A Lousy Client? Trust in Abundance

One of the things I love about watching The Good Wife is its portrayal of strong feminine characters. Case in point: Diane Lockhart, a senior law firm partner who looks out for female protégés and gives as good as she gets. In the most recent segment (broadcast on March 31: spoiler alert!), she earns her hazard pay — and I mean earns — after Will Gardner, a co-senior partner, is shot dead in the courtroom.

The same day of the tragedy, one of the firm’s largest clients, sensing weakness, demands a meeting. It’s a disgusting power play, and Diane is decisive. She accepts the meeting, walks in and tells the client he’s fired. He threatens to take his business elsewhere. Don’t bother, she says; she’s made calls, and they won’t take his business either. Now that’s a good day’s work.

Good or bad, life rarely plays with that much drama. But you don’t need a crisis to know when to fire a client, even a lucrative client. You do need courage, of course. But more than that, you need to trust in abundance.

A confident business owner, who has invested time and energy in defining her target market, believes in abundance. She trusts that there is more of business out there than she has at present. Plus, the clearer her definition of that market, the easier it is to know when a client is (or has become) a bad fit.

The cues can be subtle. They might be in voice mail tone — always demanding — or the fact that they’re always late for appointments, if they don’t cancel last-minute. They may haggle in bad faith about every fee or disrespect the office staff. You might be tipped off by your awkward rapport, forced humor or a even just a lingering bad vibe.

You needn’t wait for a wild, egregious act of disrespect to be true to yourself and the market you are trying to create, profit from, and serve. You have the tools to identify the client who sucks up precious energy for a lousy return. It’s not just the unpleasant interactions with the client. Notice the other, more insidious effects: the air time with friends you take up venting about the trouble, the role-playing you do with your staff so you all learn how to handle the difficult client’s questions, and so on. How many unpleasant exchanges should you have, and how many more resources will you burn trying to satisfy someone who doesn’t appreciate what you do?

Sadly, the main reason we hang in with bad clients is fear. Of what? That we won’t have enough business without them, that we won’t make enough money or ever meet enough clients who really do fit comfortably into our niche market. Fear is understandable in a tough economy, but it’s a lousy source of motivation.

The returns you may see after firing a bad client can be hard to quantify. They may extend beyond swapping a bad client for a good one. When you clear out clutter, you make space beyond billable hours. You also free up energy to prospect, better define your market and capitalize on your intentions.

Your energy isn’t infinite. You need to spend it wisely in client relationships you value and in which you are valued.

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