You are so fired.
Whatever the reason, you can do nothing but say goodbye and watch the door close behind your (ex) customer. Maybe you tried persuasion or bribery incentives, apologies or mea culpas, but in the end nothing worked. This is not **such** a big deal for retailers but for service companies it really stings. (C’mon, do you really know the name of the guy who rang up your order at Carvel last week?
But I bet you know the name of the guy who mows your lawn or changes your air conditioner filter every year or planned your kid’s college fund.)
I started pondering this subject a few days ago as I considered how I would handle firing a service company that I work with, and how difficult it would be even though I was disappointed in their service. Unlike severing a relationship with a retailer (stop showing up at their store), to fire a service provider you have to get personal. You have to actually tell someone you no longer wish to work with them.
Service companies tend to build more long term and personal relationships with customers so when you do fire or get fired, it’s a little like breaking up. But every service provider has lost a customer along the way and how you deal with it can be just as much a part of your business success as how you deal with the customers you still have. Take it from someone who has fired… and been fired… for one reason or another. Here are a couple of things to think about that can help you manage the process gracefully.
Don’t Burn Bridges
I put this first because it’s arguably the most important point I can make, and also one of the hardest things (not) to do.
When a client calls it quits with you, you may feel insulted, angry or slighted. You may be incredibly tempted at that moment of good-bye to tell your ex client exactly what you think of him, his ingratitude and the many times he never paid your invoices on time. In the instant gratification world of email and social media, you may dash off a cathartic letter, tweet or Facebook update about the broken relationship and feel vindicated afterwards.
All I can say is: don’t do it!
Even if the most high maintenance, demanding, ungrateful, cheap client in the world just fired you for doing nothing more than being the wonderful, dedicated person that you are, don’t give into the temptation to vent. Thank your client for the time you had together and exit with a smile. Cliché or not, it’s a small world, and word will get around about how you deal with people. Your client may remember you as the guy who never delivered on time/overcharged/underperformed, but not as the one who went on a verbal rampage.
It’s also a funny world, and you never know when a client may come back to you, even though you swear on your first born that it will never happen. Or, your client may be inspired by your courtesy and professionalism and instead of bad-mouthing you to prospects, actually throw in a “hey, that guy always ran over my petunias with the mower, but he was a really nice guy.”
Keep The Door Open
Relationships end for a lot of reasons. Maybe you truly did your best, but your customer wasn’t quite satisfied. Maybe he just ran out of budget. Maybe he got busy and ignored you for a year and hoped you’d forget about that last invoice.
Assuming you haven’t burned your bridges, the next step is to make sure you keep the door open with the light on and maybe a small plate of cookies on a side table somewhere.
Unless a customer asks not to be contacted, or unsubscribes from your email newsletters, there’s no reason you can’t continue to market to him. I’m not talking about high-pressure tactics, but if you’re sending out a mailing or running an email campaign, keep your customer on the list. A friendly phone call won’t hurt, either, especially if it’s friendly and not marketing-y. Ask about the kids and summer vacation and let your customer know you’re still around.
Learn From The Experience
Remember that high maintenance client who was never satisfied, never paid his invoices on time and made your life miserable even though you were consistently wonderful? You may think there’s nothing to learn there, except perhaps some patience and fortitude, but there is! Every experience is an opportunity to learn and grow.
After you’re done feeling righteous and indignant, stop and reflect on the experience.
Be brutally honest with yourself about how you could have handled that client better. Were you completely fair and aboveboard with your pricing? Did you treat your client with respect? Were you attentive and considerate? Did you consistently provide a quality service, on time? Even if you can’t think of a single thing you could have done better (Really? Nothing?) then remember this: perception is sometimes most of the battle.
Part of your job as a successful business person is to market your business and yourself. Everything you do, every word out of your mouth, every phone call and email, is a reflection of your business and can help create a positive perception even when things go awry.
Remember The “Summer Camp Rule”
I used to work summers at a day camp and besides “always wear sunscreen” and “watch out for bees”, the most valuable lesson I learned was something the camp owner drummed into us repeatedly.
He called it the Summer Camp Rule.
Every year, at the end of the 8-week session, we would pull out all the stops and make sure everyone had the time of their lives. There were pizza parties and sleepovers, carnivals and cotton candy, precious extra minutes of pool play and special stage performances. No matter what happened during the seven weeks prior, no matter how much the kids complained, how hot and bored they claimed to be or how little pool time they felt they got, the most important thing was how they left after that last week.
The theory of the Summer Camp Rule is that you will always remember the last thing that happened. Even if the entire summer had been fabulous, if the kids left hot and grumpy, their memories of summer camp would be hot and grumpy. But if their last memory was wonderful, they would forget the bee stings and sunburns and go home loving summer camp and anticipating next year.
This is quite possibly one of the best marketing tactics ever.
I’m not suggesting you should make your clients’ lives miserable in anticipation of sending them off with a bang, but there’s no doubt that the last thing your client feels about you will profoundly affect what he takes away from the experience.
So when the relationship ends, remember the Summer Camp Rule and end it with cotton candy and carnivals instead of grumpy good-byes. Perhaps easier in theory than in practice, but if you spend a little time now planning for the inevitability that one day, in spite of how wonderful you are, a client is going to leave, then you’ll have a strategy for doing it with finesse.
It’s not easy to lose a customer, but if you can do it with grace and professionalism then you’ve got a lot to gain from the experience and a better chance of success in the future.