How to Know if Your Client's an Incurable Ass

weight:bold;">This post has been a long time coming.

If you work for a living, 

every now and then you are fortunate to have dreamy clients - the ones that appreciate the work that you do, listen to hard-earned advice and pay heed to well thought out guidance. And then there are the others: ungrateful customers, depleting you of every ounce of patience, energy and tolerance. While getting rid of business is not in the handbook on How to Make Money During Tough Times, calling up your worst client and saying "Go" might just be the best thing that has ever happened to you.

I have been doing the client/vendor dance for a whopping 19 years as the ever-excitable head of RLM PR; a media relations firm that's had its ups, downs and sideways. But prior to my real career I was head of PR for Columbia Business School and my main client, the long-gone Dean, treated his shoes better than his employees. So I can see from a mile away when someone is becoming The Disrespectful or The Horror.

Oh boy do I know that feeling. Hello, Pepto!

I can feel the vibrations when one is going to be trouble early on. Signs are so obvious, but you hope in your heavy heart you can make them better.

In this last super-tough year I've seen the worst in customers, ones that create -- and make - more unhealthiness in our lives than money should mean to anyone. Some clients still think they "reign supreme," making unreasonable demands by the bushel. For those who respect you, act within reason, don't question your every move, and pretty much accept that you know what you're must give them your absolute best 24 hours a day, every day.

The rest--to the history books!

Service businesses are in a tough predicament these days. Everyone is in a service biz now. You are and you might not even know it. (In Stephen Hawkins' new book he claims the whole universe is in service "to laws." But I digress, as usual). The manufacturing of product days are far and few between--and even those come with round the clock service! Look at the words on those fast-moving trucks.

As Peggy Noonan had to tell us in the WSJ with alacrity: The problem with business nowadays is we're not selling anything but ourselves. "We're negotiation. We interact so much we wear each other down. We wear away the superego and get straight to the id, and what we see isn't pretty."

Noonan! It's true, though. Making money has to be more about taking whatever you can matter what the economy feels like outside. Sometimes losing money is better than working with someone who just a) doesn't appreciate your talent; b) is tremendously difficult to be around or c) is a complete tool.

Let me define "tool." It is someone who treats you or your teammates like some kind of punching bag. They lo-o-ove to see how far they can take it. It's a game to these fools. (Normally, if you push back hard they stop acting the fool. As in life, it's a game.)

What do you do? Forge ahead with those who deserve your hard work and tell the others to take a long, see-ya hike. You know who you are, but some clients are so ridiculous in their expectations that no amount of money in the world is worth one more call with them.

So here I go: 

In Lettermanesque style, I proffer the Top 10 List of when to jump the ship and dump the client. Feel free to add your own below (or privately to me), since I only know from my own experience, that of sleepless nights leading to jumping out of bed and acting decisively!

10 Ways You Know It's Time To Give a Client Notice

10. You don't trust them as far as you can throw them!

Look, you want to believe their day-to-day meanderings ("We can't give numbers but they really are terrific....") but you know it's all Kool-Aid (TM) being drunk by people who are not succeeding in the least. Their hope is they'll get enough attention to get bought before they're caught. And you can't fix this. Ask the local divorce lawyer: Without trust, there IS no relationship. [Heavy sigh.]

9. Everything they demand is in direct contrast to what you know to be right (and by "right" I mean "please don't do that, it will kill your momentum").

Why should you do anything for a company that is merely going to do what it wants and never listen to counsel? It's a lose-lose situation and ultimately, you'll be the one held responsible. Get out while you still possess a little dignity.

8. Client company is on its way down.

Yeah, sinking ship and all, Titanic, deck chairs, bla bla bla. If you could, you'd help them. But, in their own short-sightedness, they can't see the helping hand right in front of them. There is a saying I live by: you can't "wisen" up a chump!

7. You keep sitting in on meetings with them that are at once pointless and breathless.

You could/should be doing laundry. Or sticking pins in your eyes. Both are more fun and can be more profitable.

In fact, daytime TV is better than a deadly client meeting. CNBC has fine programming these days and it is, again, a crazy good use of your time. Day trading is especially exciting.

6. You get the creeps when an email from this client crosses your in-box.

You'd rather be reading spam... Or writing it?

5. You dread their responses to your questions because you know, once again, they aren't paying attention to you but instead, are following their own agenda.

My advice--avoid them like two plagues coming at you at once. 

You wait hours before you open them. Alas, kind blog peruser, that's no way to live. Who wants to fear the next depressing correspondence from someone whose satisfaction is impossible (and you don't care if they get satisfied anyway)?!

4. Getting their bill paid is tougher than the toffee at carnivals.

The amount of time you spend having to "ping" someone who avoids paying you is wasteful and has no value
--and these are hours not spent doing great work for good customers. You entered into an agreement to deliver a valuable service and they agreed to pay. If they aren't, they aren't worth the time servicing. 

3. The client keeps making you think about jumping to a new profession.

I'm sure I missed the boat on brain surgery. It has to be easier than what I'm doing now. When a client begins yet another baseless rant toward me, I muse about the 10 harsh years of med school that await me.

2. You daydream about working with their competitor(s).

I usually know the client is history when the list-making process is underway. 
 >And the number 1 reason to dump the client. The person paying you is sure that everything they do is fantastic, despite having no notion of what fantastic is--and no vision whatsoever.

You want to feel a fantastic sensation? Make the call to a bad customer and saying "Guess what? You, my friend, need to find a new punching bag. Stat!"

In the era of we're-all-providing-services, the customer is not - repeat this - not always right. We possess expertise that does not reside in the client's "C-Suite," where we jump to solve every type of quick-flash crises, even those the company creates on purpose. If we don't take a hard stand and TELL our customers when they are simply messing up (and if they can't handle the truth) then you're just yes-men and yeah-women. It won't work.

So there you have it: a cheat sheet for X-ing out the bad people. Read and rejoice. Let's get through this second recession without acting desperate. Those untrustworthy/non-trusting people who question your judgment and act suspicious about the hard work you do forget why they agreed to give you money in the first place. It's a healthy idea to question the suggestions your clients give you; they don't have training in your field.

Where oh where does this constant lack of trust emanate from? Confucius said to the disciples: "A man does not look under the bed unless he has not been there himself."

With that, enjoy the rest of 2010. And a Happy New Year to all of us who are trying to rid ourselves of the negativity pulling us down between 8 a.m. and 7 p.m.! Take this moment, exhale, fire the bastards and move on!

It's time.

Twitter @laermer