If you will allow us, will speak about ‘client’ rather than customer here – mostly because we are principally talking about the customers of professional service organisations – although we do believe that what follows can apply to most customers. You be the judge.
Furthermore, we are talking here about ethical and professional organisations. Certainly we have all needed to ‘speak to your manager’ when we have encountered extremely poor professional service (although we will concede that often in the heat of the moment these communication failings are two-sided). We are not, however, exploring these aspects of ‘the customer is not always right’. Rather we are discussing goods and services provided to an industry standard – both professionally and ethically.
Finally, we – as providers of client service – are clearly not anti-client. In fact the opposite is true. Whilst the adage ‘the client is always right’ makes for good client service philosophy – because at the very least, the client is crucial, knows their business and is the lifeblood of any commercial organisation.
Indeed all clients should be respected, listened to, courted, valued and ultimately the recipient of something of significant value from us or you – the service organisation. However – and stand by for the protestations – there such a thing as a bad client.
Some Bad Client Signals
3. No mandate
Provision of a service is often accompanied (from the client) by an understanding that there is a need for change. As we all know, however, many managers find it difficult to accept change – despite what they will tell you. When a client does not actually want the value that flows from a service because of the inability to accept the inherent change contained within the provision of that service then there is no capacity for the service to deliver a benefit. This can include services not properly commissioned, services rejected by gatekeepers and (a favourite), and pro bono services accepted by charitable clients because they are come free of charge but delivered in circumstances where they are not needed or cannot be used.
2. No respect
The client who thinks they know better. Once the work starts (and often before), this client will give a level of instruction because they believe – confusingly – that their knowledge is superior to that of the supplier they have just engaged for their expertise. Generally this is the client who wants to tell you how best to undertake the work, without understanding that you’ve probably spent several years understanding best practice your field. Of course the supplier who thinks they know their client’s business better than their client is also deluding themselves – but we are not focussing on the supply side here (luckily!).
3. No value
In this case, the client does not value the service enough to cover the cost of its provision. It may be a case of bad fit, where the offering simply does not produce enough incremental value for the client to benefit more than the provisioning cost. However the truly bad client gets receives a great deal of value but will not acknowledge this. A good client realises that a symbiotic relationship of mutual benefit and enlightened self-interest is much better for both parties.
The narcissistic client has no empathy for you (the supplier), or any other client, and is not shy in making their views plain. However, for clarity, here are a few signs:
- The client deliberately sows internal discontent by playing supplier staff off against one another;
- The client never agrees that that services have been completed or properly provided, despite clear evidence to the contrary;
- Every communication from the client is in the form of a complaint;
- Services are always expected to be prioritised ahead of any other client;
- The client believes that they are the creator of all intellectual property and nothing, even IP developed for other clients, should belong to anyone but them.
Is it too late?
Retaining bad clients is false economy. A client who exhibits any of the above:
- prevents you from servicing your good clients properly;
- inflates your delivery costs;
- demoralises your staff; and
- consumes comparatively large amounts of company time for little or no reward.
To name but a few of the negatives.
Avoiding bad clients – asking questions
it’s important to understand that most clients are good clients, and will behave in honourable and reasonable ways. it is also important, however, to be aware that there are bad clients out there and that they will do your organisation no good. There are a few things that you can do – particularly as a smaller organisation – that will help you avoid the bad clients and perhaps hold on to more of the good clients.
For example, how often have you been told that ‘we are commissioning you because our last supplier was no good’? While it is important (obviously) to take this type of statement on face value and commit to performing better, there is often and even-money chance that at least some fault lies with your hard-won new client as much as it does with their former supplier. In this case, perhaps it is prudent to explore your prospect with a bit more attention – as it is possible to end up with a worse outcome than failing to win a piece of business.
There are other things that you can do to avoid some of the other aspects of a bad client. Why not a client credit check looking for payment history? Why not ask to speak to other suppliers? Does the client exhibit early examples of a lack of respect, lack of value, lack of operational mandate and perhaps most of all excessive self importance? if no, perhaps you should reconsider the relationship – or at least consider running a basic cost-benefit analysis.
It should of course be mentioned that there are of course plenty of sub-standard suppliers in the market. If you fail to service the customer correctly, if you fail to provide the right level of for the right price or if you fail to strive to provide your customer with better delivery of service – you will fail. But why do many organisations – particularly SMEs – persevere with bad clients? It is because they accept the myth that the client is always right, when logically they simply cannot be? It is not too late! Let them go and be transformed for the better. Who knows, you may even find that your other clients thank you. Your staff certainly will.