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Donald Trump of NBC show The Apprentice, strikes his classic you're-fired pose as he arrives at Radio City Music Hall for a presentation of new and returning shows, Monday, May 16, 2005 in New York. (MARY ALTAFFER)
Donald Trump of NBC show The Apprentice, strikes his classic you're-fired pose as he arrives at Radio City Music Hall for a presentation of new and returning shows, Monday, May 16, 2005 in New York. (MARY ALTAFFER)

Start: Tony Wilson

Get rid of problem clients, pronto Add to ...

There’s something very unsettling about having to fire a customer or a client.

But sometimes, for the sake of your sanity, to avoid that triple bypass in the future, and to prevent valued employees from starting a union or quitting, you must.

Clients don’t normally fall from the sky like drops of rain on a winter’s day in Vancouver. Whether you’re a lawyer, an accountant, a consultant, a web developer, or a distributor, you know how hard it is to get business in the door. You have to spend years developing a client or customer base. You have to cultivate relationships, build alliances, buy lunches, give presentations and, if you’re lucky, harvest the fruits of your unpaid work when the client actually decides to hire you.

But as time goes by, you’ll likely find you haven’t done any “weeding” because, after 25 years, you’re working for someone you’d rather drop. All of your other clients are fine, but your relationship with one or two of them is counterproductive, if not poisonous.

It’s the client with the Type-A personality that:

  • Wants the work done yesterday
  • Doesn’t appreciate the fact you slaved through your weekend and missed your kid’s hockey game to finish it
  • Doesn’t take your advice (especially when it’s the right advice)
  • Disrupts your day with criticism about your business or your products (when the criticism is really about you)
  • Doesn’t like the fact that you had the audacity to take a holiday
  • Didn’t want to hear that you had other clients with similar deadlines
  • Is outraged that your secretary went home at six o’clock because she has kids to pick up from day care
  • Yells at his own staff and is abrasive to yours, and your staff are considering quitting
  • And, to top it all off, not only challenges your account when you send it, but takes his or her sweet time to pay it.

We all have to work hard in whatever business we’re in, otherwise we won’t be successful. And there will always be high-maintenance customers and clients who test us from time to time. And on the whole, they probably make us better performers.

But other high-maintenance clients? They may be more trouble than they are worth.

It’s easy to ignore the warning signals, isn’t it? The dark cloud that follows the client in for a meeting and the cold mist that follows him out, or the eerie organ music that somehow pipes in from another office when he phones and the sound of neighing horses when the client’s name is mentioned. The computer doesn’t “ping” when he sends a nasty e-mail to you, it just breathes mechanically and says the words: “Luke...I am your client.”

Okay, that’s just my imagination. But you know the type.

I have had a few of these clients over the past 25 years, and if I drop dead of a heart attack before my time, it will be because I’ve had a call from a follower of the Dark Side who I should have forced out of my life and sent to a galaxy far far away a long time ago.

So here’s my solution: Prevent that triple bypass and set them free.

Fire the client.

Fire anyone who regularly causes lost sleep, too much stress, or an erratic heartbeat. Fire the ones who don’t take your advice and blame you when things go wrong. Fire the ones that cause your valued managers and employees to run to the arms of another employer, despite the fact it took years of your time to train them to be as good as they are at their jobs.

The anxiety isn’t worth it. The self-doubt isn’t worth it. The retraining of new employees isn’t worth it. And the heart attack isn’t worth it.

Share them around. Give them away. Fire them now. Make one day of every year “fire a client day.” It could be on the calendar, like St. Patrick’s Day, or Family Day, and every year at the same time, the directors, managers and indispensible staff members of your business, armed with notes from their doctors, would hold meetings where the only item on the agenda would be whether Mr. Pain was really worth the ulcer, the heart palpitations, the union drive or the turnover rate.

If not, it’s hasta la vista, baby!

And if they’re ultra high maintenance customers who regularly try to discount your bills or drag out your payments, then the answer becomes easier. Fire them. Fire them today. Don’t wait till spring.

Imagine the reaction of these newly fired customers – shipwrecks without ports, roaming the seas and totally befuddled that someone actually fired them for a change; all of them desperately begging to become someone else’s (former) problem client. Or better yet, pleading with you to come back, and promising never to yell at the secretaries again.

“Client management” not only involves making sure clients are happy with your products or services, it also means making sure the managers and employees of your business are happy with the client. Remember, good employees are as hard to find as good clients. Clients who create a disproportionate share of stress and hardship in the office are probably candidates for a cull.

Otherwise, count on that heart attack, that union drive, or your valued managers and employees moving to greener pastures, especially now that the economy is picking up.

Sometimes, you just have to say “so long and thanks for all the fish” to a client you’re tired of fishing with.

Special to The Globe and Mail

Tony Wilson practises franchising, licensing and intellectual property law at Boughton Law Corp., in Vancouver. His latest book, Manage Your Online Reputation , was recently published by Self-Counsel Press.

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