1. Breaking Up With A Bad Client

    We’ve all had those nightmare clients, the ones who no matter how good a job you do, when it comes down to a problem, they can’t wait to rush over and tell you what a bum you are.  Many small companies kowtow to these clients out of a miss-guided sense of loyalty and usually because the client is still paying them and a small business is always watching their bottom-line. I believe this is a big mistake.

    For many years I’ve managed to avoid this type of client. However, as your business grows you are bound to pick a bad client here or there. At BLUETUX we’ve been lucky in avoiding these kinds of clients for two reasons.

    We never have advertised our business other than people seeing our work and then contacting us. This sends you interested customers who are coming to you after hearing or seeing your work and come with a positive point of view. It also means that we miss the broad stream of businesses.

    BLUETUX has been able to pick-and-choose our clients. If a client or job looked difficult (beyond the norm) we’d just refuse to do the project and move on to a different prospect.

    Then it all changed…

    About a year ago we picked up one or two difficult people who came to us because of a need for our services having been recently “broken up” with their last web-dev/design firm. Of course, we don’t know all the details when we pick the client up and chalk their attitude up to their problems of having to switch hosts and development companies. However, months later, after receiving the same great service that our other customers love; they still carry on with the attitude.

    The Cross Roads

    This is the point in the road that I’ve often come to, where you have to decide what to do with this client. From what i’ve observed of different people in this situation, it usually goes one of the following ways:

    • The Cold Shoulder: Company attempts to dump the client basically providing the client with the bare minimum amount of support and providing the cold-shoulder to new project requests. The obvious plan here is that hopefully the client will get annoyed with the service and move on to terrorize someone else.
    • Placation: Each time the client calls up angry, the company will attempt to placate them with additional services, attention or cost cuts.
    • Severance: This is the choice I always find myself leaning towards. However, it is difficult for many companies to make this choice… purposely freeing a customer and cutting some of your income is always a difficult choice.

    Problems With The Above Methods?

    The Cold Shoulder method’s main problem is that you run the risk of gaining the reputation of providing poor service to customers. Your angry customer can’t prove their claims by pointing to your obviously shoddy support. Also, when you use this method you can become very comfortable slipping into it each time you are in a difficult situation…instead of providing the support and service you should!

    Placation is the one I see most small businesses attempt to use. In some situations it might be the best method however, I feel that you must draw the line when some situations arise. When a client is verbally abusing your staff, constantly demanding a review of each bill that they’ve previously approved and generally harassing your day-to-day operations…placation is the last thing you want to do. You may be a small business but you are still providing a worthwhile service and you should be compensated for your work.

    Severance rarely works. The client is gone quickly and you’re instantly freed up to work with better clients, however you run the risk of having a client running around bad mouthing you and your service… not a risk many are willing to embrace.

    My Solution: Kill With Kindness

    First… Some Ground Rules

    • Never work at an expense simply to acommodate a nightmare client. You should expect to be paid and let them know that! If the problem that they are having is not your fault, you should NOT be providing them with free help, or cutting them huge discounts for the work. I’m sure there are a few exceptions to the rule…but they must be few and far between.
    • Do not abandon your problem clients simply to kow-tow to the problem client. Know your limitations and keep your head up. Do not go under just because someone can’t act like an adult.
    • Never let a client abuse your employees or you. It is very important for the moral of your company and the health of the people that work for you to keep them appreciated and paid the respect they are due. Never compromise this rule for money, you will almost always regret it.

    The solution I have been using to success (to date) is to an attempt to miss-direct the client’s mindset away from a negative situation and more towards their options and resolving the issue. No brainer right? My process is fairly straight forward.

    Round One

    Identify The Client’s Problem – I’m not necessarily speaking about the technical problem at hand but the bigger picture problem. Ask yourself why is this client difficult? Many times it’s just a matter of maturity. Just because a person is 46 years old, doesn’t mean they act at that level of maturity.

    Engage Operation Kindness – Provide helpful, timely, answers and sincere communication with the client. Do not use snide or snippy language in your communications with them. 90% of the time this should not be any different than your other communications with your nicer clients, so it shouldn’t be too difficult.

    Round Two

    Once the initial response is back and hopefully the problem is resolved, make a mental note of how the client responds. Do they respond positively? Are they thankful for your support? Do they continue on…business as usual?

    Assuming that this is a true trouble client, the next time a problem arises, they will come back at you with a similar bad attitude.  You must show strength and respond with kindness – As a small business owner you answer to many smaller clients and a tighter budget. However, you are not a servant. You provide a service and should receive at-least a modicum of respect from each client.

    • First, let the client know that you are going to immediately work with them to resolve their problem. Provide the same helpful support and show only your best side. When the problem is resolved, follow up with a quick phone call or email (I recommend the phone) and bring up the fact that you’ve noticed a little “tension” whenever dealing with them and ask them to remember that each time a problem has arisen, you have worked immediately with them and resolved each problem with the greatest professionalism and with the friendliest service possible.
    • Ask (do not lecture) the client that next time they have a problem that it would be “just great” if they could take a deep breath and then give you a quick call when they’ve managed to relax a bit.

    At this point. MOST clients realize that you’re on their side and there is no reason for  attitude. In MANY cases the next time they call they are calmer and aware that their problem will be resolved.

    Round 3 – Has it really come to this?

    If a client has called you up repeatedly, treats your staff like crap and truly throws their weight around at your expense you need to begin getting rid of them. Here are a few suggestions for breaking up with the client quickly and with less damage.

    • Put all your cards on the table with the client and explain calmly that you feel that you can no longer deal with the attitude they present when contacting you. Remind them that you are a professional and that you expect your clients to act with similar professionalism (unless you work at Myspace or something…)
    • Provide them with alternatives. Point them towards another company and suggest that they may find the kind of service they are looking for at the other company.
    • Do not simply dump the client and cut off their service. Give them deadlines for cut-off and provide them with all the support they need to get a move on.

    In Conclusion

    I don’t expect that these guidelines will work for every trouble client. There are difficult people out there who simply defy the norms of acceptable behavior. However, these guidelines have helped me determine what clients simply need a bit of love and which clients need to be booted to the curb.

    What experiences have you had? I’d love to hear about your problem clients (no names please, don’t need lawsuits) and how you may have resolved them.