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Avoiding Toxic Clients

We’ve all had nightmare clients.

We’ve all had nightmare clients. The relationships drag on forever and all you have to show for it is a shrinking bank account, stress at home, and frustrated employees. The client told you everything you needed to know about how the relationship would play out the first time you met. But you didn’t listen, because you didn’t want to. You needed the work and made a deal with the devil. What if we planned to screen for toxic clients and never allowed them in the door? Would life be a lot less stressful?

There are some people who will never be happy and they’ll tell you who they are within five minutes of meeting them–if you know what to watch for.

Earlier this week we dealt with a perfect toxic client specimen. He’d contacted us off and on for the past three years, having different salespeople from our company come out to his house to provide proposals. When he didn’t like one salesperson, he’d call somebody else. Finally it landed in my lap. Because this client was a “Mr. Big” type, I didn’t want to let him go to a competitor. When I met with him the first time, he didn’t pay any attention to what I said and proceeded to give advice on what our approach should be. I collected a design retainer and turned around a proposal with one week. We gradually settled on an approved scope of work and scheduled the installation a few weeks later.

The night before the installation, the client emailed me about some televisions that weren’t on the scope of work. I dismissed it as minor and asked my installers to talk to him about it when they arrived. The next morning I spoke with the client again after we’d begun and he asked me about more work that wasn’t on the scope. I informed him we’d be happy to perform additional services but that his requests weren’t on the approved estimate. He immediately began to berate me for nickel-and-diming him and then asked us to provide iPad Minis for the job, which he originally committed to provide. “No problem,” I said, “just letting you know we mark up items like iPads 10 percent to pass them through our books.” The client again erupted with more anger and accusations of impropriety. I ended the conversation with the client and called our installers.

“How long would it take you to put the house back together the way you found it?” I asked. “Three hours,” they said. Maybe it’s because I’m getting older, maybe it’s because I no longer desire to have a toxic client menagerie, but whatever the reason, I said, “Put it back the way you found it, take pictures, and leave the place nice and neat.” I then sent the client an email informing him we weren’t going to continue with the project and issued a full refund.

The client called me immediately and began threatening me and lashing out. I politely explained my reasons for severing ties with him and asked him to send me a punch list if anything wasn’t working the way he expected. We returned the next morning and fixed his punch list to the best of our ability (some of his complaints were items we knew to be broken before we initially arrived).

We sent a letter via snail mail explaining why we decided to end the relationship and referred him to several other integrators in the area. In addition, we refunded his design retainer and included the words “full and final settlement” on the check. Our lawyer informed us this language is legally binding and once the client cashes the check it’s an acceptance of completion.

We’ve had toxic relationships begin this way and stuck with it. Some of those relationships have lasted years and caused undue stress on my family and our employees. There are some people who will never be happy and they’ll tell you who they are within five minutes of meeting them–if you know what to watch for.

In early conversations with a potential client, be on the lookout for any of these behaviors:

1. Bullying: Do they talk over you or wait to talk?
2. Narcissism: Do they lack empathy or wend every conversation back to themselves?
3. Asking for freebies: Our experience with our best clients is they’re more interested in having it done properly than bickering.
4. Too Cool For School or Can’t Be Bothered: Do they exhibit “intentional ignorance” about your discussions to favor their own position or not recall key important points you’ve discussed?

If you experience any of the above early on, give the potential relationship serious scrutiny. Will you be able to make them happy or have you just invited someone into your company who will be texting you every evening during dinner? For every toxic client, there are five good clients out there waiting to hear from you. Resist the urge to take their money and consider the long-term consequences of the decision. Your employees, significant other, and children will all thank you. I will be following my own advice from here on out.

Stay frosty and see you in the field.