It happens to all of us: Relationships falter and friendships fail. Sometimes parting is not such sweet sorrow, especially when the end of the relationship also removes a thorn from your side. But what do you do when the difficult person is a client? Can you afford to turn away his business, or will it be more of a personal sacrifice if you remain committed to the relationship? The decision will likely come down to what amount of strife you find personally tolerable in your professional life. Your "unbearable" client may be another agent's "challenge." Read on to learn how some agents determine between the difficult ones and those that need to be let go.
If you're contemplating "firing" a client, that person may be meeting one (or more) of the following criteria, noted by National Federation of Independent Business (www.nfib.com) writer Vicki Gerson:
- 1. The customer takes repeated advantage of you.
- 2. The customer takes up more time than their business is worth.
- 3. The customer lacks trust in you.
"While you have to pay attention to your bottom line, working with clients who cause you extreme mental and physical stress may not be worth their monetary contributions," she says. "In those cases, firing a client and opening up time for new customers who will treat you with the respect you deserve may be your wisest decision." However, if firing them is not a feasible option, she does offer another suggestion.
"If you don't want to fire a difficult client because he is 20 percent of your business, factor in extra fees or raise your pricing in order to provide this client with the extra attention he demands," she says. Your time is money, she states, and you should be compensated accordingly for working with a difficult client.
Making It Work
Sometimes all relationships need is a little fine-tuning on the communication front. Kelly Shea, vice president/owner of Earle Travel Co. in Indianapolis, says she has tried to nicely fire two clients. "One of them screamed at me from a restaurant in the south of France because they were seated 20 minutes after their reservation. I sent a letter when they returned and told them that I thought we needed to part ways because they didn't seem to be happy with my service and I wasn't happy in return." The restaurant problem was not the first and only issue, says Kelly, but it was the final straw. "In this case, the man knew exactly what I was doing, and the next day I had a flower arrangement that could have been in the lobby of the Ritz-Carlton, it was so huge. We now have a reasonably good relationship, and he has never yelled at me again."
Peter S. Carideo, president of CRC Travel in Chicago, says establishing expectations up front is a wise move. "As an agency, we are very conscious of not taking on a new client without first qualifying their needs and expectations. Most times we will get a client who has left another agency and my first questions have to deal with why they left, such as 'What was the agency not doing for you?' We look to see if their expectations are realistic and valid. Sometimes they are not and I can then indicate that we would have the same issues as the previous agency."
However, even after that initial consultation and perhaps working together for some time, the professional relationship may simply run its course, or change in unexpected ways. "We have found that when a client takes up so much of our time that we are neglecting the other profitable clients, the time has come to say goodbye," he says. "If we are not earning a reasonable return on our time, we politely part ways. I try to explain that we are going in a different direction and that we aren't the best agency suited to their needs. If they still don't get it, perhaps we raise our fees or, as I have done in the past, send them a letter by messenger letting them go." How to dump the chump
Of course, a few thoughtful steps are in order before making any decision. "Before I would fire a client, I would ask them to enter into an agreement with me where they pay an hourly rate for the time I invest in doing their travel research," says Barry Kantz, host of the "Home Based Travel Agent Show" on www.hometravelagent.net. "I would offer to waive the fee if they booked their trip through me. I would know they are looking to get something for nothing if they refused to enter into such an agreement. It is time to reconsider a relationship with a client when they take up 90 percent of your time and account for less than 10 percent of your business."
Elizabeth W. Gordon, in her article "Working With Difficult Clients: How to Handle a Loose Cannon without Getting Burned" (www.ezinearticles.com), says, "There is a danger when one client starts to dominate your portfolio. Just as you would never want to have your stock portfolio too heavily weighted in one company or one industry, as you build a book of business it is important to diversify as well. Don't get sucked into doing more work for your existing clients than you are paid for, thinking it will be worth it in the future." Further, she states that you should always be able and willing to let go of a client that becomes abusive or undesirable.
If All Else Fails...
At the end of the day, are you congratulating yourself on rising to the challenge of your difficult client, or are you gritting your teeth in dread of your next interaction? If you fall into the latter category, perhaps it really is time to say goodbye. Ashleigh Miller, in her ehow.com article "How to Fire a Client," says you will need two things if you choose to fire a client: determination and unwavering professionalism.
"The best way to do it is in writing," she says. "A letter, sent via U.S. mail, is best. E-mail would be the second choice, followed by a phone call. The last thing you want is to have a face-to-face meeting. Why? It's easier to choose your words carefully if you put them on paper.
"Clearly explain the reason you are no longer willing to work for them, but be tactful," she continues. "Even if you hate the client, if you've done a good job, there's a good chance they don't hate you. They might even send you new customers who aren't so bad." And in an industry that thrives on the personal recommendation, she warns, "You don't want to jeopardize that chance."
"Unfortunately, difficult clients end up taking up so much of your time that you have to neglect your other wonderful clients, the ones that think the sun rises and sets on you, the clients that never complain," says Earle Travel's Kelly. "That ultimately means they end up getting the short end of the stick. Weigh what you are getting from the high-maintenance client and the headaches and stress that they cause, then make the decision and don't second guess yourself."