Agency Management 101: Don’t Turn Your Clients Into Pets.

Most of what I know about marketing, you can divide into three groups: knowledge acquired by instinct, knowledge acquired by experience, and knowledge acquired by study. I wish I could say this next little marketing gem comes to me via instinct or study, but I learned this (sort of) the hard way: by experience. So here’s today’s lesson, campers:

Don’t turn your clients into pets.

(Some of you are thinking, “what in the HELL is he talking about,”  while others are saying “Amen, brother.” Allow me to explain…In my business, I run into a lot of different kinds of clients. As a small business-owner, I find that client relations are a critical part of my business. That’s unfortunate, because that’s probably my worst area. I have a quick tongue and little patience. (A friend once told me, “Some people don’t suffer fools gladly. You don’t suffer fools at all.”) That’s NOT to imply anybody that’s ever hired me was a fool – or that I thought of them that way. (Really!) But it does point out that my people skills could, at times, use some work. For instance, I once told a friend/client who challenged me on a design, “all your taste is in your mouth.” Ouch. But, I digress…

The flip side of alienating your clients via lack of patience or diplomatic ability, is to turn them into pets. By “pets,” I mean the process of treating them the same way you would treat your own pets – by pampering them, excusing their bad behavior, and generally letting them walk all over you.

Let me get into some specifics, here. We had a client back in Dallas that was very nice – at first. We bid a multimedia presentation for their trade show. They were a new client, so we cut our profit, bidding low to get the account. (First mistake.) We went way over-budget, trying to impress them with our work. (Second mistake.) We didn’t demand our customary 1/3- to 1/2-down-payment. (Third mistake.) We believed them when the CEO, CFO, and sales team told us they loved our work. Then we sent the bill. They stalled. They waffled. Suddenly, they claimed that they wouldn’t pay because they found the work to be substandard. (Of course, that forced them to deny the half-dozen emails they’d sent, bragging on the work. We couldn’t collect. (Fourth mistake.) They went bankrupt, and we never recovered our money. (Fifth mistake.) In a three-strikes-and-you’re-out world, we were two strikes over the limit.

Here’s another one: our client was also a friend. We automatically gave them a discount off our regular rates. (Stupid Mistake One.) Although we turned in our work on time, we found that they would miss deadlines, and scuttle the marketing programs we’d designed, simply because they couldn’t respond in a timely manner to our milestones (which they’d set). We would then discount – or simply not charge them for the work. (Stupid Mistake Two). We’d submit our bill for the work we’d done, documenting everything we’d done, showing the hours spent, plus outlining the hours we’d not charged for. Our client complained about the bill, as they felt that we’d spent too many hours on a specific project (hours necessitated because they’d made changes mid-stream that forced us to start over). (Stupid Mistake Three.) We were forced to have a meeting to explain that we were not in the business for our health, and that we would no longer be discounting our services, nor forgiving charges based on our client’s inability to stick to their own schedule. That was a difficult thing to do, but it was essential to keep from taking a bath on that one client. And it wouldn’t have been necessary, had we not made that client into a pet.

Example Three comes from my Shreveport days. I was working in my Dad’s music store. A guy came in on a fairly regular basis, to talk guitars and to admire a couple of high-end acoustics we had in stock. I’ve never been a big believer in high-pressure sales, so I didn’t mind him taking his time. I figured, one day, he’d come in and buy something, or send in a referral. I didn’t exactly look forward to his visits (he could talk your arm off) but I did nothing to disuade him from hanging around. Until one night. That evening, I was finishing a guitar lesson, and my student – a fairly advanced one – wanted to look at a guitar. He had a birthday coming up, and he had his eye on our most expensive Dreadnaught (about a $2,000 C.F. Martin, which in today’s dollars would be aroudn $3,500). I was thrilled, as I knew he was ready from a player’s point of view, and he had the money to back up his jones for the guitar. My loquacious tire-kicker walked in to chat. When I left the showroom for just a second, I overheard him tell my student that he was looking at the wrong guitar, he shouldn’t trust anything anybody told him (except I guess for his own advice) and that he could get a better deal on the same instrument down the street.

I don’t need to tell you that I was NOT a happy camper. This moron completely blew the sale, and damaged the relationship (at least temporarily) between me and my student. The next time he showed his face in the store, I explained to him that while I appreciated his patronage (such as it was), I did NOT appreciate him ‘poisoning the well’ with my student, and that if he felt he could get a better deal elsewhere, he should go hang out at their store instead. He replied, “they threw me out…they were tired of me hanging around and not buying anything.” The moral of the story is you must respect your clients and your prospects, but if you don’t draw the line where you are comfortable, you’ll end up getting walked on. It’s kind of like the old saying – if you don’t stand for something, you’ll stand for anything.

You can’t survive if you discount your product, don’t charge for the hours you’ve spent, AND fold like a cheap suit if they complain. Sometimes, the right thing to do is to tell them “no.” Business is…well…BUSINESS. And if you want to survive, you have to draw a line between treating clients with respect, and treating them so they lose respect for you.

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