Three Ways A Bad Client Can Become Your Saving Grace

Being your own boss has its rewards, but dealing with this client or any difficult client for that matter, certainly weighs that down.

I once had a terrible client. I felt a rush of anxiety every time I saw an email from her pop up on my screen or her when her ID would appear on my phone.


For this short story, let’s call her “Angel.”


But before I go into the story, I want to give some credit to Angel. After all, I owe a lot to her.


She has many aspects of a great client that a business owner loves. For starters, she was loyal. She was one of my team’s first clients and has been with us through thick and thin. She truly believes in our potential, she always uses our services and better yet, she recommends us to many other potential clients.


But there are a few problems. She’s one tough cookie. I mean…she’s tough! It's rare to get a good word from her. She always lets us know about every hiccup and screw-up, and often demands some type of compensation back for anything that goes wrong.


Aside from being a huge drain on morale, this type of VIP treatment can get financially uncomfortable on a small, young company like mine.


As the CEO, both you and I, we wear lots of hats. Customer service is one of them. Every founder can relate that winning a positive review is insanely critical to growth. It’s easier for me to imagine losing a limb before I could allow myself to have a client tear us apart online (and I wish I could say I was joking).


The tough question CEOs and Founders Face: Should I fire my client?


I’ve read a few articles that mention it’s good to ‘fire’ bad clients and as I was personally devising a plan to do just that, I had a euphoric moment where I realized I wasn’t going to take the easy route out.


This is because startups can’t easily give up on customers. Especially not a client like Angel.


It felt like it was the lazy way out, and it just didn’t sit right with me. After all, if I’m going to be one badass CEO, I can’t let someone like Angel bring me or my team down. 


So I sat down for a Google search storm full of ideating.


I found my most useful piece of advice to come from a friends dad who is part of the senior management team at the Postal Service in Israel. He manages a lot of people and he advised me to learn as much as I could from my terrible client. He said, “Schedule a call with her and tell her that her toughness has helped perfect the type of customer service that you want to supply to all your clients. Make her your ally.”


So I did that. I called Angel and spoke through her value and learned from here what I could.

Suddenly, Angel really became our little angel. 

She’s pushed us to perfect our services and product.

She’s encouraged us to think three steps ahead in case anything goes wrong.

In retrospect, her guidance made room for our great retention rate with other clients.


I found that instead of just dumping my bad client, I could take the time to learn from her. But don’t get me wrong, this approach won’t necessarily work for just any bad client.


Three Core Takeaways From A Bad Client:

1. Make sure you get paid. Angel always paid us from day one. Do NOT give away VIP service without having someone pay for it. Trials and entry services are one thing, but all out effort is poor business practice.

  • Action Point #1: If you have a bad client that hasn’t paid you yet, put a deadline for yourself and him/her and let her know that you’ll need to have them make a decision by X date and then pricing goes up to $X. 
  • Action Point #2: If ‘bad clients’ are a repetitive problem within your team, gather everyone together and brainstorm a solution. This might include asking for deposits, giving deadlines to new customers, asking for the money up-front, etc.

2. Communication & aligning expectations are pretty much everything.  There are no favors when you’re conducting business. You must communicate and justify your needs. If you don’t, the responsibility to please really does fall on you. While you’re communicating outline all possible eventualities that come to mind. Shifts in deadlines or tweaks in deliverables are unavoidable. However, if you’re smart, you’ll outline in your communications what each scenario leads to so there are no surprises.

  • Action Point #1: Make a list now of all the possible expectations your clients who know in order to have a great experience
  1. What your product/service is
  2. What your product/service is NOT
  3. What information you need from them in order to do a good job
  4. Date they should expect to see a proposal by
  5. Expectations of when they’d need to pay
  6. Expectations of how available you are to answer questions 

For every new inquiry that comes in, reference your list and make sure all outcomes are covered.

3. Firing still might be necessary. Don’t fire right away. And even when you think it’s time, push yourself a little more before taking action. Remaining in a negative client situation can take a significant toll on your job satisfaction, emotional well-being and even your relationship with other clients. If you’ve already tried your best to shift the negative aspects of the relationship to positive ones, it might be time to cut the cord. 


My terrible client may have caused some unnecessary frustration and anxiety, but standing up to the challenge and taking a new approach has resulted in some forward strides. I’ve learned that difficult clients are actually not that bad after all. 


Sometimes all you need is a shift in perspective.

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