—even if that meant years of underperformance. If her fund was a winner, no other fund should be considered—not even ones that had less risk, charged lower expenses, or performed better. Everything she held, she loved.

No amount of analytics, discussion...nothing would change that. Of course, I didn’t figure this out, and I worked hard to change her mind. I pumped out charts and sent copies of articles. We’d meet, exchange emails, and talk time and again about portfolio constructions. I'm not exaggerating: I sent her more than 80 reports as part of my effort.

I should have seen what was going on: She was uncomfortable. She was wary about making changes—about going headlong into new asset classes or new funds. She handled complex building projects every day, down to the nuts and bolts. But she kept saying she couldn't get her mind around all these investing ideas that were so new to her. She was in a bit over her head, and she didn't like that at all.

I eventually told her that was what investing is like. If you have a reasonably diversified portfolio, something will always be your favorite and something will always be the dog you wish would wander off. She just had to get used to being uncomfortable with the market—but comfortable with me as I steered her through it.

One day, she decided she was. And then she said we could make the trades I had wanted to make for a year.

Behavioral economists would see my client's reluctance to trade as an extreme example of projecting the past into the future. That's one of the ways that the intuitive human mind works. Another intuitive leap people make is to think that if they’ve been right once, they will be right again. That’s why clients so often ask why they should have to sell a winner. It's their intuition. Intuition, though, isn’t a great tool for managing portfolios.

In all this, I gained a healthy respect for the mental gymnastics it took for this new client to become a good client. The ushering-in process can be hard. I should have paid more attention to what she was going through to reach me, rather than to what I was doing to reach her.


Harriet J. Brackey, CFP, is the co-chief investment officer of KR Financial Services, a South Florida registered investment advisory firm that manages more than $330 million. She does financial planning and manages clients' portfolios. Previously, she was an award-winning journalist covering Wall Street, with stints at Business Week, USA Today, The Miami Herald and Nightly Business Report.