Every small business owner of a professional service firm (referred to as a “PSF”) has nightmares about dealing with impossible or extremely difficult clients. Mangers and owners of PSFs must ultimately decided what to do with these problematic clients. There is
a tendency in the industry to simply put up with the behavior of these types of clients. Incredible as it sounds, most PSFs dread the lost, regardless of the reason, of a single client. It is a fact that clients are the foundation of a successful business. Many managers erroneously see the number of clients as an indication of the business’ health.
In the July 2007 Oregon State Bar Bulletin there appeared an interesting and informative article entitled “How to Fire a Client.” The author, Beverly Michaels, in the first paragraph of the piece, succinctly discussed what many professionals dread about their jobs:
“Do you have you have a file in your office that you just can’t stand to look at (Hint: It’s often related to the client you don’t like.) Has it been languishing on the corner of your desk or pushed out-of-sight on your credenza Is a deadline approaching, but you just can’t seem to get started These unwanted files are a major cause of ethics complaints and legal malpractice claims. And most lawyers have at least one. To free yourself from this potentially dangerous situation, gather your courage, take a stand, and fire your problem clients. The first step is to identify the clients and cases you should let go”
Though Ms. Michaels wrote about lawyers and their difficult clients her comments and recommendations are applicable to all professionals. For many reasons some clients are not worth being involved with. Professionals should shed their egos and analyze a problem client in terms of the relationship’s true value to the business. I do not believe that a damaged relationship with a client can be successfully rehabilitated, and in many instances just trying to do so can make matters worst.
Management gurus and advocates of progressive customer service relations generally put forth the idea that businesses that render professional services must deal with difficult clients to stay competitive. It is as if that in exchange for the privilege of being a professional you must put up with the most anxious behavior clients can offer. In my opinion these antiquated axioms and unrealistic expectations of human behavior should give way to better business principles and practices. A PSF must accept the fact that a client can stop being an asset and adversely impact business’ operations and long-term growth. When dealing with the client from hell – yes you can and should fire them and you should do so sooner than later. Unfortunately too many PSFs have adopted the mentality of the ambulance chasers. The businesses’ administrators cannot judge a client in terms of his real value to the firm.
I have participated in many conversations about malevolent clients with owners of PSFs . These informal sessions have proved very beneficial. Generally speaking – there is agreement on how to deal with the client that enters the office snorting like a bull. When looking into the eyes these clients one only sees uncontrollable rage, emotional conflict and a tapestry of problems for everyone involved. These clients are often rude and aggressively pushy. They treat the office and the professional staff equally bad. These raging bulls are always primed to stab their front hoofs into the office carpet. They “draw a line in the sand” and dare everyone to cross it. One should not be naïve and think that a client, who might be under extreme emotional distress, will always be able to control himself. Clients do become verbally abusive and even violent. Under the right set of circumstances anyone can lose their control.
There have been countless front-page reports of clients resorting to violence in dealing with PSFs . Managers of PSFs agree that relations with an out of control client should be immediately terminated, regardless of any financial benefit that the firm might be enjoying. When dealing with extremely difficult clients office managers must make an assessment as to the chance the client will become violent or engage in uncontrollable behavior. An out of control client presents practical and legal problems that no business wants or needs. In my opinion every firm should have a person trained in conflict resolution. This person could be called upon to defuse a potentially dangerous or embarrassing situation with a problem client. Unless it is your professional responsibility or job to deal with a client like this, there is no excuse for not firing the client.
Dealing effectively with the client from hell does not present any complicated legal or business problems for managers. There are lesser extreme circumstances that call for the termination of the business relationship, or at least, a complete restructuring of it. There has been a lot written on when to fire a client. A PSF must carefully examine its relationship with the client and make a decision that serves the overall best interests of the firm. The determination to fire a client should be based on a cost-benefit analysis; simply put – is the client an asset or liability.