Three Customers You Shouldn't Serve, Part 3 of 3

This post is the third in a three part series on customers you shouldn't serve.

In part one I identified three customers you shouldn't serve:

  1. They want what you can't deliver well
  2. You can't serve them profitably
  3. They are abusive

In part two I outlined a few strategies for handling these customers. Ah, but no strategy is fool proof. Sometimes, you have to part ways. My company has said "No" a few times and fortunately, these situations have generally gone well.

They wanted what I couldn't deliver well

A client of mine wanted me to facilitate our time and priority management workshop for their team. I conducted a needs assessment and discovered that the training program wouldn't yield any results, but a few simple changes to their workflow would increase their productivity by at least 10%. The client insisted we do the training but didn't want to make the changes, so I was left with a dilemma. On one hand, I could accept the paying assignment and conduct a training class that would probably disappoint the client in the long run.  On the other hand, I could walk away from the engagement. 

As a middle ground, I proposed the client make some of the changes first and then I would conduct the training. The client agreed to this change, but procrastinated on making the requested changes because they were "too busy". I continued to check in over time until eventually it became clear we wouldn't move forward. Too bad for me? Not really. Sure, I would have loved to help the client achieve some real results. However, this was the next best thing. We avoided a confrontation and they eventually just faded away. Sometimes, that's the best option.

You can't serve them profitably.

Consulting firms are notorious for charging large fees. Consultants will tell you that companies are notorious for trying to get consultants to provide free services in exchange for PR opportunities. I guess it's a vicious circle.

I've had quite a few potential clients ask me to deliver a complimentary keynote or workshop at a company meeting. The promise is always some variation of "all our division heads will be there and they'll get to see what you can do -- they may even hire you." As a novice consultant, I fell for this line of reasoning a few times until I realized it was unlikely any business would come of it.  Meanwhile, I had spent a day or more of my time preparing, traveling, and delivering the presentation. Not very profitable indeed!

My new strategy is to counteroffer. For example, I referred an alumni group to a speaker who actually went to that school. I gave another client the option of applying my fee to any subsequent business their division heads threw my way (they declined). A third client agreed to pay a smaller fee in exchange for me advising them on creating their own program. In each of these situations, the client was still relatively happy while I didn't engage my firm in an unprofitable activity. Gotta love options!

They are abusive.

I've found that politely offering to end the relationship is an outstanding cure for an abusive client. On a few occasions, I've told a client "I'll give you two options. First, we can treat each other with respect and courtesy or two, we don't have to do business together.  I'll be OK with either choice that you make."

Every time I've given my "two options" speech, the client or customer has picked option one. OK, that may be 5 or fewer times, but I'm still at 100%. My theory is customers are often abusive because they think they can get away with it. Give them two clear choices and their change in demeanor has always been instant. Nobody wants to walk away because they couldn't control themselves!